Natural disasters and discerning the motives of God

The first part of this article was previously published as John Piper, a tornado and discerning the motives of God, August 21, 2009, at Examiner.com.

Early Wednesday afternoon, around 1:50 local time, a sudden tornado traveled from south Minneapolis into the city damaging the Convention Center, a Lutheran church and a music shop. Dozens of homes and trees were damaged in the early touching down, while a different tornado crushed the roof of a North Branch middle school about 50 miles away, bringing doubts as to whether that school might open on time. The tornados were described as “weak” as the Weather Service gave both wind funnels a rating of EF0, the lowest on the scale.

Perhaps it was the “weak” designation that prompted popular Minneapolis pastor, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church, to wonder on his blog whether God was giving a gentle warning to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who were about to debate the ordination of practicing homosexuals into the ranks of their ministry. Piper wrote of seeing the cloud from distance, posted a picture of the damaged steeple of the Central Lutheran Church where the ELCA attendees were meeting and divined that the purpose of the tornado was related to the ELCA’s decision, writing, “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction.” Not the possibility of one of the damaged houses being a crack den, or the school being a poor use of money or the music store having the name “Electric Fetus,” which, had I been God, would have received a lightning strike in addition to wind damage.

I have no trouble at all ascribing responsibility for the storm to God (even insurance companies did so for decades, though some now opt to term them “natural disasters”). Not only do the writers of scripture give Him responsibility for storms (Psalm 83:14, Nahum 1:3), they also attribute to God deliverance from them (Psalm 107:29, Isaiah 4:6), but God Himself takes responsibility for destruction (Isaiah 14:23, Jeremiah 4:6). The problem is not that Piper attributed responsibility for the tornado to God, but that he attributed motive. And that, as they say, is a whole different ball game entirely.

Piper uses a series of scriptures linked together to come to his conclusion. In fact, it is like reading a geometry proof or a problem in logic. The problem with applying the science of logic to God, though, is that He lies outside its bounds. It is akin to trying to order an artificial heart from a Chilton’s manual. It simply has limitations. For instance, Piper uses the disciples reaction to the storm on the Sea of Galilee, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the waves obey Him” (Mark 4:41) as a link in his proof. The context, however, is different and in the case of the disciples the motive is crystal clear: to save their lives and to demonstrate God’s power. There was no collateral damage, no loss of property, no power outages. One could argue just as effectively that the entire tornadic episode was to provide overtime income to the power company workers. I, for one, am not saying that Piper is wrong. I am saying that there is no way for either John Piper or the rest of us to know if he is right.

While some readers may feel that I am being lighthearted, that is most definitely not the case. I’m simply demonstrating the danger and seriousness with which those who claim in some capacity to speak for God, better be sure when assigning motives to Him. Ezekiel and Jeremiah are replete with warnings about speaking for God when God has been silent (“I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” Jeremiah 23:21). These types of attributions (including the wild claims of Pat Robertson over the years) open the doors for skeptics to point out the rightful contradictions in the way that we interpret events (“If a tornado bloweth upon the Lutherans, it is God; but, if a tree falleth on our house, it is an attack of Satan”). This inconsistency is a greater tool of the Evil One than any believer would care to admit.

I would implore believers to take great care with how we interpret the events around us to a watching world. Perhaps, because we live in a fallen, broken world where calamity is part of our existence, we should focus on being agents who provide grace, truth and rescue and let God explain His motivations when He gets good and ready.
End original article.

So here we are, again, 2 years later having just witnessed two “natural” disasters almost back to back, an earthquake and a flood both in the eastern part of the country. And, just like clockwork, Christians have begun the discerning the motives of God. Most notably has been GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann who wondered (perhaps jokingly) whether it was God’s judgment for a congress that has driven the economy into the ground. Others speculate that it was New York’s approval of gay marriage or Vermont’s approval of gay marriage or God knows what else. Below is a photo of the recent flooding in Vermont:

2011 Flooding in Londonderry, Vermont

The next picture is from the Vermont flood of 1927. Says one historical record, “The Vermont flood of 1927 was the worst in Vermont history. Torrential rains from a tropical storm caused widespread flooding destroying bridges, farm lands, houses and other buildings.” In other words, almost the same scenario as Hurricane Irene by the time she rolled over Vermont.

Remnants of Roy Bro's Mills and a million and a half feet of sawed lumber.

Now, the juxtaposition of these pictures is to illustrate the question: If God was judging Vermont for gay marriage this weekend, what was going on in 1927 to deserve the same thing? Many of the same people who are quick to attribute the judgment of God to anything and everything they can imagine are the same ones to say God removed His hand from the United States in 1963 when government sponsored prayer was removed from school. But how does one explain the 1927 flood in Vermont, the 2011 Texas wildfires, the flooding in North Dakota in June of this year, the Alaska earthquake of 1964, flooding in Atlanta two years ago, and on and on I could go. To hold that position means you are accusing God of arbitrariness, and God is not arbitrary.

I’ll repeat for emphasis: I am not saying that any of these specific ideas is wrong. I am saying that there is no way for any of us to know whether any of them are right. It is speculation of the lowest order. It’s harmful and it is not an answer of the hope that lies within us. It is better to let the Judge be the judge and His children be what we have been called to be: witnesses to His faithfulness in the midst of any storm.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.