Natural Disasters and the Judgment of God

I remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August of 2005 that I saw two very different messages coming out of the mouths of certain Christian leaders. First, there were those who said, “Katrina is God’s judgment for New Orleans’ sins.” Second, there were those who responded, “No it’s not! God doesn’t do that!”

Honestly, I didn’t like either of these perspectives. I didn’t like the first because it had a self-justifying intent – God is judging them because they are sinful, unlike us. So instinctively I was repulsed by this idea. I see very little difference between a Christian preacher who blamed Katrina on New Orleans’ sin and the sociology professor Kenneth Storey who tweeted about Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey: “I don’t believe in instant Karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesn’t care about them.” Though one claims to speak in the name of Christ, the motive behind both is fundamentally the same: to lay hold of the public narrative over a natural disaster and to interpret it in such a way that it is seen to provide proof of the speaker’s own righteousness/rightness. Whether the speaker claims to speak in the name of Christ or not, the motive is worldly and repugnant in its arrogance.

At the same time, however, I was not satisfied by the common but simplistic response: “Katrina is not God’s judgment on New Orleans, because God doesn’t do that. God loves people.” Can we automatically rule out any connection between natural disasters and God’s judgment of humanity? I don’t think so. The problem is that it just isn’t biblical to totally rule out the idea that God might judge humanity through natural disasters. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, natural disasters are, in fact, one of the primary ways God’s judgment on humanity is manifested or executed. From Noah’s flood to the plagues of Egypt, to the earth opening up and swallowing Korah’s rebellious Reubenite co-conspirators, to the earthquake that struck Israel in the time of Jeroboam II, to the prophetic predictions of the moon turning blood red and the sun being darkened (and all manner of other catastrophic natural phenomena), the writers of the Bible understood God to use natural phenomena (in addition to sociological, economic, and political phenomena) in order to judge humanity. So to simply and simplistically rule out any possible connection between a natural disaster and a judging intent on God’s part is to just ignore or sweep under the rug a whole host of biblical passages.

It also may betray a deficient theology, either of God’s relation to the physical world or of God’s consistency of behavior and character. Honestly, to insist that “God just doesn’t judge humanity like that” sounds awfully similar to Epicureanism or Deism, only that we replace distance and apathy on God’s part as the reason for God’s inactivity in the physical realm with God’s love. Alternatively, this attitude might reveal a rather Marcionite view of the relationship between “the God of the Old Testament” and “the God of the New Testament” – before Jesus, the God of Israel was a God of wrath and judgment, but now he is a God of love and grace. Either way, the belief that “God doesn’t judge humanity like that” seems to me more like wishful thinking and pop theology than a sound and thoroughly biblical theological statement.

Again, though, I cannot join in with those who would seize upon a natural disaster (usually that strikes someone else in some distant place) in order to confirm their own righteousness or narrative of the world. Indeed, whenever anyone jumps up to tell us what the “reason” for the hurricane is – i.e., how the hurricane reveals how their own political or social or religious opinions are the correct ones – we ought to be at the very least suspicious. When we act on our desire to seize control of the narrative of a natural disaster, to assert that the natural disaster and its aftermath proves us right and other people wrong, what we are doing is essentially usurping God’s place as judge. Because what are we doing? We are ourselves trying to judge the world through the natural disaster. This is pride of the highest order, which is why sensible people realize how foolish it is. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop many from writing or verbally declaring as soon as possible how a given natural disaster has proven that they were right all along.

So where does that leave us? Was Hurricane Katrina God’s judgment or not? Is Hurricane Harvey God’s judgment or not? Well, I suppose the answer and its accuracy depends on two things. First, what do we mean by “judgment”? Second, are we asking and answering the question out of love or out of self-righteous hate?

What is God’s “Judgment”?

(9) The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?
(10) I, Yahweh, examine the mind, I test the heart to give to each according to his way, according to what his actions deserve.

Jeremiah 17:9-10 (HCSB)

(23) Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
(24) And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Both of above mentioned Christian responses to Hurricane Katrina had, at their core, a particular understanding of God’s judgment, namely that God’s judgment is essentially what God does when he gets so fed up with human sin that he just cannot take it anymore. Honestly, the image I see in my head at this moment is a big Rodney Dangerfield in the sky, pulling at his collar and saying, “I get no respect, ya’ know what I mean? No respect. I tell ya’, I can’t take it anymore!” This is the slow burn God. The God who has patience, but over time he starts to clench his jaw, his face starts to turn red, and he develops of nervous twitch above his eye. Finally, he throws his hands up in the air and, with a maniacal cry and uncontrolled rage, takes a swipe at the offending earth-creatures and BOOM! – instant hurricane, or earthquake, or tsunami, or tornado, or whatever.

That, my friends, is not the biblical picture of God’s judgment. That is not what the Bible means by “The Day of the Lord”. First and most importantly, we must understand that when God judges, there is always a constructive purpose in it. God never judges just because he gets overwhelmed by rage at all the sin and loses control of himself. In fact, such an act of punishment would not even really qualify as “judgment” in the biblical sense. Let me restate that more concisely – judgment is not identical to punishment or condemnation. It can include punishment, but biblical judgment is a much bigger and, I would argue, far more glorious concept.

