Of Worship, Wonder and Natural Disasters

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Last week in church, we sang a song with a haunting melody and lyrics which are still playing on my mind, a week later. The song , “You’re beautiful” by Phil Wickham has as its main idea that our appreciation of the natural world can inform our understanding (and worship) of God.

The first two verses go as follows:

I see Your face in every sunrise
The colors of the morning are inside Your eyes
The world awakens in the light of the day
I look up to the sky and say
You’re beautiful

I see Your power in the moonlit night
Where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright
We are amazed in the light of the stars
It’s all proclaiming who You are
You’re beautiful, You’re beautiful

This idea is an ancient one and is expressed numerous times in the Bible. My favorite has always been Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (NIV)

While singing this song, my mind returned to our friends in Houston who were right then bracing for the impact of Hurricane Harvey and who had been much in my thoughts. I didn’t realize that far worse devastation would be experienced from flooding in South East Asia in the same week (and sadly, predictably, the latter would receive far less media attention that the former).

As I was singing and my mind was wandering, I was struck with this thought: if the beauty of the natural world tells us about the goodness of God, what does the cruelty of the natural world tell us about? Who or what gets the credit for natural disasters?

What are we to think when the natural world unleashes its power and leaves death and destruction in its wake? When the toll of a tsunami reaches the hundreds of thousands? When earthquakes cause mud slides and floods and fires and all manner of chaos resulting in the death and displacement of men, women and children across the globe, every year, with always the poorest being hardest hit?

On a natural level, we know that (a) disasters such as these have always been a part of life on earth, and (b) these events are occurring more frequently, due to climate change.

But I have for most of my life been part of a Christian tradition that believes in the supernatural, a tradition that says that God is intimately and powerfully involved in our lives. This is why we pray, because we believe that God is interested in our lives, and God can effect change. Jesus himself said we should pray, and ask of our Father “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

So natural disasters are a challenge for the believer. How and what are we to pray? If we believe that God is sovereign, then it follows that He has allowed these disasters for reasons unbeknown to us. So either we ask Him to stay His hand and have mercy on the vulnerable, or we accept that His will is being done. This latter view is, for me, irreconcilable with the idea of a God who “so loved the world…” (John 3:16), but not so for conservative Christians.

Dr Erwin W Lutzer of the Moody Institute said in 2005: “The Bible explicitly traces natural disasters to the hand of God. Who sent the rain during the time of Noah? Who caused the darkness during the plagues? Who sent the earthquake that swallowed the rebellious sons of Korah? Who sent the storm that caught the attention of Jonah? And, who stilled the fierce wind on Galilee?…Yes, let us boldly say, that God willed that the tsunami happen. Yes, of course there were geological causes—the massive shifting of the earth’s crust and the confluence of a series of waves and the like. But the God who stilled the storm on Galilee could have stopped that massive upheaval. The tsunami happened because God chose to let it happen; the God of creation and purpose willed that it be so.”

If you find this view abhorrent, like I do, let’s explore the alternatives by looking specifically at what we are thinking while praying for God to intervene. I recently asked a friend, “How do you pray (with respect to natural disasters)?” Her answer: “With many tears.” As beautiful as this answer is, it only raises more questions. So I asked again, How do you see God’s role while you are praying? Do you picture him weeping with you, powerless to help? Or is he the judge from Luke 18 who you are trying to wear down with your prayers, until he eventually relents and does something?

If this sounds like splitting hairs, please understand that for me it is hugely significant. Why would I pray to a God who was powerless? That would be a waste of time and emotional energy, better spent on doing something, going over or sending help. Alternatively, if he was hard-hearted or simply not interested, but could be worn down by the prayers of believers and have his arm twisted to actually do something, then the best approach would be to pray around the clock and activate intercessors around the world to do the same, because one merciful act from God to stay the storm or heal the broken or restore a devastated city would be far more effective than any paltry human attempts to battle against nature.

This issue goes directly to what we believe about God.

In my experience, many Christians, when faced with these kinds of questions, revert back to the idea that the creature cannot know or understand the mind of the Creator. This is a mystery, and who can know the ways or the mind of God? But then I can’t help but ask, how do you engage in a personal, intimate relationship with someone when you don’t know such an important aspect of their character?

This approach to life’s difficult questions, this mental shrugging of the shoulders, just doesn’t satisfy me anymore. I am finding it increasingly difficult to believe in an almighty, omniscient, personal, loving God – when all evidence seems to point to the contrary.

 

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