How Natural Disasters Can Strengthen Our Faith
by Pastor Paul J. Bern
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By now everyone knows about the disastrous mega-storm named Harvey and its aftermath. This has been without a doubt the worst natural disaster America has ever experienced, certainly in my lifetime. Not since Hurricane Sandy has the US seen flooding this disastrous. Only the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan several years ago was a still greater disaster, and to this day radioactive water continues to leak into the Pacific ocean from northeastern Japan, poisoning the planet! We were luckier this time than the victims of hurricane Sandy since the death toll from Harvey is about half of that of Sandy. Moreover, there were tens of thousands who died in the Japanese disaster before that. With a tidal wave of insurance claims by Japanese home owners and business owners that exceeded $100 billion USD, the triple disasters of an earthquake, a tsunami and the meltdown of 3 nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan is her worst disaster since World War Two. However, hurricane Harvey’s damage will easily cost 3-5 times as much to rebuild as the Japanese disaster.
Back in 2013, America had a series of tornadoes sweep across the mid-western and southern US from Alabama and Georgia all the way up to Ohio and Indiana, claiming 31 lives and causing many millions of dollars in damages. During times like these many wonder why God allows such disasters to occur. It seems to those lacking in faith that if God were the all-loving and all-powerful God that He allegedly is, then such disasters would never happen in the first place. I completely disagree with this idea, which from my vantage point is based on insufficient or incorrect teaching combined with misguided and/or dumbed-down secular education! God takes us through hard times and allows us to go through all kinds of trials and hardship – even persecution within supposedly “Christian” churches such as I have previously experienced – to build and strengthen our character and our minds, and to teach us to have resolve and great fortitude. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the early Roman church that “persecution builds character, and strong character builds hope, and hope builds patience.” And the apostle James wrote long ago, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1, verses 2-3) So, to go through hardship is to be in growth while engaging in personal enrichment. That is why, in times like these, so many people find comfort in their faith.
Whenever disasters like this occur, I go back to the Bible to the First Book of Kings. Elijah, in despair over the situation in Israel, runs to the desert and back to Mt. Sinai to find the God of the Revelation to Moses. “And lo, the Lord God passed by. There was a mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” To me, that is the key: the Lord was not in the earthquake in Japan. He wasn’t in Hurricane Sandy’s mighty winds, and wasn’t in the drenching of Harvey either, although it is easy to see why many would disagree. Natural disasters are usually acts of nature, but they can be acts of God, too. In fact, the Bible lists a fair number of examples, with the obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah being among the most prominent. But God cares about the eternal well-being of all people. Mother nature, on the other hand, is blind and an equal-opportunity destroyer. Where and when is God present in the hardest hit areas of the US mid-Atlantic and New England region today? Where is God in the leftover environmental and collateral damage of Fukushima? Where was He when those tornadoes leveled parts of Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia? ‘I want to know where God is in all this’, many have said this past week.
The answer to that question is, He is present in the courage and resolve of people to carry on their lives after these tragedies, and in the resilience of those whose lives have been destroyed who vow to rebuild, whose loved ones have been swept away and whose homes were destroyed. God is still present in the goodness, kindness and generosity from people all over the world who reach out and help strangers who live far from them, to contribute aid and to pray for them (hopefully a lot!). How can people do such things if God were not at work in them to lend a counterweight to the devastating burden of a natural disaster? He is present in the human empathy and compassion of the thousands of volunteers who are helping with the cleanup in the greater Houston area, not counting all the other places from western Louisiana west to Corpus Christi, where selfless people working without any expectation of compensation are currently laboring to help these most unfortunate people, the majority of whom are in dire straits.
For believers and non-believers alike, there is no satisfactory answer for why we suffer. Each person has to come to grips with that fact of life in their own way. It’s not as if some magic answer can be found within humanity. But the idea of God suffering along with us while possessing unfathomable sympathy and endless love for us all can be very helpful to say the least. Jesus followers like myself believe that God became human in the form of Jesus Christ, who suffered unimaginably extreme pain and then died on the cross, only to rise from the dead on the morning of the third day. At the moment of death, Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27: 46) Christians do not worship an aloof and impersonal God, but a God who understands what it means to suffer. People can relate more easily to a God who understands them, and whose suffering 2,000 years ago on the cross makes the trauma of any natural disaster seem like child’s play.
