December 2, 2001

LEARNING FROM DISASTER

When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? Amos 3:6

Sixty years ago this week, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and Americans entered World War II. While older people vividly recall that day of infamy, some of us have no firsthand memory of it; we weren’t yet born. But now all of us, young or old, know the awful reality of a surprise attack and bracing for armed conflict. We don’t have to go back sixty years. It’s been less than three months since terrorists launched their terrible attacks on Washington and New York.

When disaster strikes, there’s a time of shock and grief, a time for tears. There’s a time of grim determination, a time for action. There’s also a time of pondering, a time to think.

In the first shock of disaster, it’s hard to think at all. In the following frenzy of action, it’s hard to think about anything but the task at hand. But at some point, when the pain isn’t quite so fresh and the action isn’t quite so hectic, we need to think about the meaning of world-shaking events.

What do we learn from such disaster? We obviously learn to be more careful about security, to take terrorism more seriously, and many other political and practical lessons. But beyond political and practical matters, what spiritual lessons can we learn? What does God teach us through such events?

None of us can understand all God’s plans and purposes. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, his ways higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). We can’t give a full explanation of why God would allow such heartbreak. Still, even though we can’t figure out everything, we can learn some things. We aren’t able to see the whole picture as God sees it, but with the help of God’s Word, the Bible, we can learn a number of things from disaster.

Morality is Real

One lesson is that morality is real. There’s a real difference between good and evil. In periods of prosperity, pampered professors promote postmodern nonsense that all morality is relative, that there’s no objective difference between good and evil. In evolutionist education, “wickedness is no more a man’s fault than bodily disease” (Darwin). In a self-centered society, sages of New Age spirituality and Eastern religions claim sin is not real and there’s no such thing as wrong choices. But the terrorist disaster shows that such notions are nonsense.

How can anyone think any longer that wickedness is nobody’s fault? How can any say that good and evil are interchangeable? We’ve seen good and evil in action; we know there’s a difference. The Bible says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). It’s evil for terrorists to blow up helpless, unsuspecting people. It’s good for brave people to risk their lives to save others. Such moral decisions aren’t just matters of opinion or feeling. The difference is real. Woe to anyone who denies the difference between good and evil! Moral decisions are real, whether right or wrong. Courage is real; cruelty is real. Love is real; hate is real. God is real; Satan is real. Good is real; evil is real. The difference between good and evil is real, and we must choose. That’s a valuable lesson.

We Need God

Another lesson we learn from disaster is that we need God. When your country is stable, when your economy is prospering, when you’re happy and healthy, you feel like you’re in charge of your own future. You make long-range plans and assume things will go pretty much the way you expect. But when you see mighty buildings and many humans reduced to smoking rubble in a matter of moments, you no longer feel so strong and sure. Disaster teaches that you are fragile and that you need God at every moment. The Bible says,

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15).

Before the terrorist attacks, American politicians were arguing about a Social Security lockbox and discussing what the status of the program would be in the year 2038. Now, having experienced disaster, we’re not talking about retirement funding four decades in the future. We fear death could strike today or tomorrow.

Human bodies are fragile. Human buildings are fragile. Human cities are fragile. Human governments are fragile. Human economies are fragile. Everything human is fragile. Our future depends not just on our own plans but on God’s will. Our safety depends not just on our attempts to protect ourselves but on whether God protects us. “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Disaster teaches that we need something stronger than ourselves to protect us. “It is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:8-9). Even princes and presidents and prime ministers can’t provide the refuge God provides. Disaster teaches us that we need God himself.

God Is In Control

Disaster humbles us by showing that we are not in control but that God Almighty is in control. When disaster strikes, we may be tempted to think that nobody is in control, or that the forces of evil have ultimate power. But even the most shocking events do not take God by surprise. Even the most dreadful disasters are part of his plan and purpose.

God says in the Bible, “I bring prosperity and I create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” (Amos 3:6) That’s hard to swallow, isn’t it? When disaster comes, we turn to God to be soothed and comforted. We don’t want to think that God somehow had a hand in the disaster. But whether we like it or not, whether we understand it or not, God says, “I create disaster.” Scripture says, “When disaster comes a city”–New York, Washington, Jerusalem–“has not the Lord caused it?”

