The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina once again raises questions about the goodness and power of God. These are not easy questions, and not just any answer will suffice. If we are to understand how to think rightly about God and the storm, we must look to the testimony of Scripture.
In Job 37, Elihu, one of Job's friends, speaks to him: "Out of the south comes the storm, and out of the north the cold. From the breath of God ice is made, and the expanse of the waters is frozen. Also with moisture He loads the thick cloud; he disperses the cloud of His lightning. It changes direction, turning around by His guidance, that it may do whatever He commands it on the face of the inhabited earth, whether for correction, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen." [Job 37:9-13]
At the end of the book of Job, God rebukes three of Job's friends for making inaccurate statements both about Job's suffering and about God. Elihu, however, is not rebuked. Elihu spoke truthfully, saying to Job, in effect, "Look, you cannot take God out of this equation. You cannot say God is not in the storm. He is." Throughout the Bible, but particularly in the book of Job, we are reminded that we simply do not have the option of saying that God is somehow not involved. If we say we believe in the sovereignty of God, we must believe that God is always and everywhere sovereign--even over the storm.
The playwright Archibald MacLeish wrote a work entitled, J.B., which was a modern rendering of the book of Job. In that play is the famous line, "If God is good, He is not God. If God is God, He is not good." This is the equation many people are wrestling with today: If God is sovereign, and if He controls every atom and molecule of the universe, then how in the face of so many evils can modern human beings affirm that He is good? On the other hand, if we believe that God is good, then He must not be in control. He must not be able to keep these things from happening, and therefore, He is not the all-powerful God of the Bible. In the end, it is asserted, if God is God, then He is not good; but if God is good, then He is not God.
As Christians, we must be able to give a biblical answer to these questions. Unfortunately--but inevitably--there are several bad answers that have been offered in an attempt to handle these issues. One of the most common is this: "God is doing the best He can under the circumstances."
In 1981, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner published a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People? Kushner's answer to his own question was that it is because God simply cannot help it. He cannot stop evil. Essentially, God is a God of limited power, doing the best He can under the circumstances, and therefore, we should just trust Him to do all He can to prevent evil. Of course, we might wish He could do better, but finally, there is only so much that God can do. When a person faces a dread disease or a storm, an earthquake, or a tsunami, his only course of action is simply to believe that God is doing the very best He can do and to know that God really could not have kept this from happening. After all, if God could have kept it from happening, He would have done so.
A second inadequate answer when we ponder God and the storm is to say, as some might, "Sure, God could have stopped this, but He did not do so because He has an evil intent. Our days are numbered, and He is going to get us all one way or another. Cancer for one person, an earthquake for another. Life in the end is meaningless, and God is like the Hindu deity Shiva, the Destroyer."
Both of those arguments fall infinitely short of the biblical testimony. The God of the Bible cannot be described as "doing the very best He can do under the circumstances." Nor can one read the Bible and seriously affirm that God is a God of evil. He is a God of love and of mercy, a God of holiness.
How then are we to put all of this together? In Job 37, Elihu reminded Job that God is in the storm. "With moisture He loads thick cloud; He disperses the cloud of His lightening. It changes direction, turning around by His guidance." There really is no way to get around those words, is there? Last week, we saw the storm turn. We saw its direction change. And Scripture affirms unequivocally that "It does whatever He commands it on the face of the inhabited earth. Whether for correction, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen."
In chapter 38, the Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind. Speaking to Job, He says: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; when I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and I placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, "Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop? Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? [Job 38:1-13]
"Who has cleft a channel for the flood, or a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land without people, on a desert without a man in it, to satisfy the waste and desolate land and to make the seeds of the grass to sprout? Has the rain a father? Or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb has come the ice? And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth? Water becomes hard like stone and the surface of the deep is imprisoned. [Job 38:25-30]
Throughout this chapter, God rebukes Job, saying in effect, "Who are you to question Me? What right have you, the creature--a suffering creature, yes, and a creature with many questions, yes--but who has given you the right to interrogate Me?" At the beginning of chapter 40, the Lord concludes His argument: "Then the Lord said to Job, 'Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.'" [Job 40:1] It is hard to imagine a more severe and direct indictment than what God says here to Job. Where were you when I made the world? Remind Me again how you set the sun on its course. Remind Me of how you set the limits on the waters.
Job's response is entirely appropriate. "Then Job answered the Lord and said, 'Behold I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add nothing more.'" [Job 40:3] He continues, "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore, I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me. I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you. Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes." [Job 42:1-6]
What we should learn from Job's response--at a bare minimum--is that while we are to seek to understand what God is doing in the midst of this crisis, we must never act as if we can explain exactly why God allowed this tragedy to happen.
One great danger is the temptation to say, "I know why this storm hit, and I know why this storm hit where it did." "New Orleans is a sinful city," some say. "The Lord sent this storm because of the casinos in the gulf and because of the wickedness in the city of New Orleans." To make such a claim, however, is to go far beyond the bounds of human knowledge. We are simply not given the right to say with such precision why this tragedy--or any other natural disaster--has occurred.
Jesus made this same point in John chapter 9. Jesus and His disciples came across a man who was blind from birth. His disciples wanted to know if it was this man's sin or the sin of his parents that had caused his blindness. Jesus responded, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him." [John 9:3] God's purposes are beyond our understanding, and the Lord simply does not explain or seek to justify His ways to humankind. Thus, Christians should consistently affirm the sovereignty of God and the righteousness of God's ways, even as we await the full revelation of His purposes in the age to come.