Thursday, May 23, 2013

Disasters and the Wrath of God

In a short period of time, following the devastating tornado in Oklahoma, online comments about God’s involvement and intentions in that storm appeared in a variety of places (see Rachel Held Evans’s impassioned comments). Michael Brown cautioned against assigning divine wrath to natural disasters, but also insisted that God’s wrath (not specifically defined or described) was on its way to the USA.

I’m with Rachel on this: Declaring God’s intentions in natural events is both presumptive and theologically misguided. While I appreciate Michael Brown’s concerns, I’m not sure that his insistence on the coming of God’s wrath is significantly different than the claims we hear coming from people like John Piper. How is it that people know what God has in mind in these things?

(This must be difficult for Christian groups that enter into these places of devastation to bring help and comfort. So, God brings hurricanes and tornados, and his faithful people come in to clean up his mess. Really?)

I’m not suggesting that the wrath of God doesn’t exist. But is it expressed in Zeus-like bolts of lightning that wipe out young and old, righteous and unrighteous alike? Or does it come in a way that could be even more terrifying?

The first and most likely candidates for a big dose of God’s wrath would be Adam and Eve. For them, wrath came in them getting what they desired—which was something that was not God. Indeed, they suffered the consequences of their actions, but God did not wipe them out. He met them in a new way, met them in their new, broken reality. And, according to the narrative of Scripture, he has never departed.

In describing the ancient Hebrew people’s sojourn in the wilderness and how they often forgot about the God who had rescued them from Egypt, the psalmist writes,

“He gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul.” (Psalm 106:15, Book of Common Prayer)

Imagine getting everything you ever wanted, if everything you ever wanted was a life without God. Imagine a life where God’s care, love, and presence were completely removed. Imagine a life where the source of all goodness has been asked to leave the building. That would make a soul pretty lean, even anorexic.

Maybe the best story to illustrate God’s wrath isn’t like the ones about Moses and the poisonous snakes (Numbers 21) or Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19). Maybe it’s found in Luke 15. It starts out this way:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.”

The younger son wants a life without his father. He wants all the good things that come from his father’s hand, but he wants to enjoy it on his own terms.

And the father gives him what he desires. And, out on his own, the son’s suffering is overwhelming.

The son drags his sorry self back home, hoping to get hired by his father (who, the boy assumes, will not receive him back as a son) to muck the stalls or forever clean out the septic tank. But that isn’t what happens. The father’s reception of the wandering son is almost scandalous in its generosity:

“. . . while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

Israel’s biblical history is summarized in this story. The leaders and the people repeatedly forgot about God and chased after what they really wanted. God let them do that, and they ended up being conquered by foreign invaders and exiled in other lands.

But God never forgot them.

We need to dump our presumptions about God’s role in natural disasters (and maybe quit giving any public attention whatsoever to those who think it’s their calling to do that) and think deeply about God’s heart for the world. But we also need to consider the implications of living as though God is unnecessary to us. And that goes for all of us, especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.

If you want to live a life based strictly on your own desires, forgetting about God, then you’d do just as well to stick your hand into a bag of scorpions.

And I just totally creeped myself out with that mental image.

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