We need to see the bigger picture as we look around at what is happening to us:
In his 1983 Templeton Prize speech Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said this: “Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘We have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened’.”
There is a biblical background to such thoughts which I will turn to in a moment. But it must be pointed out that the Christian believes that what happens in life is not just the stuff of chance, or random actions in a meaningless and purposeless world. The Christian believes that there is a God, that he has plans and purposes for us in this world, and that he is actively involved in what happens here.
The Christian also believes that human beings have worth and value, that our choices are significant, and that all that occurs in life must be looked at through the larger lenses of morality and spirituality. In other words, we are much more than just the product of economic forces (as Marx believed), or sexual urges (as Freud believed), or our biology (as Darwin believed).
So we seek to understand what is happening around us from this broader biblical perspective. While we don’t have answers for every question as to why certain things are occurring, we do have the big picture general framework by which we seek to understand things that occur.
And when some big-time tragedy or crisis happens, be it a flood or a fire or an earthquake or some other natural disaster, or some human-caused event that takes place, such as a mass shooting, we seek to make sense of it. And non-Christians also seek to make sense of these things, as per their own particular worldviews – whatever they may be.
The believer sees the hand of God in the events of the world. Plenty of theological questions exist as to how things like God’s sovereignty and human responsibility can peacefully co-exist, but they do, as Scripture makes clear. We believe that our choices have consequences, but we also believe that God is working behind the scenes in various ways.
So we can first look at the immediate cause of an event. For example, what caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? Legend has it that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the barn, setting off the great conflagration. But then we also seek to understand the greater scheme of things – how God might be involved in such events, or what spiritual lessons might be learned, if any.
With all that in mind, let me offer some Old Testament texts which speak about ‘Why is all this happening to us?’ Versions of this question are found in various places. They have to do with major bouts of suffering and hardship that God’s people are undergoing, be it defeat from enemies or crop failures or famine, and so on. Let me briefly look at some of these texts.
Consider what we find in Deuteronomy 31:16-18 for example:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.
God told Solomon similar things in 1 Kings 9:6-9:
But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins. Everyone passing by it will be astonished and will hiss, and they will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord their God who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore the Lord has brought all this disaster on them.’
All this was part of the covenant God had made with Israel. The prophets had to often remind the people of this. Indeed, they are rightly referred to as ‘God’s covenant enforcers’. Jeremiah is a case in point. He often reminded the people why calamity had struck them or would strike them.
In Jeremiah 2:14-17 God speaks to the people through the prophet:
Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant?
Why then has he become a prey?
The lions have roared against him;
they have roared loudly.
They have made his land a waste;
his cities are in ruins, without inhabitant.
Moreover, the men of Memphis and Tahpanhes
have shaved the crown of your head.
Have you not brought this upon yourself
by forsaking the Lord your God,
when he led you in the way?
And in Jeremiah 16 we read about famine, sword, disease and death coming upon the people. As verses 10-13 explain:
And when you tell this people all these words, and they say to you, ‘Why has the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? What is the sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?’ then you shall say to them: ‘Because your fathers have forsaken me, declares the Lord, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law, and because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to me. Therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.’
One more passage, this from Jeremiah 40:1-3 in which even a pagan official could see what was happening:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord after Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard had let him go from Ramah, when he took him bound in chains along with all the captives of Jerusalem and Judah who were being exiled to Babylon. The captain of the guard took Jeremiah and said to him, “The Lord your God pronounced this disaster against this place. The Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said. Because you sinned against the Lord and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you.”
So in various ways God was communicating to the people what was happening all around them – and why. They were not left in the dark as to why things were working out the way they were. They had divine commentary on earthly events and occurrences.
Application for today
While biblical texts will have a primary interpretation, they can also have secondary application. But some care is needed when seeking to take Old Testament passages and apply them directly to today’s events. Thus before we make any application here, two main provisos must be kept in mind.
First, ancient Israel was in a unique relationship with Yahweh. As God’s chosen people, they enjoyed a special covenant relationship with God. And that covenant had strict conditions. As we read in places such as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28-29 there were blessings associated with obedience and curses for disobedience. Anyone reading these texts can see that the curses occupy around three times as much text space as the blessings.
And most of these blessings and curses were directly involved with a piece of real estate – the land that God had promised to them. If they lived in faithfulness and obedience, the land would be safe from enemies, it would be productive, and they would enjoy prosperity and long life. But for unfaithfulness and disobedience the opposite would happen.
But for Christians in New Testament times, our blessings are not tied up with the promised land, but with spiritual blessings, as texts like Ephesians 1:3 inform us. That is not to say that obedience and disobedience have no physical and earthly outcomes or consequences. But when an illness or disaster befalls us, it may or may not be part of God’s direct hand upon us.
And that leads to the second point. In the Old Testament the prophets could and did tell the people if and when some calamity was the direct move of God – eg., as punishment for their sin. We do not have the same divinely inspired and inerrant spokesmen for God today. But see much more detail on these matters here: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/01/03/misappropriating-old-testament-blessings-and-curses/
So where does that leave us? As mentioned, the believer seeks to see the bigger picture, which must include the spiritual dimension and moral realities. We are not materialists who believe that only matter matters. We are not naturalists who think only nature exists, and not the supernatural. We are not deists who think God created the world but no longer has anything to do with it.
The biblical Christian believes that God is both transcendent and immanent. He is the creator of all that exists, but he is also intimately involved in his creation. So we can rightly ask if and how God might be involved when things like plagues or tsunamis or wars or governmental collapse take place.
We may not have the direct and clear prophetic word as to why these things are happening today, but we do have some general biblical principles that we can draw upon, such as:
-God cares about nations as well as individuals.
-Righteousness (and unrighteousness) does have a bearing on national wellbeing.
-A people living in defiance of the living God cannot long thrive and survive.
-God does seek to get our attention in various ways, and can use natural occurrences and other things to do so.
-God takes sin and rebellion against him seriously, and will respond, either now or in the future.
So the next time you cry out and ask, ‘Why is all this happening to us?,’ you need to bear in mind that there is a God with whom we all have to do, and he may well be in the events of the day – or can use them – as he seeks to wake us up and get us to where we ought to be.