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Hurricanes and God
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of James, chapter 1, and follow along as I read v2:
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Did God Do It?
On July 10, 1975, I was ordained a Christian minister by the South Carolina District of the Wesleyan Church. I have been in the ministry for 30 years. In that time, I have met a lot of people, talked with a lot of people about their relationship with God. I have been asked a lot of questions. I have been asked one question more often than any other. I have talked with other ministers and they tell me that they have had the same experience. They have been asked this same question more than any other. I have been asked this question by atheists and unbelievers. I have been asked this question by devout Christians and believers
This is the question: Does God cause natural disaster? Generally the question is asked about a specific disaster. Last year did God cause four hurricanes to slam into Florida? On December 26 of last year, did God cause a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, which in turn caused a tremendously powerful tsunami in the Indian Ocean that hit twelve Asian countries, killing 225,000 people and leaving millions homeless.
Because it is asked so often, we need to examine this question carefully. Did God form Katrina off the coast of Africa as a tropical storm and push it west to hit Florida as a category 1 Hurricane? Did God then reform Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico as a monster category 4 storm and deliberately point it at the Mississippi and Louisiana coast and blast that area with it, creating what is being called the most expensive natural disaster in American history?
This is not the same question as asking if God causes war and terrorism. Last Sabbath, I was talking about the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01. No one has to ask who caused those attacks. We know who caused them. It was not God. God did not fly any planes into buildings. The 19 people who hijacked those planes are responsible for the death and destruction of 9/11, and the people who paid for their mission and the people who supported their mission—they are responsible.
Beginning on April 6, 1994, and for the next hundred days, in the central African country of Ruwanda, Hutu militia, using clubs and machetes, killed perhaps as many as 800,000 Tutsis. At one point, they were killing 10,000 people a day. Did God do that? No, those people with the clubs and machetes did it. They hacked and smashed other people in an orgy of blood and death. God did not do that. People did that to people.
Human beings have free will; therefore, we are responsible for what we do. We are responsible for our sins. Most people know that. We understand that wars, massacres, and acts of terrorism are produced by human sin not by God. If a serial killer murders a dozen people and is caught, and he says at his trial that God told him to do it, God told him to murder those people. None of us would believe him, and rightly so. He killed those people, not God.
When people use their free will to do evil things. They can’t blame God. They are responsible.
“Acts of God”
But that is not the question we are examining this morning. We are not talking about disasters caused by human sinfulness. We are talking about natural disasters: hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, drought, volcanoes, floods, tidal waves, tornadoes. Insurance companies call these things “acts of God,” which is their way of saying they are not responsible and they are not going to pay.
But natural disasters are not “acts of God.” Surely, no one believes that God deliberately constructed Hurricane Katrina and deliberately used it to strike the Gulf coast and kill all those people and do all that damage. So far as we can determine right now, most of the people who were killed by Katrina were the weak, the old and the helpless. Does God kill the weak and the powerless? No
Hurricanes are a type of low pressure system that forms off the coast of Africa. They are formed as part of the circulation of air that moves heat from the equator up to the north. Hurricanes, typhoons, storms are not freaks of nature. They are as much a part of the weather as a pleasant day in September. A meteorologist could tell us more than we want to know about such storms, but the point is that there is nothing supernatural involved here. There is no direct act of God to create a hurricane. It is just a natural part of weather. It is a part we don’t like. Storms are destructive and scary. They can be big trouble, and we do not like that.
But trouble happens. That is what James says in 1:2. He says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind.” Notice he does not says, “If you face trials,” but “whenever.” The implication is that we are going to face trials, trouble is going to happen. Psalm 9:9 says that "The Lord is a stronghold in times of trouble." Again the implication is that God’s people are sometimes in trouble. I know that is kind of bleak and a bit of a downer. Some people might say, I do not want to hear that. But Christians are folks who are willing to look reality in the face. The reality is that the world sometimes seems ugly and hard.
Which brings us back to our question: The hymn title is “This is My Father’s World,” but then the hymn acknowledges that “the wrong seems oft so strong.” The question is: How can that be? if it is God’s world, why is it sometimes so hard and dangerous?