Where is God right now? God is right there in the midst of people who are grieving and sorrowful. In my own life, when I have felt great sorrow I have trusted that God is with me in this and that I’m not facing my struggles alone. Oftentimes people become much closer to Jesus in times of sorrow or tragedy. They find that they are able to meet Him in new ways. Why? Because when our defenses are down and we’re more vulnerable, God can open up our hearts more easily. It’s not that God gets closer to us, it’s that we become more open so that we are drawn closer to him.
These natural disasters have become the collective responsibility of all humankind to mobilize our compassion and resources to ease the pain of the people who have suffered. There are those who say such disasters are the result of the sins of those who were victims, while there are others who disagree. I don’t care to address that issue here except to say that America, from the leadership on down, is in so much sin that it collectively needs some serious repentance. There can be no doubt that the American Empire is in need of some restraint. By the same token, I want to be clear that none of the hurricane victims “deserved” these disasters because of anything they said or did. Rather, I see these kinds of tragedies as being part test and part rebuke from God.
I firmly believe that God tests those He loves, and these tragedies also serve as a reminder to the rest of us to remain grateful to God for all our blessings and be cognizant of the fact that we have a moral obligation to support those in need. These kinds of calamities should (hopefully) motivate more of us to act in positive ways. They should strengthen our faith in God and in his goodness, particularly when we see evidence of Him in the rebuilding efforts that are already underway, not to mention all the volunteers and donations that are pouring in. We attribute the things we don’t understand to God’s limitless wisdom and comfort ourselves that he is with us and he loves us, so there must be some meaning in what has happened, even if it is beyond our comprehension here at this time.
We are trained by life and by our faith in Christ that every suffering, whether big or small, brings us closer to God’s love, his mercy and forgiveness, even to the extent that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5: 3). So you can clearly see that those who are the most dispirited by these natural disasters and related misfortune will always wind up being the most blessed because of it. That’s how God works. These times of suffering give us an opportunity to demonstrate our generosity, patience and faith In doing so we become closer to God by our service to humanity. Every natural disaster we experience challenges us as God’s trustees on this Earth, showing us that we should continue to study and explore ways of safeguarding humankind from being subjected to this kind of devastation. It is the collective duty of all humankind to put resources into this and advance our understanding of how to respond to these disasters in a scientific way while constantly maintaining our Spiritual connections with Christ – while never letting go of either.
As we contemplate the great number of people who have suffered and died in these tragedies, we may feel very strongly that a part of ourselves has also died due to our family ties and interconnections. The word for this is ’empathy’. The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humanity, for all who worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Lord of the universe. The human species and the planet Earth are one body comprising one living environment. What happens to one part of humanity happens to the whole of humanity. Events such as these remind us of the temporary nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love God first by believing in Jesus and then to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died. We can live in such a way that they are continuing to live in us but more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, savoring every minute of life available to us on their behalf as well as our own. Anyone claiming to be a Christian, but who is unaffected by or laughs at the misfortune of others, is as phony as a 3 dollar bill, and deep down inside they know it too. We don’t have much time left. The second coming of Christ is likely imminent! When He returns, the first thing we will be asked has nothing to do with our religious beliefs. Jesus will first ask us, ‘What did you do for others, and how did you go about it?’. We will all be commanded to give an account of ourselves, how we lived our lives, and particularly how we treated others. Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, and that is perfectly applicable to natural disasters and how well we serve those victims.
I don’t believe God wanted any of these disasters to happen. I don’t think this was ever God’s intention at all. We know that there are going to be storms in life, and anyone believing otherwise is only fooling themselves. No matter what happens we need to keep our faith and trust in almighty God. And I want the people of Japan, the Texas coastal areas, and all the rest of the world to know that God hasn’t forgotten them, that God does care for them and that He most definitely loves them. We care and God cares, and we’re standing by you all. And we will use these experiences to practice that which strengthens us most, which is human compassion and empathy. As the human population continues to grow throughout most of the world, it is our responsibility as believers in Jesus to begin making sure that there is enough to go around for everybody by sharing our natural and human resources wisely. Taking care of disaster victims, or donating whatever one can spare if they are unable to be there in person, is a very good place to start.