As Japan braces itself for a possible further serious earthquake, and deals with the consequences of such massive devastation caused by the last one, not to mention the risk of a major nuclear incident, how should Christians respond? Please understand that none of this is intended to claim that we have all the answers to such a disaster. In fact, like Job’s friends’ initial response, often the best thing we can do is say absolutely nothing, and share people’s pain.
I write this article with many unanswered questions. But, unlike those who allow suffering to drive them away from God, I am convinced that only God makes sense of suffering. For if the Japanese who died really were just the random fruit of evolution, why should it matter to us if they died? But if each of them are made in the image of their creator, and lovingly crafted together in their mother’s womb, our inherent feeling that suffering is NOT welcome in this world makes perfect sense. God loves every human being, they are precious to him.
- We should not be surprised. We like to imagine that we are safe in the world. The truth is that, like what may well be tens of thousands of Japanese who have drowned, we will all die one day. Whenever that day comes, it will feel to us just as sudden, just as unwanted, and just as shocking. But despite our trying to pretend otherwise, we are not immortal, and there is no guarantee that we will live to a ripe old age (Hebrews 9:27).
- We should be humbled before the awesome power of “Nature,” which is actually the creation of a sovereign and awesome God whose power is greater than 10,000 tsunamis (Job 38:1-41). These scenes quite rightly should take our breath away, and make us realize how foolish our pride truly is. We came from the dust and will one day return to that same dust.
- We should not assume that the end is at hand. Yes, there do seem to be a lot of natural disasters lately. Yes, Jesus did predict such things. But he also told us not to be alarmed, and there have been many such natural disasters over the centuries. We do not know when Christ will return, but have a task to do in “speeding” his coming. (Mark 13:7-8, 2 Peter 3:12)
- We should not assume that the end is not at hand. A disaster like this should remind us that Jesus said he will come like a thief in the night when we are least expecting it. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-8)
- We should not specifically blame the Japanese. There is a tendency to quickly jump to judgment in some evangelical circles. Perhaps this is because we secretly believe that because of our so-called righteous living we have made a deal with God that will protect us in this world from early death and other disasters. If we can therefore persuade ourselves that the Japanese somehow brought this on themselves, our delusion remains intact. The Bible knows nothing of such thinking, at least in the vast majority of occasions. There are a few biblical situations where natural disasters were the specific judgment of God. But these were rare, and God always ensured people knew about it by a proclamation from his infallible prophets. What seems to be far more common is the idea that God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), and that accidents do not tell us that their victims were more sinful than us, but that we all deserve death just the same (Luke 13:1-5). See for example these two quotes:
“As I look for a moment upon the poor mangled bodies of those who have been so suddenly slain, my eyes find tears, but my heart does not boast, nor my lips accuse — far from me be the boastful cry, “God, I thank thee that I am not as these men are!” Nay, nay, nay, it is not the spirit of Christ, nor the spirit of Christianity. While we can thank God that we are preserved, yet we can say, “It is of thy mercy that we are not consumed,” and we must ascribe it to his grace, and to his grace alone. But we cannot suppose that there was any betterness in us, why we should be kept alive with death so near.” Charles H. Spurgeon, vol. 7, Sermon 408.
- We should not blame God, but we should pray. We believe in a Sovereign God. But we must not make him out to be the author of sin (James 1:13). God knew the earthquake was coming (Isaiah 46:9-10), could have stopped it and didn’t, and as per Romans 8:28 will work this out like everything else for his glory and for the good of those who love him. He will also use it to awaken fear in hearts, so that the gospel can then bring peace and salvation (Luke 13:1-5). But that is a very different thing from making God the pleased creator of this event. Some assume that choosing not to stop something is the same as initiating that event. I do not believe that is so. We must not curse God, or charge him with wrongdoing (Job 1:22). But we must pray and ask God to limit the pain these terrible events have caused, and to use them so that many might turn to him.
- We should understand that suffering is in the world because of sin in a general sense. Death entered the world because of human sin. (Romans 5:12) Because our forefather sinned, and because we go on sinning, the world has been subjected to a law of decay (Romans 8:20-24). We live in a fallen world. In a fallen world many things are broken and do not work as God intended them to originally. Thus humankind’s sin, rather than Japanese sin, is responsible for this disaster.
- We must not assume that the devil “won” this time. God was not asleep. Satan is indeed described as the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), and is therefore in some senses responsible for disasters. However, he does not have a free hand. He is prowling around seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). But, as in the case of Job, God is perfectly capable of preventing his actions, and does indeed put a limit on them. If Satan was free to do whatever he wanted in this world, we can rest assured there would be far more disaster than there is now. He is after all a murderer (John 8:44). We are right to be angry at the effects of all this death and destruction that he causes, but not right to ascribe to him more power than we ought! Anger is in short a natural response to such suffering, but should not be directed at God.
- We should look forward to the day when there will be no more pain. The very fact that suffering feels so wrong should point us to the fact it was not part of God’s original plan, nor is it part of his glorious fulfillment. One day there will be no more sea to destroy lives and separate loved ones. (Revelation 21:3-4). What a glorious day! We should long for it more and more as our TV sets bring such devastation into our living rooms.
- We should share the glorious gospel of Jesus that brings us hope and work to relieve suffering. The temporary nature of life should prompt us, if we have any compassion at all, to be looking for opportunities to talk about our Savior. In addition, and as a vital part of our outreach, some of us should consider giving to the specific relief funds being set up to help Japan. But all of us should look for ways to relieve suffering far from where we live, and also on our doorstep. We are called to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) and demonstrate the love of Jesus with the word of the gospel, and the deed of alleviating pain. We cannot and should not turn aside like the good priest, but instead should spend ourselves as the good Samaritan did, all the time pointing to the One who, with limitless resources, gave himself that we might all live.