In what sense can it be said that God causes disaster? Well, it doesn’t mean God is full of hatred and murder or that he directly causes hatred in murderous terrorists. The Bible says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor can he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). God never does evil, and he never directly causes anyone do evil. Everything God does is good. When people and demons do evil, they are to blame, not God. But God still rules all things and directs all events in such a way that even the actions of evildoers are part of his plan and accomplish his purposes.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was betrayed by a traitor whose heart was occupied by Satan himself (Luke 22:3, John 13:27). Jesus was accused by liars, convicted by an unjust judge, and executed by murderers. But, says the Bible, they did what God’s power and will had decided beforehand should happen (Acts 4:28). At one level, sinners and Satan killed Jesus, and his death was entirely their fault. But at another level, God was giving his own Son as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Even as the wicked were doing evil, God was accomplishing great good.

God never does evil, but he often does good through the actions of those who do evil. When God wanted to display the full integrity of his dear servant Job and give Job a clearer knowledge of God than ever before, the Lord allowed Satan and sinners and diseases to destroy Job’s property, Job’s family, and Job’s health. But in the end, what Job came to know God more directly than ever, and that was of greater value than all his losses. Disaster taught Job that when you lose everything and have nothing left but the Lord, God is more than enough. God can use disaster to draw his dear friends even closer to himself.

God can also use disaster to get the attention of those who ignore him, to punish those who rebel against his holiness, and to call people back to God. The Bible records many occasions where God would use military attacks and devastating disasters to cleanse his people, correct their behavior, and turn their hearts back to God in repentance and faith. Could it be that God is doing something similar through the recent disasters? Let us search our hearts as a nation and as individuals.

God uses disaster to humble cities and nations, to drive us to our knees before him. This doesn’t mean we should cower before vicious, violent enemies. We must not let terrorists bring us to our knees. But we must let God bring us to our knees. We must bow before God, even as we stand tall in the face of evil. National leaders and military forces have a duty to deal with attackers. At the same time, the nation and its citizens also have an obligation to humble ourselves before God.

In the Bible, God punished the Israelites and other nations through various defeats and disasters. At the same time, God promised, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

National Sins, National Calamities

This program is heard in many nations, but let me single out the two nations where I’ve lived: the United States and Canada. God has blessed the United States and Canada with prosperity, freedom, plenty of Bibles, and many generations of hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. How have we responded? We have wandered far from God and sinned grievously. Billy Graham once commented that if God doesn’t judge America, then the Lord will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.

A while ago the city of Chicago honored Hugh Hefner, a wicked pioneer of pornography, by naming a street after him. The United States produces much of the world’s pornography; God condemns it. Sex before marriage is taken for granted; God condemns it. Homosexuality is praised; God condemns it. Adultery and divorce are rampant; God condemns it. Sexual revolution against God leads to widespread abortion; God condemns it.

On an average weekday in the United States and Canada, about as many humans are killed in abortion clinics as were killed in the World Trade Center. What those terrorists did to thousands of people was awful. What our society does to millions of helpless babies is also awful. The Bible’s words are true of us: “They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters” (Psalm 106:38).

Many of us have loved our own luxury more than we’ve loved poor people in need. We have been “lovers of self, lovers of money… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2,4 RSV). After the terrorist attack of September 11, a media pundit praised America for putting the pursuit of happiness above all else. He boasted that the great thing about the United States is this: “We dare to think that there may not be a cause greater than yourself.” If that attitude is widespread, if most citizens worship self, the nation is living on borrowed time.

Sunday, the Lord’s day, is treated as a day for shopping, sports, or getting paid extra for working, rather than as a holy day of rest and worship. Newspapers and major internet portals feature horoscopes and other superstitions which God fiercely opposes, rather than biblical truth. We don’t take God seriously.

Some churches and preachers talk as though it doesn’t really matter whether you trust Jesus Christ as God and Savior. They talk as though all religions can be blended together, regardless of what those religions think of Jesus. Nothing provokes God more than when church leaders pretend that Jesus is optional and all roads lead to God. The Bible says, “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you” (Joshua 24:20). Christians must be kind to people of other religions, but we must not pretend any religion can do what Jesus does. We must trust and proclaim Jesus Christ as God and as the only way of eternal salvation. When that message is muted, the church is in trouble, and so is the nation.

