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And the Sea Was No More: A Theology of Natural Disaster

 

In the wake of Harvey, and on the eve of Irma–not to mention dozens of wildfires in the west and an earthquake in Mexico City–the question of God’s involvement in nature could not be more palpable. I offer here a few halting answers to what I think are the most pressing theological questions.

1) Did God cause this? This is the easy one, so let’s start here. No. God did not hurl Harvey at Houston, and God is not currently unleashing Irma on Florida. “Act of God” is a phrase that comes from the insurance industry, not from biblical theology. In the Bible, God is shown, at times, to direct some forces of nature (the plagues prior to God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt are perhaps the most salient examples–see Exodus 7-10), but such events are isolated and unique. The broad witness of Scripture is that God is the Creator of creation (Genesis 1.1-2.4), sustains creation (God “upholds the universe by the word of his power”–Hebrews 1.3), and that creation is “groaning” (Paul’s word in Romans 8.22) in its current state. This last point is the most relevant. Hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, et. al.–these are, indeed, natural disasters which naturally arise out of living in a world which is, although created and sustained by God, currently broken and “groaning.” What is more, we should admit that scale and geography tend to determine our awareness of Creation’s brokenness. Irma was named and watched by meteorologists before it threatened Florida, but it was not on our minds. We wonder about God and hurricanes only when they make landfall, just like we ask theological questions about cancer only when it falls on someone who is “too young.” Regardless, we must affirm that God does not have hurricane and earthquake buttons any more than he has cancer buttons. God promises to be in the crisis and tragedy with us, but is not the cause of the crisis or tragedy.

2) Could God have stopped this? This question is harder; it is also different than the first one. The easy answer is “No.” This is the answer provided both by Deism (God is a divine clock-maker, and is no longer involved in creation, having made the universe and started it “ticking”), and by process theologians such as Thomas Oord, who claims that God’s overwhelming desire to love has led God to limit his power. These answers are “easy” because they get God off the hook, and they help us cope. Hurricanes are awful, but at least we don’t have to wrestle with the awful problem of a loving God not stopping a disaster that has led to unbridled misery.

However, the Bible consistently affirms that God continues to be intimately involved in creation (so no clock and no clock-maker) and that God is sovereign, meaning that God’s power and dominion are in no way limited. God is in control of nature, but–and here is the key–this control is tied to God’s long-term involvement and investment in his creation.

For the ancient Hebrews, the sea was a place of chaos, disorder, and fear. They did not go in it, and they did not like being near it. Bedrock to the Hebrew faith, then, is trusting in a God who does not fear the sea, who created it, and whose Spirit hovered over the face of the deep in the process of creating the world (Genesis 1.2). We must note, then, that when God finishes his work of creation, when God makes a new heaven and a new earth, when God wipes away every tear, and mourning and death will cease to exist, that the sea was no more (Revelation 21.1). God created the world, bringing order out of chaos; God continues to sustain creation; and, God is not yet done with creation. We place our hope in a Creator that has not abandoned his creation, and one day will bring it to fruition, finally removing from it the forces of chaos and disorder. We can trust in this because God raised Jesus from the dead. In the presence of this Christ, we must say with the shocked disciples on the boat in the sea of Galilee, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8.27).

3) Should we pray?

Pray for Houston. Pray for Florida. Pray for California. Pray for Mexico City. These temporary profile pics can seem trifling, and their efficacy is diluted by their ubiquity. But, yes, we should pray. We are creatures within the creation, so it is natural to turn to the Creator in the face of disaster. Not least among the ways prayer “works” (and also not the only way it works) is that it opens up our hearts so that we can then respond in action. This could be a $10 text donation to the Red Cross, or it could mean a cross-country trip to help families rebuild. Such responses, communities coming together, neighbors helping neighbors, all of this is part of the beauty that can and does arise out of disaster and tragedy. These, indeed, are “acts of God,” and such sacrificial actions begin with prayer.

So let us pray, and let us stand with those who have lost much that is dear, and let us hope for the day when the sea will be no more.

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Comments

  1. Tom Motter says:

    Jeff…Thank you for a most frank and comforting point of view on God’s power to do as he wishes…..and to not blame or credit Him for “each little ( or big) thing”.God is God and we are mere mortals and should pay more attention to how He wants things done, not us.

    I’m always happy to be “in your presence” no matter how remote.

    Your friend, Tom Motter

  2. Nice words Jeff! Great to see the amazing things you’re up to!

  3. Julia Wells says:

    Jeff, thank you for this. It’s so helpful! I’ve been learning a lot of this in seminary. I do have one rather big (or two) question(s). In the wake of disaster how do we move on with the seemingly insiginficant goals of our lives without feeling guilty for not being more proactive for those in pain (especially when we feel God calling us to do other important tasks)? When can we say we’ve done enough or should still do more? In Pastor care i am sure you have had to figure this out. Julia Wells, see you Sunday.

    • Jeff Hoffmeyer says:

      Hi Julia! Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this, particularly what you mean by “insignificant goals” … but I think it’s a matter of aligning the gifts God has given with what God is doing in his kingdom. I’m no lover of Christian cliches, but I do think the phrase “blessed to be a blessing” is helpful. Then we need to let God cover the “enough,” knowing that our efforts are a part of God’s larger work. Cool, see you Sunday!

      • Thank you for this response. Sorry I didn’t see it earlier. Some backstory on my question is I am a big advocate of accountability. I encounter a lot of people who think “being a Christian means Sunday Worship and that’s enough”. It really isn’t. However, we also know that we can’t all be pastors or relief workers. We need accountants, writers (me), and gas station attendants. If everyone suddenly decided to go over and help Huston we might not have a life to come back to (and Huston would have a larger problem). So how do we find the balance? When do we get involved and how? This is especially tricky in a world where there’s so much need in so many places. We can’t be everywhere. Where should we be? And sometimes our “seemingly” insignificant goals is family time doing something fun, which is so important for families. Then sometimes our goals are watching the premiere of say “the Big Bang Theory” (As a sitcom writer I’d like this to be many people’s goals when it comes to my show). Some feel guilty about these goals. Should we? Or a better question is when should we listen to a push to have different goals? When do we hold ourselves accountable? How do we discern what’s important for us and our communities?

  4. Eric swanson says:

    Great post Jeff. Creation groans and this is one of the consequences of living in a broken world

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