This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which devastated Mississippi and Louisiana. Many people’s lives even a decade later still haven’t gone back to normal; because of the loss of loved ones in the storm some people’s lives will never go back to “normal”. In insurance lingo, natural disasters like Katrina are referred to as “acts of God”. In what sense is it right to blame God for things like Katrina and other hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis that afflict our earth?
First of all, as R.C. Sproul has explained, there are at least two ways of speaking of God’s will. In one sense, because God is sovereign nothing can happen outside his will, meaning that nothing occurs that God doesn’t in some sense permit. We mustn’t think of natural disasters as something God attempts to prevent and yet somehow fails. In another sense, because the world as we know exists in a fallen state, it is plagued with sickness, death, natural disasters, and none of these things, strictly speaking, are God’s will. God doesn’t want the world to be fallen; sin and death were never part of God’s plan for the human race. However, the earth has been cursed because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God and God permits the consequences of that rebellion to infect the world at present. The world exists because of God’s sovereign will–when God said, “Let there be light”, the light couldn’t have refused to shine. The world is fallen because of God’s permissive will–the human race rebelled and although God permitted this, it isn’t pleasing to him.
Why is this distinction important? When going through tragedies, some well-meaning people offer condolences by saying, “It’s God’s will.” While this may technically be true in some sense, it is insensitive and counterproductive to say this. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus prayed that the cup of his suffering and death would pass from him. “Nevertheless,” he said, “not my will but Thine be done.” That being crucified was part of God’s will for him Christ akcnowledged, but that didn’t make his situation any easier. Hastily telling someone who’s grieving the loss of her loved one that it’s okay because it’s “God’s will” is liable to make a person develop a bitter attitude towards God. If God is someone who inflicts such horror on us, can he really be trusted?
The fact that something is God’s will doesn’t, humanly speaking, mean that it’s going to be endurable. We mustn’t give people “proverbs of ashes”, to use Job’s phrase, by giving them false comfort. We should be cautious about using what Paul says in Romans 8:28 on someone going through hell. While it’s true that all things work together for good for those who love God, this is true in an ultimate, eternal sense, not in a sense that is necessarily comforting in the here and now. It’s simply wrong to assume that, in this life, you’ll be guaranteed to understand how tragedies work out for your ultimate good. This is something that can only fully be understood in the next life.
As Christians, we believe that the universe is not governed by chance or blind forces. The universe, governed by an all good, all just God will eventually be set right. Everything that is wrong–everything without exception–will be made right. Life would be unlivable if we didn’t believe redemption would eventually come. However, even for Christians who believe that in the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” (to use Lady Julian of Norwich’s phrase), life is sometimes only barely livable. In Ecclesiates, Solomon said life under the sun is “vanity of vanities”–a description of people’s common human experience, Christian and non-Christian alike.
As we think of the storm that devastated this area a decade ago, let us be sensitive to people for whom life is still unsettled because of Katrina. Let us refrain from platitudes. Let us not fault people if life has left them bitter. Let us never use “God’s will” as a hammer to beat people in to a state of cheerfulness. Jesus certainly never did that. Let us, like Christ, have empathy.