What, then, is “judgment” in the biblical sense? Judgment is discernment. It is separation and distinction: the separation or distinguishing of light from dark, day from night, good from evil, sheep from goats, wheat from tares. It is bringing order out of chaos, and as such it is fundamentally a completion of the act of creation (God separated the darkness from the light, he separated the waters above from the waters below, he separated dry land from the seas). It is an act of investigation, bringing out into the open things that are hidden so that evil is clearly evil and good is clearly good. It is purification, bringing forth that which can be redeemed from that which must pass away. Ultimately, once everything is made clear through God’s judgment, the result being that God’s righteousness over against the world’s unrighteousness is plainly and undeniably evident, then what cannot or will not be redeemed for his purpose will be dealt with. Exactly how it will be dealt with is not fully for us to know, but the Bible speaks of it in strong language and terrifying images. And contrary to what many popular Christian teachers might think, the primary intent of this strong language and these terrifying images is not to threaten you into repentance. It is to comfort you and to express our belief that God is a righteous God who, though unimaginably patient, will not let evil persist indefinitely. God will deal with evil not because he is an angry and vindictive God, but precisely because he is a good and loving God. All of this is to say that “judgment” is not identical to “punishment” or “condemnation”. Though it does include the possibility of punishment, its real purpose is often to prevent condemnation.

So now we have two questions in place of the original one question. The first is essentially a more accurate restatement of the original question: was Katrina God’s punishment or condemnation of New Orleans’ for its sin? Whether it was or wasn’t, to be honest, is not really our business. That’s God’s business, and because of that we need to just butt out. It’s easy to be an aftermath prophet. But who among those who wanted to say that Katrina was God’s punishment went to New Orleans a month-and-a-half in advance and said, “Forty days and New Orleans is overthrown!” Not a single one. But they sure were quick to gloat over New Orleans the way Jonah wanted to over Nineveh. So this first version of the original question – was Katrina God’s punishment of New Orleans, or more recently was Harvey God’s punishment of Texas – is the wrong question to be asking.

The right version of the original question is this: was God judging humanity (meaning was he bringing to light that which was hidden in the hearts of humanity and clearly separating what is good from what is evil) through Hurricane Katrina? Absolutely, because he is always judging humanity, if we mean by the word “judge” the accurate and biblical sense. For example, through Hurricane Katrina God judged those Christian preachers who had hatred hidden in their hearts, and he brought that hatred out in the open through their vocal condemnation of New Orleans. Perhaps he also brought out into the open the nascent Epicureanism or even semi-Marcionism of those who responded to the hate-filled false prophets with a categorical “no, God doesn’t do that.” Even though that “no” was motivated by concern for their fellow humans, it nevertheless was usurpative in claiming, without authority, that Katrina was in no way God’s punishment (in a sense, perhaps it was, but that is for God to know, not us). At the heart of this usurpation was, in many cases, a concern that God appear to be righteous in the eyes of the world and according to the world’s own sensibilities. For these Christians, deep down in their heart God’s righteousness had ceased to be that which confronts and judges the world’s unrighteousness and had become instead an embarrassing anachronism that needed to be confronted and judged by the world’s more mature sense of righteousness. Both the hate of the one and the cultural accommodationism of the other were sins hidden deep in the hearts of the speakers, and what God did was to bring that sin out into the open.

This, I would argue, is what judgment really is. Sin that is hidden deep in our hearts cannot be dealt with so long as it remains concealed beneath layers of rationalization and illusion. So God uses things like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey to judge us, to unearth those feelings, biases, and unhealthy ideas that we have buried deep within us so that we can face them and repent. If we are broken before God and receptive to this process, it turns out that God’s judgment is actually for our benefit. He chastens us because he loves us and wants us to be better people. On the other hand, if we are stiff-necked and refuse to acknowledge the wickedness of the feelings that come up within us through judgment, we risk being destroyed or least sorely injured by those very feelings, just like this college professor in Tampa, Kenneth Storey, who was fired for the unrighteous feelings he expressed via Twitter. In either case, God’s judgment has had its intended effect: to separate the good from the evil, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares. God’s judgment galvanizes us – it makes what is good better and what is evil worse. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he reveals that the purpose of his speaking in parables was this: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. To them, however, it has not been given. For whoever has, more will be given to him and he will abound. But whoever does not have, even what he has will taken from him” (Matt. 13:11-12). The parables themselves were a moment of God’s judgment. The sheep were separated from the goats precisely by how they responded to the parables. In fact, the sheep were made even more to be sheep and the goats were made even more to be goats. This is the effect of the plumb line in Amos chapter 7, where the people of Israel would be judged either innocent or guilty in accordance with how they responded to the prophecy of the prophet, which is the Word of God.

