Fire: Safe or Good?
“There is nothing left in Yarloop. Everyplace we have been working in and holding services in is gone…. You can make plans for another meeting on the 17th unfortunately.” (Dr. Bob Chapman). So reads an email from an itinerant minister working to plant a church in the town of Yarloop, where I was due to preach this Sunday. With 2 dead and 140 homes destroyed by a raging inferno the media have been speaking constantly of a “war against mother nature”. Since “mother nature” is blameless the rage of traumatised former Yarloop residents has fallen on the failure of government care. Our sense that the world should not be so cruel is inborn, blame must be placed somewhere. One dialogue partner is absent from the endless media and talkback reports over these fires. Compare this omission to the response to the Lisbon earthquake disaster in 1755. Since it was All Saints Day the churches were crowded when the quake struck and thousands were crushed as the buildings collapsed. The Jesuits quickly attributed the disaster to God’s wrath, but since the red-light district was untouched thinking people were not persuaded. Across Europe philosophers turned to a purely scientific explanation of the quake and the discipline of seismology was born. Enlightened European humanism was on the rise and the notion of a God of love-and-wrath was pushed more and more to the margins. Who will introduce the notion of such a deity back into cultural conversation? Certainly not our media nor the shallow mainstream Church. When a society no longer instinctively holds God responsible for its ills we are in a very dire spiritual situation.
Nature God Goodness
Once Westerners looked upon the world as the product of a mighty act of the Creator (Gen 1:1ff; Prov 8:22ff.). Today the power and might of nature and humanity are seen solely as properties of complex material interactions. Human nature no longer implies the image of God but the result of natural selection. No one however can consistently live like as if life can be reduced to biology. Anger at apparently unnecessary suffering makes sense if there is a God of love and humans are in his image; but what’s the point of raging against the machine if the ultimate reality to which we must bow is an impersonal universe? Few understand this. Tragically, the everyday consciousness of the average Australian has been so stripped of awareness of the divine glory in their own humanity that not even insurance companies believe that natural disasters are “acts of God”. When Danny Nalliah declared that the disastrous Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria were the result of the decriminalisation of abortion he was treated as a nut case by the press and disowned by the Church. Nalliah was unwise to speak of the wrath of God as he did, but Christians must believe that the Lord is ultimately responsible for the fact that “natural” disasters happen in his creation. Otherwise “God” is not sovereign (Isa 45:7; Amos 3:6). Who however dares teach these things?
Like frightened children the Church has substituted a message of safety for goodness. In a famous passage from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe little Lucy asks Mr. Beaver about Aslan, “Then he isn’t safe?”, Beaver replies; “Who said anything about safe? Course’ he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Popular preachers love Romans 8:28; “for those who love God all things work together for good,” but they will never tie it to the preceding affirmation that “the creation (all things) has been subject to futility” by its Maker (Rom 8:21). After the Fall of Adam God handed the world over to seemingly unnecessary meaningless disorder and suffering, not as an act of blind rage but as a sign of the unnecessary and meaningless character of our sin! The brutality of the world is not an unintelligible act of an impersonal “mother” called “nature” but a witness to a Father whose discipline is meant to bring our race to its senses; “For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” (Isa 26:9). Natural disasters image back to us what we have become and warn us of the wrath to come. Where the Lisbon Jesuits and Danny Nalliah were wrong was in connecting God’s judgement to individual cases of sinfulness. Rejecting the suggestion some Jews perished by misfortune because they were “worse sinners” than others Jesus warned; “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”” (Luke 13:5). Only Jesus can help us understand them “the kindness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22).
Help us Jesus
To a fallen human conscience the meaning of pain is pain; it is unnecessary, meaningless, useless. Jesus however reveals the Father’s heart by freely embracing temptation, hunger, thirst, tiredness, rejection and finally the pain of the cross for others. Christ’s tears over human suffering reveal that the true God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked”; whether such death comes by “natural” causes or in “natural” disasters (Luke 19:41; John 11:35; 17:3; Ezek 33:11). The Word of God reveals that the Lord’s own anger is alien to his heart, but this revelation is found in only one place, the cross (Isa 28:21; Lam 3:33; John 1:18). The cry of bewilderment “Why have you forsaken me?” marks the point where the fallen human experience of suffering as unnecessary and meaningless is carried by Jesus on our behalf (Mark 15:34). The outpouring of divine wrath on our unnecessary and meaningless sin in Christ is the final revelation that God loves us (Rom 3:25; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 John 4:10). Through the cross we see that the bearing of suffering for others is the true image and glory of God. Dying in this way of absolute love Jesus’ precipitates a resurrection and the creation of a new heavens and earth (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 4:24). The lesson of the cross is that the greater the manifestation of the wrath of God the greater the opportunity to suffer for others to the glory of God. The Early Church understood this; it grew most quickly when plagues hit the Roman Empire, for only the Christians risked their lives to nurse sick sinners. Today there are vast opportunities to reveal Christ by relieving suffering in the midst of poverty, stress, “natural” disaster, sickness and relational breakdown. These are opportunities to live out the gospel of the substitutionary death-and-resurrection of the Son of God.
With “natural” disasters on one side and terrorists on the other the world seems a crazy place; but it is no match for the crazy love of the cross. Abiding in the death of Jesus the Christian can manifest a peace that no one in the world can attain (Col 1:20). It is timeto move on from our childish obsessions about personal safety to embrace the great vision of the goodness of God in the way of the cross (1 Cor 13:11). Be warned however, such a way of life will not make sense to most contemporary comfortable Christians. But a life of bearing suffering for those in pain leads not only to rejection but also to the revelation of the glory of God. Yarloop is gone, someday soon this entire world as we know it will be burnt out too, but those who walk in the painful goodness of the cross will never be destroyed but reflect the image and glory of the Lamb of God forever (Matt 13:43; Mark 10:38-39; Heb 10:39; 2 Pet 3:10-13).
p.s. If you really want to blame someone for the ills of the world start with your own Adamic nature, which, with Satan’s help, is the cause of all unnecessary and meaningless suffering (Gen 3).
http://www.insurancecouncil.com.au/assets/files/urban%20myths.pdf see p.13 for an illuminating cartoon!