God is here
Let us talk a bit about how God acts in the world. First of all, God is present in every event in the world. The Bible sometimes speaks of God’s moving from place to place. This is figurative language. God does not have to move around because God is already everywhere. That was a major point of the book of Jonah. When God called Jonah to preach in Nineveh, Jonah did not want to do that, so he boarded a ship headed for Tarshish, because he thought he could go someplace where God was not. but he was soon disillusioned of that notion, because God is everywhere, even in Tarshish. Thus, God is present in every natural disaster. God was present when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
That is a source of encouragement to us when we have trouble, when we have problems. Psalm 46:1 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God is with us, God is present to us, to help us in trouble. We have all watched the scenes of the disaster of Katrina on TV. We have heard the stories of people searching frantically for family. We have seen the agony of displaced people hoping they will find help. This calamity touches all of us in one way or another, but we cannot be there to encourage people, to uplift them, to comfort their souls, but God can be there, and God is there. God did not cause Katrina, but God is with those who are suffering from the wrath of Katrina.
Psalm 46:4 speaks of God is “a river whose streams make glad the city of God”—the city of God being a metaphor for God’s people. This metaphor reassures us that God is with us. God’s presence flows down upon us like a river.
It is a river of love. God is love. That is the major emphasis of the New Testament. God sent Jesus to us because God loves us. Everything we affirm about Jesus, his birth, his life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, is really about the love of God. God’s nature is love. God acts lovingly in every event and circumstance.
James 1:17, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James says, “There is no variation or shadow due to change” in God’s loving response to very situation. God responds to every situation in the same way, with love. God is without variation in the way God acts. This is absolutely necessary for us to know in order to worship God. We have to know that God is consistent. James assures us that God is consistent, that is God is always love.
The Mystery of Creation
Now you might ask, if God is always love and God is always present everywhere, why does not God prevent disasters? The answer is somewhat hidden from us by the mystery of God. In the book of Job, when Job asked God why God had allowed him to suffer total personal catastrophe, God’s reply is that Job has such limited knowledge that Job could not possibly understand the answer. For example, God asks in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” In v5, we can hear God’s sarcasm when he says, “Who determined its measurements? Surely you know?” And God proceeds for several chapters thereafter to make the point that neither Job nor anyone else knows much about how God relates to the world and acts in the world. These things are wrapped in mystery and appreciated by faith. How did God create the world? How does God act in the world? We want these kinds of things to be spelled out for us, but they are not. We have only the answers of faith. We believe that God did create and is creating in the world.
The Purpose of God
God created and is creating for a purpose. God does not just create, God has a goal, an aim. The purpose of the world and the point of the world is Jesus.
Colossians 1:15-16 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.” Question why was the world created? Answer, “for him” for Jesus. At the end of time, the world will center on Jesus. The world will be consummated and completed in Jesus. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. In Rev 21:2 we read “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” “The holy city, the new Jerusalem” is again a metaphor for the people of God. At the end of time, this city is “a bride adorned for her husband.” This is the marriage or union of Christ with his people. That is the goal. That is where we are going—union in Christ. In a sense we already have that union. As believers, we already have union in Christ by faith, but God’s purpose is that at the end of time we will be actually and fully united with Christ.
Did you see the bumper sticker that went around some years ago: “I’m not perfect, but God’s not done with me yet.” That could be applied to the whole world. God’s intention is to create a world where free conscious beings freely accept Christ as Lord. In order to create such a world, he did not have an infinite number of choices, he probably had only one choice, that was this world as we know it. This world is not perfect. Often the will of God is not done here.
Natural catastrophes are not the will of God, they are part of the pattern of this imperfect world, but God is working in the world, to eventually perfect the world in Christ.
Rejoice in Trouble
So what does all this mean to us? Back to our verse from James. James says that whenever troubles happen you can rejoice. Is James mentally ill? No one rejoices in trouble? And James did not either. James did not rejoice because he had problems. James is not saying that we should rejoice because those people along the Gulf Coast got hit by a hurricane and their homes got destroyed and their jobs got destroyed, and they have nothing. No one would rejoice in that.
But whenever you have problems, you can rejoice. You can rejoice that God is with you. God is a present help. We can also rejoice that God loves us and that God has a loving purpose for the things that happen, even bad things. We are like Job in that we do not understand much of the way God acts in the world, but we know God has a purpose and we know that purpose is Jesus.
When I accept Jesus as my lord, I am accepting the purpose and goal of the universe as my purpose and goal. Jesus is the center of the universe. When I believe on Jesus, he becomes the center of my life.
When we try to look at things any other way, when we try to look at the universe without faith. It does not make much sense. Life does not seem to be going anywhere. Sometimes horrible things happen. Disasters happen; catastrophes happen. Life is so bleak and lonely. How can anyone be happy with that outlook?
But faith in Jesus puts everything in perspective. God loves us, God is with us, and God has a purpose that is going to make everything all right at the end. Keep that faith, and you can rejoice even in trouble. Amen
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 9/23/05