Now, I do want to be clear and fair in my treatment of the larger Christian response to the hate-filled aftermath prophets’ sneering condemnation of New Orleans. Many, maybe even most, of those who reacted against this condemnation probably had a more or less biblical understanding of God’s judgment. Perhaps what they were saying in their reaction may be better understood in this way: they were saying that Hurricane Katrina was not God condemning New Orleans, and if that is what they meant then I can agree with that. The reason is this: without Christ we are all already condemned – no new condemnation is necessary. Through Katrina, however, I believe that God was calling to all of us, not just the residents of New Orleans, to examine our hearts, to repent, and to find salvation in Jesus Christ. Katrina wasn’t condemnation, it was a wakeup call. Perhaps it was punishment, perhaps it wasn’t, but even if it was punishment its purpose was not to condemn but to prevent condemnation, to save. And it was not just directed at the people of New Orleans. I believe that God’s judgment in Katrina was directed at least as much at everyone who was not in New Orleans as it was at the residents of New Orleans.

How God is Judging Me Through Harvey

(16) Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (17) For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (18) And if the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?

1 Peter 4:16-18 (ESV)

So, here we are in the immediate aftermath of Harvey, and now we find ourselves facing the question, was God judging us through the storm? Obviously, you will know from what I have written above that I believe, in fact, yes – God is judging us through the storm. Not necessarily punishing us, not condemning us, but judging us, yes. As someone who lived through Harvey in the Houston area (but was among those blessed not to live in a flooded area), let me illustrate that by describing how I think God has judged me using the storm.

First, I feel like I have been confronted with my attachment to my material possessions. As the storm approached, we just didn’t know whether we would be flooded here in Crosby, and if so then how severely. Then we began to see reports of significant flooding in the areas west and southwest of Houston, several feet of water that would ruin anything on a bottom floor of a building (at least). And I started trying to figure out how much of my stuff I could put in my car if we had to evacuate. We don’t own a lot, and we do have renter’s insurance that maybe might have covered our losses even in a flood. I don’t know. The main things that we own that we consider extremely valuable are our books and the data on our computers. As far as our books go, I’m not just talking about a bunch of paperback novels that you could replace for a dollar each at a used book store. I’m talking about books that might cost a hundred dollars or more each to replace, or even books that are irreplaceable. One of the advantages of living as we did for several years in a city like Edinburgh, Scotland and going to a university with such history is that they had these amazing book sales where you could get very old books for a fraction of their real market value. I was able to purchase books that were 100 to 150 years old or more for just a few pounds each. Those kinds of things are irreplaceable, and trying to figure out how I might be able to save them in the event of a flash flood was causing me a lot of stress. Honestly, I might have been tempted to do something foolish, to make excuses for risking my life, in order to preserve these material things that I value so much. I’m not suggesting that owning these books is a sin or that they are somehow forming a barrier between me and God. But through the storm I came to realize just how attached I really was to them, and I have to ask myself if maybe I’m not too attached to them.

Second, and I think probably more importantly, I was confronted by the weakness of my capacity to truly love people. What I mean is this: the devastation and suffering that I could see people were going through and were going to be going through over the next several weeks and months very quickly overwhelmed me. I feel that, as a Christian, I am called to suffer together with the world and to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in that suffering. But during the storm, as I tried to grasp the scope of the devastation and the suffering, I found myself reaching the limit of my ability to extend my concern to people far more quickly than I would have liked, and in those moments I found myself reflexively pulling back and seeking distraction in something banal – a book, a video game, some other pastime – just to keep myself from dwelling upon just how much people were suffering. I wasn’t planning ways to go out and help people once the storm was over. I was finding myself being thankful that it wasn’t me. And as I reflected on this, I was reminded of the fact that recently I have been praying for myself prayers akin to the prayer of Jabez – “Lord, bless me and expand my territory.” And I feel that the Spirit was telling me, “You haven’t really understood what it was you were praying for. This is what it means for me to expand your territory: to give you more people to care for, not to give you more material possessions to worry about.”

I’m sure that each one of you can think back to the events of this last week and identify ways that they confronted you with your weaknesses and limitations. This is judgment. This is God judging us through Hurricane Harvey. The good news to us is that this judgment is not condemnation. It is not punishment. It is an opportunity. God has judged us so that we can, in a new and exciting way, come to know his heart and ours. He has brought hidden things to light, and he has posed the question to us, “What will you do about this?” For those of us who walk in the light of Jesus Christ, judgment such as this is not darkness and despair. It is the chastening of a loving Father and an unusually potent opportunity to grow toward him – if, that is, we respond to this opportunity in faith, with humility and brokenness. For those who do not respond to God’s judgment in faith, Harvey will end up being nothing more than meaningless destruction. There is meaning in this storm, but only if we search for that meaning in a God-ward direction.

In the aftermath of Harvey, the question we need to be asking ourselves is not, “Why did God punish the people of South Texas and Louisiana?” The question is, “How has God judged me and judged us as a community, as a nation, as human beings?” How has he brought to light things that were lurking deep within your heart? How has he called to you and to all of us to purify ourselves? How has he revealed the light and the darkness within our community and within our nation? God has judged us and is judging us. We now must choose whether we will receive his verdict and live, or reject it and perish.

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