Dealing with disaster
It seems to happen every month: somewhere in our world, tragedy strikes and hundreds - if not thousands or millions - of people find their lives suddenly turned upside down. Right now it is in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, perhaps the strongest storm ever measured. Earlier this year it was tornadoes in Oklahoma and a fertilizer plant exploding in Texas. In addition, there are the man-made tragedies such as the Boston Marathon Bombing or the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting.
When these tragedies occur, what is a Biblical way to respond? For those of us who believe in God, how should we think about these calamities? Here are a few suggestions:
1) Romans 12:5 says that we should "weep with those who weep." -- Our first response should be an outpouring of compassion and grief. -- We should both feel and express empathy with those most hurt by evil and loss. When we see a news report of a natural disaster on the opposite side of the globe and we shake our heads and say "Those poor people" that is an entirely appropriate response. It is a recognition of our shared humanity and our heartache over the world's brokenness.
2) We should pray. Sometimes it seems that all we can do is pray, but that is certainly not the least we can do. There are few things more powerful or helpful than the concentrated prayers of the faithful on behalf of those who are hurting. Pray Psalm 57:1 for those who are affected by calamity: "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed."
3) We should help. In Matthew 25:40-45 Jesus says that whenever we help "the least of these" we are in fact helping Him. When we are close enough to help directly, we should. Helping to clean up downed trees, volunteering to rebuild a house, or just giving a hug. When we are not close enough to help directly, we can give. Organizations like the Red Cross, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, World Relief and others are well-practiced at responding to disaster efficiently and can translate your dollars into tangible help.
4) Tragedy should also remind us of our own vulnerability. In Luke 13:1-5, when Jesus heard about a pair of tragedies (a massacre of Jewish worshippers in the temple carried out by Roman soldiers and eighteen people crushed by a falling tower) He refused to get into a debate over whether they were worse sinners than anyone else. Instead, He reminds us that we could all die at any moment, and the important thing is that we get right with God so that a fate worse than death will not overtake us.
5) We should also remember that God is sovereign over everything that happens, including these tragedies. In Isaiah 45:7 God says "I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things." This is a hard pill for some people to swallow. We'd rather not think that a good God would somehow plan, or at least allow, thousands of people to lose their lives in terrible flooding or at the hands of a homicidal madman. And yet, what is the alternative? To believe that God was too weak to stop such things from happening? No. Biblical faith believes that God is in control of all things. To quote theologian R.C. Sproul: "There are no maverick molecules."
6) At the same time, belief in God's sovereignty should help us to trust God for His ability to do the humanly impossible and somehow bring good out of the midst of tragedy. Romans 8:28 says that God is able to make all things work together for good for those who love Him. Certainly, the greatest example of this is the crucifixion of Jesus. In the greatest crime in history God's own Son was beaten and killed, and yet God used that tragedy to purchase the salvation of millions of people and defeat the power of death.
Tragedy is a regular part of the broken world we live in. But it need not cause us to lose our faith in God.