We must learn from disaster. We must learn to confess these sins that are so widespread in our nation, along with other sins too numerous to mention. We must plead for God’s mercy.

This doesn’t mean we should blame the victims who died. Far from it! Some died as heroes, trying to save others. Some were committed Christians whose time had come to go home to heaven.

Also, we shouldn’t assume recent disasters occurred as God’s direct response to just one particular kind of sin in our nation. We must all take stock. We must lament sins of every kind in our nation, and repent the sins we ourselves commit, not just complain about the sins of others. Disaster can be God’s alarm clock to wake us up to our need for forgiveness and new life before it’s too late.

Repent or Perish

Jesus once commented on two tragic disasters. In one case, some people were stabbed and killed in the very act of worshiping at the temple. In another, a tower collapsed and killed a number people. Jesus did not single out individual victims for blame. He said those who died were no more sinful than anyone else. But he didn’t say, “These things just happen for no reason, and don’t try to learn any lesson from what happened. Instead, he said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:5).

Jesus then told a parable about a fig tree. For three years the owner expected fruit from the tree but didn’t find any. So he told an employee, “Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”

“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down” (Luke 13:7-9).

Each of us is given a limited time to repent. In that time, we must turn to Christ for salvation and bear good fruit by obeying God and doing his will. The Lord, in his mercy, may even extend the time. He may give still another chance. But at some point, time runs out. We run out of chances. If God doesn’t find the fruit he requires, unrepentant nations are cut down and destroyed, and unrepentant persons are cut down and thrown into the fire of hell.

Meanwhile, there is still time and opportunity. The Lord calls us to repentance and uses calamities to get our attention. From epidemics to storms and earthquakes, from wars to economic woes, God uses calamities to call nations to repent. If they do not repent, things keep getting worse. In the book of Amos, God said, “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” The Lord sent one disaster, then another, then another, to turn the people back to him.

The prophet Amos, who preached that message from God, was as popular as a skunk at a picnic. Amaziah, the head of Israel’s religious establishment at the time, complained, “The land cannot bear all his words,” and told Amos to shut up and get out (Amos 7:10,12). You might be tempted to respond the same way. But, please, don’t fight the truth. Listen to God. Repent of sin and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ for pardon and eternal life. Ask the Lord to forgive our nation’s sins and heal our land.

After the September 11 attacks, there was widespread interest in God. “God bless America” became a popular slogan. Churches were packed with people, including many who didn’t regularly go to church. I’ve talked with people expressing new interest in making God a part of their lives. And I’m glad about that. I’m glad people sense their need for God in such times. But now what? It’s not enough to sing, “God bless America.” Let’s also pray, “God, forgive America. God, change America.” God will not bless America or any other country if we ask for his blessing but don’t walk in his ways. If we want him to help us, we must trust and serve him.

Beyond Foggy Faith

Our desire for God must be deep and real, not just a temporary 911 call in a time of panic. It’s been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Almost everybody wants divine help when their life is in danger. But when the danger subsides, will the foxhole faith also vanish? In a crisis, many people pray and seek God. That’s good if it results in real and lasting change, if it leads to genuine faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the Bible. But God is insulted if people turn to him in crisis and then turn away again as soon as they feel safe.

The Bible records a beautiful statement of some people who faced calamity. They said, “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds… Let us acknowledge the Lord” (Hosea 6:1,3) Those are wonderful words, but words are worthless if they only express a passing feeling. God responded, “What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist” (Hosea 6:4). They spoke lovely words, but their desire for God was like fog that forms in the night but vanishes as soon as things get pleasant and sunny.

Let’s not have foggy faith. Foggy faith is vague: it seeks a mysterious higher power without clearly trusting Jesus Christ as the Bible reveals him. Foggy faith is temporary: it appears in gloomy times, then disappears in sunshine and good times. It rushes to church after a calamity, then returns to business as usual when the danger subsides.

May God give us genuine repentance and faith that endures far beyond the immediate crisis. If the forces of terror are driven back, if security and prosperity are restored, let’s never forget what we learned from disaster.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.