On March 11th, a 9.0 earthquake shook the Earth near Japan. This was the world’s fifth strongest earthquake since 1900, and it moved the island of Hoshnu eight feet east! The ferocity of the quake was such that the Earth shifted on its axis by 6.5 inches. The planet actually spun a bit faster for a moment or two. And then came the tsunami, a 30-foot wave of destruction that hit Japan with seemingly unconcerned force and indiscriminate destruction. Buildings were demolished, a nuclear power plant began its self-immolation, farms were destroyed, cars floated like ping-pong balls in a swimming pool, and people died. At this writing, some 10,000 are confirmed dead, and 17,000 more are unaccounted for. Over 500,000 people are cold, hungry, and homeless.
The question we ask is, Why? Why earthquakes, tornados, monsoons, and forest fires? Are these “natural disasters” purposeless? Are they simply the result of impersonal geological forces and therefore devoid of meaning? Did the earthquake “just happen”? Is a seismic explanation of what took place in Japan the only answer we get? Is the breadth and depth of the human suffering we have witnessed the result of the impersonal forces of nature—or do these calamities have a guiding hand? Is there a God who controls even the shaking of the ground? And if God had something to do with what happened in Japan, what was it?
These are hard questions, and people give many and varied answers. Their thoughts, however, tend to fall into two categories. First are those people who blame the Earth itself. The universe may have been created by God, or it might be the result of accidental evolution, but either way, those who take this track understand the Earth to be on its own. God is not pulling any strings, ordering any events, or changing the course of what we call “nature.” As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld said in the aftermath of the tsunami, “I live in a real world of science and technology. We know that these things happen, and we are humbled by them.” These things happen….
Others who muse about the why blame the victims: the Earth shook because the people deserved it. Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, said Japanese politics was “tainted with egoism and populism” and caused “tembatsu, or divine punishment.” Glenn Beck hinted at the same answer when he said, “Whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus, there’s a message being sent… and that is, Hey, you know that stuff we’re doing? Not really working out real well.” Hindus and Buddhists give similar versions of this blame-the-victim answer to the question of suffering and natural disaster. The law of karma in Hinduism teaches that we get what we deserve. My sin, committed either in this life or a previous one, must be paid for. My suffering is the consequence of my behavior.
But how do Christians who know the Bible and the God of that Bible understand so-called natural disasters? Ours is a third way. We neither blame the forces of blind chance, nor do we blame the victims. Instead, we understand that God’s governance extends even to the trembling of the Earth. When pondering God’s role in the earthquake of March 11th, we should therefore be both comforted and stirred.
We should be comforted because the God we worship never goes on vacation. The God we meet in Scripture is a deity who controls everything. His providence and control extend to all things at all times. From God’s perspective, there are no “accidents,” and everything that we call “nature” is directed by his guiding hand.
The book of Job, for example, tells the story of a man who loses his children and his wealth to wicked marauders, lightning strikes, and a “great wind.” But in the final analysis, Job doesn’t attribute his loss to the forces of nature, to the evil bandits, or even to Satan himself—although Satan clearly plays a role in Job’s suffering. Job attributes his calamity to God and God’s providence. When Job learns of his loss, he says, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” Later, Job loses even his health, and at this point his wife invites him to “curse God and die.” Instead, stunningly, Job expresses hope, saying, “Shall we accept good from God and not receive evil?”
Again, God never goes on vacation. He never takes a day off. He controls the rain (Psalm 105:32). He sends famine and abundance (Psalm 105:32-34). God directs the flight of the flies and the locusts (see the Exodus 8 and 10 description of those plagues). Even the wind and waves obey God (Mark 4:41). When Paul says that God works “all things” according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11), we need to know that “all things” includes the outcome of every gambler’s bet (Proverbs 16:33), the lifespan of every sparrow (Matthew 10:29), every decision President Obama makes (Proverbs 21:1), and even the magnitude of an earthquake in Japan. As the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism put it, “Yea, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”
The next question in the Catechism asks, “How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?” We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.
Earthquakes, though, and tsunamis, tornados, and even train wrecks should also stir our hearts to repentance. In one of the most startling passages of all Scripture, Jesus is told of some Galileans who were offering sacrifices and were massacred by Pilate (Luke 13:1-5). We don’t know much about this incident (neither history nor the Bible mentions it other than in this passage), but Jesus’ response to the news takes our breath away:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Are you gasping for breath? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish! What can Jesus mean by that? Instead of trying to explain the problem of suffering, Jesus says, “Repent!” Instead of trying to justify how a good God could allow such a thing to happen, Jesus points to the fundamental truth about every human being who has ever lived: we all deserve God’s wrath. Every day we live, every meal we eat, every sunset we see, every time we laugh—each of these is a gift of God’s kindness. The apostle Paul tells us that this kindness is designed to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4), but in Luke 13, Jesus tells us that the suffering of others has the same purpose. With just a few words, Jesus points out that God owes us nothing and that our only hope before God is to repent. Our sins have separated us from the unimaginable holiness of God; even our good deeds are as “filthy rags” in his sight (Isaiah 64:6). And Jesus invites us to repent.
Of course, we are to both grieve with those who grieve and give to those who are groaning in Japan. Jesus calls us to weep with those who weep, and the Bible is full of commands to share generously with the poor. Our hearts should break when we see the intensity of the human suffering. We should be praying daily for those who have lost family, friends, and possessions. But here, in Luke 13, Jesus gives a meaning to such political and “natural” disasters that we might not otherwise have thought of. The fall of that tower in Siloam and the murderous violence of Pilate on those offering sacrifices in Jerusalem are wake-up calls for each one of us to come before the living God and say, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The rabbi is wrong. These “natural disasters” do not “just happen.” They happen so that we might repent and cry out for the mercy of God. Repentance is the place God wants us to be.