April 14, 2006

A Time for Silence

1510 page5 capast year’s devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast of the United States had the predictable effect of provoking religious commentators to rise up and proclaim that this was God’s judgment upon a wicked and depraved society; just another sign, as if we needed one, of the Lord’s imminent return.
Am I the only one who finds this kind of sensational finger-pointing trite and counterproductive? I mean, almost 2,000 years ago Jesus said, “I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20).  Every natural or man-made disaster since then only reinforces His statement. The disasters themselves don’t do any more than remind us that we need to be in a constant state of readiness for the Lord’s return.
But even more troubling is how people use these natural disasters to affirm God’s “obvious” visitation on the sins of the communities thus affected. New Orleans, like any large American city, had its share of vice, corruption, and immorality. But to say that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on its wickedness is to ignore the suffering endured by thousands not even remotely connected with the city and its sins.
For the past six months several of the Southwestern states have suffered through a drought almost without precedent. Wildfires, fueled by hundreds of acres of dry grass, trees, and shrubs, have caused great loss of life and property. Is this also a demonstration of God’s judgment? What about the forest fires that ravage the West nearly every summer?
1510 page5I understand why people want simple explanations to nature’s mysteries. It’s an attempt to make sense of the unexplainable. It’s why primitive, pagan cultures prayed to the rain god when they needed water for their crops, or why people worshipped the sun and celebrated the winter solstice or the spring or autumn equinox. It’s why people offered sacrifices to the river god, so it wouldn’t become angry and overflow its banks.
Simple explanations are for simple people. But Christians, who supposedly know God best, should realize that the issues in the struggle between good and evil are incredibly complex. Understanding that, they should resist the temptation to try to explain the mysteries of nature. It does no good for someone to meddle in things about which they know absolutely nothing.
In this complex and unpredictable world, we can count on being recipients of some cruel, unwelcome, and undeserved surprises. The longer we live, the more likely it is that we, or someone we know, will be afflicted with some dread, inoperable disease. There will be traffic accidents involving cars, trucks, buses, trains, airliners that will decimate families, even church or school groups. There will be natural disasters--hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes--that will destroy homes, schools, and churches. No rational person--Christian or not--should presume to say what God had in mind by such mysterious acts.
In the book of Job, after he sat patiently trying to make sense out of the calamity that had befallen him, after Job endured hours of finger-pointing and theologizing from his friends about his misfortune, God asked, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2).
Why is it so easy to cobble together a collection of half-baked explanations for the disasters that befall humanity? Why is it so hard to admit we don’t know why things happen?
Jesus said about the Father: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Translation: In this sad world, people don’t necessarily receive what they deserve. If we’re blessed, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re good. If we’re hammered by disaster or disease, we’re not necessarily evil.
Only God knows the mysteries of life on this planet. Once we learn to admit that our knowledge about His activity is imperfect at best, we will be less likely to embarrass ourselves with outlandish and unsubstantiated assertions.
As the wise man said, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent” (Prov. 17:28).
Stephen Chavez is the managing editor of the Adventist Review.