The broad issue of God and his providential rule over his creation is a major theological topic. And with yet another national disaster occurring – cyclone Yasi in Queensland – even more questions arise as to God’s relationship to the created order. This latest disaster will again push thinking Christians into asking some hard questions.
The good news is that at the time of this writing, the cyclone has been a lot less destructive than first predicted. So far no lives have been lost, and no one has been injured. This is amazing. Of course plenty of trees are down, and many roofs have been ripped off buildings, but thankfully the damage has so far been much less than imagined. And of course many prayers went up for exactly such an outcome.
A big part of this discussion has to do with what theologians refer to as the providence of God. Just how exactly does God relate to the world that he created? Before looking at some biblical considerations on this topic, let me first mention – and reject – some wrong (unbiblical) answers.
Atheism of course rejects the very notion of God or anything beyond the material world. So when a disaster strikes, all the atheist can say is, “crap happens – get used to it”. Pantheism, a product mainly of Eastern religious traditions, argues that everything is God, so the idea of a God outside of and distinct from the world – and its disasters – is foreign to this worldview.
Deism says that God exists, and that God is distinct from his creation. So far so good. But it ends there. According to this view, God has no direct, personal concern for, or interaction with, this world. He is more or less an absentee landlord.
But the biblical view differs from all three. It states that God exists, he created the world, and he has a close, even personal, relationship with it. God’s providence refers to his sustaining, preserving and supporting hand over what he created.
The term providence literally means foresight or making provision beforehand. Thus it means that God looks ahead and makes provision for his goals, and that he accomplishes what he sets out to do. Creation is the initial act of God whereby he brings something into being out of nothing. Providence is his continuing relationship to the created order.
What we call the “laws of nature” would be the way God mainly governs his world. In one sense, they are simple cause and effect relationships which he built into the world. But there are numerous Scriptures which speak of God being far more involved in this world than simply by means of remote and impersonal laws.
Providence applies to nature, to individuals, to nations, and to all aspects of life. Providence means God is present and active in our lives. God is personally involved in countless aspects of human life and the world around us. The world is not ruled by chance or fate, but by a personal God intimately involved in it.
It should be mentioned that providence is to be distinguished from miracles. Some call miracles special providences. Others speak of ordinary and extraordinary providences. As mentioned, providence is God’s sustaining hand over what he created in the first place. In one sense his providential activity is seen in and through nature all the time, as he works out his purposes and achieves his aims. God is in charge of nature and of history.
Providential events are often those where God uses natural means to achieve his purposes. Much answered prayer for example, or unusual occurrences, can be providential activities. For example, many viewed the fog at Normandy which concealed the allied assault on Nazi-held France on D-day as being more than mere coincidence, but as being providential.
Viewed this way, miracles are cases of special providence, where the normal ordering of natural affairs is set aside for a particular purpose. They entail supernatural interference with nature or the course of events. They are the special acts of God that interrupt the normal flow of events. They are events in which God temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things.
They are not necessarily a violation of natural laws, but an interference, or suspension, or a bypassing, or a setting aside, of them. Thus natural laws describe what happens normally or regularly by natural causes, whereas miracles are what happen much more rarely by direct supernatural means.
This is only a broad-brush commentary on what are quite complex and nuanced issues. But whether we speak of a more general providence, or a more specific miracle, both presuppose a personal God who is personally involved with and concerned about the affairs of men and what takes place on planet earth.
So how does all this tie into the recent cyclone? Biblical Christians would have to reject the deistic view that God is remote and uninvolved in our world. Instead, they believe that God is actively concerned about it, and relates and responds to us in very real ways, including by means of answered prayers.
As mentioned, much prayer was offered before cyclone Yasi landed. Was its relatively less destructive power due to answered prayer, or just the way nature panned out? Believers can say both. This is not the place to discuss prayer in detail, but the Bible makes it clear that prayer changes things, although not always in ways that we understand.
But what about bigger questions such as whether such disasters are the judgment of God? Some Christian voices are making these claims. Others strenuously reject them. For example, one evangelical Christian wrote this recently about the Queensland floods: “While the Bible clearly indicates that God can influence the weather, we can safely say that these floods are not an ‘act of God’ but rather part of living in a land where weather extremes predictably occur.”
But my question is this: how can he categorically and with such supreme confidence claim this was not an act of God? Did God specifically tell him this? Does he have direct access to the mind of God that other believers do not have? Why this absolute certainty?
So am I saying that the floods were a direct act of God? No. I am simply saying that a categorical affirmation or denial of such a claim may well lie beyond us. As I wrote recently on the flood crisis, we often lack a certain word from above on these matters: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/01/11/tragedy-judgment-grace/
But based on our discussion about providence, all biblical Christians must reject the idea that God has absolutely no involvement with planet earth, including its dangerous weather patterns and disastrous episodes. But of course trying to understand the ‘why’ questions are even more difficult.
That God loves us enough not to leave us in our own sin is clear enough from Scripture. And it is not unbiblical to state that God can and will use hardships and disasters to get our attention and to bring us closer to himself. The picture of God as a loving father who chastises his people for their own good is a common biblical theme, as found for example in Hebrews 12:1-13.
And the fact that God can use the forces of nature to accomplish his purposes, even as an expression of his wrath, is also found throughout Scripture. For example, Psalm 18:7 speaks of how the earth shakes and the hills tremble because of his wrath.
Isaiah 29:6 speaks about how Israel will be punished by “thunder and earthquake,” and by “storm and tempest”. In Isaiah 28:17 Yahweh is said to punish the lies of his people by floods and hail. But it is not just his own people that he chastises and judges. He even does so with pagan nations.
In Jeremiah 50:35-40 for example, he speaks of how he will judge Babylon. He will use a devastating drought to punish them for their rampant idolatry. Or in Jeremiah 48 we read about how God judged Moab, with his wrath taking the form of crop failure by means of drought (vv. 32-34).
From a naturalistic point of view, this failure of the crops was simply due to pre-existing weather patterns. But this is not the whole picture. God is pulling the strings behind nature to accomplish his purposes. There are natural explanations for what happens in the world, but there are also supernatural explanations as well.
In sum, I do not have a prophetic word to say if the latest Queensland troubles were a direct and specific action of God, whether for judgment, or chastisement, or some other reason. But that does not rule out the possibility that such might be the case.
As with all such disasters, we will often not get answers to our questions about why this happened. But the wise person will allow such crises to cause him to think more carefully about life, its shortness and its meaning. And as always, believers can be there at the ready, offering practical demonstrations of love in action as they help those affected by these disasters.