By Bob Setzer
In the wake of every natural disaster, some public figure feels compelled to utter a theological interpretation of events that is clear, compelling, and fundamentally wrong.
This time it was presidential contender Michele Bachmann who told a friendly audience God sent Hurricane Irene and the east coast earthquake to demonstrate divine disfavor at Washington’s out-of-control spending. After this allegation didn’t play well in the media, Ms. Bachmann explained this statement was just an example of her spot-on humor.
As someone who talks for a living, I know how easy it is to say something ill-advised or even downright stupid, especially when ad-libbing. I’ve also learned that the excuse, “I was only kidding,” rarely buys you much. And there are some things that aren’t funny, under any circumstances, such as the sobering loss of life and property in the wake of Irene’s destruction. Tears are in order, yes; snickering, no.
Still, Ms. Bachmann’s wise-crack about the wrath of God gives voice to a conviction shared by many Americans, namely, that God sends natural disasters to punish people for their sins. And frankly, such folks have a lot of Bible on their side. Can you spell Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah or Jonah and the whale? The Psalms are permeated by the confidence the natural order gives voice to both the glory and at times, the disfavor, of God.
But it is one thing to believe a sovereign God is at the helm of the universe and quite another to claim to know the mysterious dimensions of God’s presence and purpose in any given natural disaster. Why, for example, is God’s judgment in natural disasters always deemed to be directed at someone else and never at the person making the pronouncement?
Jesus warned against just such prognosticating when commenting on a collapsed tower that killed 18 unsuspecting citizens: “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no but unless you repent (italics mine), you will all perish just as they did” (Luke 13:4-5). In other words, natural disasters are an invitation for us to awaken to God’s claim upon our own lives, rather than a shot across the bow of whoever happens to be our enemy at the moment.
As for lessons to be drawn from Noah’s story, Jesus says the Son of Man (he himself) will do the suffering (Luke 17:25) until his Coming sweeps away the wreckage of the indulgent, self-absorbed life (Luke 17:26-27).
As for Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus warns his contemporaries their own rejection of God’s grace and goodness, decisively present in him, is a far worse sin than anything those ancient cities had been guilty of (Matthew 11:23-24).
As for Jonah, Jesus says he will enter the belly of the whale and spend three days entombed in the earth, winning the salvation of the world (Matthew 12:39-40). Indeed, during the worst storm of all, the darkness that descended from noon till three as Jesus hung on his cross, he — as always — was powerfully, personally present at the epicenter of the world’s pain.
If God was sending any messages in the recent earthquake and hurricane that wreaked havoc with the east coast, it was this: “Life is fragile, life is precious. And when tragedy snatches it away, show up with a shoulder for folks to cry on and a shovel to help them dig out and rebuild. For when I sent my Son into the world, that is what I asked him to do.”