In 2008, I happened to be in the middle of a 24/7 prayer week when Myanmar was hit by the deadly cyclone that killed many people. I have to admit, I was totally uneducated about Myanmar's political situation. (I still am--I am horrible about keeping up with the news!) I knew almost nothing about the country itself. But I found my heart unable to focus anywhere else, and began crying out to God that this disaster would open the nation up. I was shocked hours later when I began to research Myanmar and found that this seemingly random prayer request seemed to fit the situation so well. I continued to be amazed by this as the government of Myanmar refused to let in aid for its people in the weeks that followed, and so I continued my prayers that the doors would open, for both aid and the gospel.
The Sunday after the first prayer experience, I shared in our church's English Bible study that I felt excitement for Myanmar, because I felt that God was going to use this disaster in a big way for the country. I was immediately chastised, and a key church elder told me that I was 'testing God' by trying to claim that I knew God was the one who had sent the disaster. It turned into a rather fierce conversation without my meaning it to. Every last person around the table felt that I was far, far out of line.
That night, I wandered around a pond and told God about the struggle. I finally settled down on a park bench and flipped my Bible open, and it fell to Amos 3. I began reading, and was shocked to arrive at the verse, "When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets." (Amos 3:6-7). It was one of those beautiful prayer moments that feels like kisses from heaven.
But let's slow down here, because when we read the verse, "When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?" I'm fairly certain everyone has a very strong impression of what that means. Some people will be unable to justify this verse with their idea of God's love, and they will find some way to say it means something different, or was only meant for a given context. Others will feel almost eerily happy about this verse, smugly confident that they are on the side of God's armies and God is wiping out heathen sinners from the face of the planet.
I was very struck by the polarization of these two views while reading this article that a facebook friend posted about the Waldo Canyon Fire. I have been closely, closely following this fire ever since a college friend texted me to say that her parents had had to evacuate their home, the home she grew up in. I found myself drawn to it not only because of the friend, and a handful of other people I know in the area, but also because I know about the Christian presence in Colorado Springs, and the number of praying people who are there. I had a feeling that God was doing something "strategic". Another friend, who also lost the home she grew up in in the fire, wrote to me that she felt sad at the news, but that she really felt God was in this. She added that she couldn't believe she was saying something that sounded so uncaring, because of how many people were suffering. All of this has left me with a strong desire to pray for Colorado Springs, and a strong desire to know what God is saying to the city so that I can align my prayers with that.
So, after all this thinking, I couldn't help read the article, even though I suspected that I would struggle with the content. I ended the reading feeling very sad. It seemed to me to say that Christians who believe that God causes disasters and has reasons for them are only of the smug type, and generally only see God as being angry. We are left with the alternative of serving people after disasters, to show the world that God is not angry. I felt that the underlying idea in all this was crippling to God's power. It makes it look like all He is in the middle of a deadly situation is a warm, comforting cup of tea.
That's a long intro, but this message has been burning on my heart all day ever since reading the article.
It's so important when we are observing anyone's actions, be they a person or the God who created the whole universe, that we have some idea who they are, what their character is. I think we often feel the need to "throw out" God as the cause of a disaster because we really have no idea how deep His goodness goes.
One of my favorite stories to show God's character during times of destruction is Jesus coming into Jerusalem. It says, "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." (Luke 19:41-44) How often do we miss that God is weeping over the suffering inflicted on His people, even as His hand is in it? And, even as Jesus is prophetically declaring the destruction coming on Jerusalem, He is coming in to die, sacrificing His life to be "what would bring peace" for the sake of these people. This is just one specific example, obviously if I kept going on everything I could find about God's character with suffering, it would turn into a whole book! But I chose this example in particular because it is the aspect of God's character that I have been the most "aware of" during prayer times for the Springs. I don't often cry over disasters, but when my friend emailed me the second time to say that her parents' home had indeed been burned, I just cried and cried. I cannot get my mind off God's grief, even as I simultaneously cannot get my mind off of the belief that He is in this.
There's another key beyond knowing God's character in the second part of the Amos verse I used earlier. "Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets." We might be tempted to read every disaster that happens through the lens of our favorite ideas about God without ever consulting God. But God has a *long* history of combining disasters with prophetic words. Sometimes, he is saying, "Repent and turn back to me and this will stop." (The book of Joel is a good example of this kind of message). Other times, God is saying, "This is happening because of your sin, don't seek me for deliverance. I'm determined to do this." (See Jeremiah 11-12). There are times when God is stripping away earthly treasures so that we are left with the treasure of Him alone, to teach us that He really will provide everything we need, and to test us (See Deut. 8, and, in a different sense, the book of Job). And this is certainly not an exclusive list.
Because of these different messages, it's plain to see that we cannot make a judgment call about whether the people suffering are the greatest sinners or the most righteous. Unless we know what God is saying, there is vast history of Him sending hard times to both groups.
Disasters shake us up and make us think about God--they're meant to! What would we learn and how would we grow and what blessings could He give us if we chose to stand in the tension and pain of the disaster and humbly look up to Him for His words? And this goes for far more than the disasters that make national news--how much more so the quiet suffering that tempts our hearts to doubt or despair on a daily basis. What would happen if we sought His face?
Perhaps He would send us out to minister to the hurting, armed with His actual heart and Spirit inside of us as strength, rather than our own weak good intentions and failing human love.
Perhaps He would call us to pray, and break our hearts for what is breaking His heart. Perhaps He would teach us about faith that moves mountains.
Perhaps He would speak hard, but life-giving words of truth into our situation by calling us, and those around us, to wake up and follow Him with all our hearts again.
Perhaps He'd tell us that our supposed loss had saved us from death, because he was cutting away strangling thorns of worldliness to make way for a fruitful garden in our lives and cities where faith, hope and love could thrive and spread.
Perhaps He would whisper how He is about to bless us by teaching us, through taking so much away, that He is the true provider--ushering us into a season where things we haven't worked for are mysteriously given, and we know in our hearts that He is not poor, and can take care of us no matter how far we follow Him into the desert.
Perhaps He would call us to learn to live more vulnerably within our own community during the time of pain, and give us the treasure of fellowship with dear friends who have stood with us through the darkest times.
Perhaps He would tell us that we really are innocent, and we need to continue to stand true to Him and live in righteousness even if everyone else refuses to turn to Him so that the pain must continue.
Perhaps He would ask us to trust Him and to wait out the pain in worship and thanksgiving without knowing the reason behind it.
How will we know if we don't seek His face and listen? How will we know if we write off the disasters as coincidences and keep God in a safe box? How will we stand in the light if we always assume that we are on the side of the angel armies and those being destroyed deserve God's wrath? What will we miss if we just find the one answer to human suffering that calms our own heart the most, and do not step into the dialogue with the living God, who is not safe, but good?