So, I was thinking that the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, a monstrous storm that is wreaking havoc on the eastern third of the nation, has no doubt yielded some theological reflection about God’s involvement and purpose. I was, sadly, correct. At least a couple of pronouncements have appeared revealing God’s punishment by hurricane agenda. Thankfully, some saner heads have spoken as well. Father James Martin, contributing editor at America Magazine and the author of Between Heaven and Mirth and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” has concisely tweeted: “If any religious leaders say tomorrow that the hurricane is God’s punishment against some group they’re idiots. God’s ways are not our ways.”
But, I was also thinking, that a simple dismissal of God’s involvement in destructive acts of nature may not provide a great deal of hope or spiritual meat on which to chew. I mean, does not the wind blow and the storm rise out of God’s creation? Psalm 78:26 says “(God) caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind.” Does that mean that God causes hurricanes? Or is it just the case that hurricanes just happen and God has nothing to do with the matter? A faithful answer needs some nuance.
First, I think we can say that God does not “cause” hurricanes in the same way that I cause my teeth to get brushed in the morning. Simple cause and effect thinking is a bit to simple to describe the workings of God. God does not choose to send a hurricane any more than God gives someone cancer or causes a plane to crash. God is not a button-pushing computer operator or a string-tugging puppet master. The psalmist (and many other biblical writers) talk about God causing wind to blow poetically, applying human characteristics to describe something that is divine. If we push the language too far we have understated the divine nature of a God who we can’t explain so easily. Job learns about this in his argument with God. After accusing and arguing God of causing his disastrous life for no reason, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind (nothing human about this) saying, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:1-4) Well, Job couldn’t answer and neither can we.
When we see a hurricane with such devastation approach, we can absolutely say that this is part of God’s creation. In the mystery and grandeur of God’s providence (the creation and on-going sustaining of life), hurricanes and earthquakes, and even disease and tragedy can occur. That is not the same as saying that God causes it to happen as some kind of divine temper tantrum. If rain can fall, hurricanes can happen. We can even cry out like Job and ask “Why would you let this happen?” You’ll likely get the same answer Job received, or just silence.
If we understate the divinity of God, we ask questions that have no answers or we make wild claims about a God who acts with fury and revenge as motives – just like us. However, we can also underestimate the humanity of God. When we do this we look in the hurricane for God in the wrong places. The better question is, “Where is God in this?” For that we have some answer. The central revelation of God for us is Jesus Christ crucified. The cross tells us unequivocally that God is with us in the midst of suffering as our partner, our companion, our Lord. So, instead of thinking about some far off being throwing a thunderbolt at New York City (that is Thor, not God in Christ) I imagine that Christ is in that mess wearing a firefighters coat, or shivering in a now unheated flat with a fearful mother and her kids. God is with us: that is one of the central claims of our faith. We do not proclaim God is against us (See Romans 8:31-39).
So, does this mean that Hurricane Sandy is not an act of divine judgment? It depends upon what you mean by judgment. If you mean God has conjured up a terrible storm to punish people who disagree with me about certain moral, political. economic or environmental issues. Then, no way. God cannot be controlled by our causes and we should always be careful about claiming God is on my side over against somebody else. The next natural disaster might destroy your house. Then what? If however, you have some sense that this awful storm seems to drive you to your knees to pray; or to acknowledge the power of God and your powerlessness, then maybe some judgment is happening. An event like this seems to me to have a real capacity to announce what we Lutherans, among others, call “the Law.” By this I mean the way the Word of God can remind us of our finitude, our limits as human beings when we stand against the storm. We humans can get full of ourselves. We can go for long periods thinking that we are in control and we have a plan for everything; that we are hot stuff. A storm like this comes up and reminds us that we are not in control and we are actually, quite small. It can remind us that life is fragile and that we all will die. That is the Law.
But the only purpose of the Law is to open us up to receive the good news – the gospel. Faced with our own limits, God comes as one who somehow does sustain life even in the midst of fatal storms. In the midst of death, God comes as the firstborn of the resurrection, announcing life. In the midst of human suffering, God is with us. Through the Spirit, God will bring — has already started in fact – to manifest signs of new life after the clouds depart. It will come in the form of rescue and relief workers; shipments of needed supplies. It will come in the form of financial help to clean up, rise up, build up once again. You can begin that process through Lutheran Disaster Relief, who is already at work. That is what God does in the middle of a disaster through the work of the Spirit.
That’s just what I was thinking today about God & hurricanes.
Pax Christi, – Pastor Tim