I need to begin with a qualification: I’ve been embarrassed when some famous evangelical leaders (no, I’m not going to name names) have blamed people for the disaster they’ve suffered through. For example, I didn’t agree with blaming 9/11 on this sin or that or blaming the Haitian earthquake victims for the earthquake because they practiced Voodoo. We aren’t in a position to say why a particular disaster strikes a particular group.
Now, that being said, that doesn’t mean that disaster isn’t always a call to repentance. God certainly uses disaster, every disaster, that way. I’m just saying we shouldn’t pontificate as to specific reasons that a particular disaster strikes a particular people.
Consider Luke 13:1-5 where Jesus addresses the problem of suffering most clearly:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Here, then, we have an amazing parallel 9-11. Some are murdered and others are killed by a tower’s fall. I can’t do better than relate D. A. Carson’s insights about this passage1:
First, Jesus does not assume that those who suffered under Pilate, or those who were killed in the collapse of the tower, did not deserve their fate. Indeed, the fact that he can tell those contemporaries that unless they repent they too will perish shows that Jesus assumes that all death is in one way or another the result of sin, and therefore deserved.
Second, Jesus does insist that death by such means is no evidence whatsoever that those who suffer in this way are any more wicked than those who escape such a fate. The assumption seems to be that all deserve to die. If some die under a barbarous governor, and others in a tragic accident, it is not more than they deserve. But that does not mean that others deserve any less. Rather, the implication is that it is only God’s mercy that has kept them alive. There is certainly no moral superiority on their part.
Third, Jesus treats wars and natural disasters not as agenda items in a discussion of the mysterious ways of God, but as incentives to repentance. It is as if he is saying that God uses disaster as a megaphone to call attention to our guilt and destination, to the imminence of his righteous judgment if he sees no repentance. This is an argument developed at great length in Amos 4. Disaster is a call to repentance. Jesus might have added (as he does elsewhere) that peace and tranquility, which we do not deserve, show us God’s goodness and forbearance.
It is a mark of our lostness that we invert these two. We think we deserve the times of blessing and prosperity, and that the times of war and disaster are not only unfair but come perilously close to calling into question God’s goodness or his power—even, perhaps, his very existence. Jesus simply did not see it that way.
Bull’s-eye for Carson. Again and again in the Old Testament God uses disaster to encourage repentance. Rev. 16:8-11 says the Lord sends plagues, “but they refused to repent and glorify him.”
So when disaster strikes, let us not wring our hands over the mysterious ways of God but encourage everyone to reflect on their sinful and doomed state in hopes that some will escape the Final Disaster that awaits the ultimately unrepentant.
Jeremiah 5:3: “O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent.”
- D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 1990), 66-67. [↩]