David Jeremiah - Where Is God In This Pandemic?
In 2004, it was the Indian Ocean tsunami. 2005, we encountered Hurricane Katrina, and who can forget the earthquake in Haiti, 2010? More recently and more locally, we've witnessed the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the California wildfires in 2018, and the tornado in Nashville just a few weeks ago. Pandemics and natural calamities rage on our world, costing us countless billions of dollars and, more significantly, hundreds of thousands of lives.
These things raise many questions, questions about the nature of our security, about our fear of the uncontrollable and especially about the character of God. These questions need answers. But I'd like to open the discussion by telling you about a biblical character who experienced two natural disasters in the space of 24 hours. His name, of course, was Job. The first few verses of his book tell us everything we need to know about Job. He was a man of faith.
Job 1:1, says that "Job... was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil". Job was also a man who had a great fortune. The 3rd verse of the 1st chapter says, "Also his possessions were 7.000 sheep, 3.000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and a very large household, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the East".
You see, back in the days of Job, wealth was calculated in terms of land and animals and servants. Job had all three in abundance. He was the wealthiest man of his day. He was also a family man. The 1st chapter tells us that he raised sons and daughters, who were close-knit. They had great birthday feasts for each other, after which their father would make a burnt offering to God on their behalf. Faith and family came together for Job. Finally, Job had many friends. Some are famous for their role in this book, but there were, no doubt, many others as well.
One day, as Job was goin' through his daily routine, a messenger approached him with disturbing news. Sabean raiders have descended upon his estate, hijacked his cattle, killed his servants, and this messenger alone has survived to tell the story, yet even before he has finished his account, before Job has taken it all in, the door opens, and another messenger stands there, and he is pale. His eyes wide open as he whispers, "The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants". A third messenger brings news that the Chaldeans have raided and stolen his camels, killing the servants, and, yes, leaving one distressed messenger to bring a report.
Finally, while Job is trying to make sense out of all of this and form some kind of recovery plan, the last shoe drops. "While he was still speaking", says, Job 1:18 and 19, "another also came and said, 'Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are all dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you'".
Now, just stop for a moment and try to imagine taking in such news. He was a devoted man to his children, constantly bringing them before God, and for all of his intercession, they have died in one fell blow. He faces ten fresh graves and an aching silence from heaven. For many of us, what is happening to us right now is the closest thing we have ever been to Job and his trials. Interestingly enough, since scholars considered Job to be the oldest book in the Bible, we know that the problem of natural disasters has been with us for as long as man has walked upon the earth.
The Bible doesn't gloss over the tougher questions of life. We're invited to stand with Job in the cemetery, looking down at the ashes of his dreams, and to ask God, "Why"? And the first question that this story and natural calamities provokes is this: What do these recurring disasters tell us about God? Let me suggest, first of all, that natural disasters and the reality of God teach us that God cannot be divorced from disasters.
Now, some say that God should not even be included in the discussion of disasters like the coronavirus since he would have nothing to do with such evil. The explanation goes something like this: God created the world, but he's not involved in the operation of it. This philosophy is called "deism". It accepts the existence and goodness of God, but it distances God from anything that happens in the world he created. I think many Christians often adopt a sort of deism in an attempt to get God off the hook. It allows us to, sort of, affirm the goodness of God in the face of terrible evils, just by saying, "Well, it's not his fault. He created a good world, and he should not be blamed if it goes wrong".
Another way we extricate God from responsibility for disasters is to blame them all on Satan. But if you read the story of Job, you know you can't do that because Satan was not allowed to do anything without God's permission, and if Satan has to get permission from God to do what he does, then God is still in control and reigns in the affairs of men. And you know what? We all sense his control over disasters like this because, when things like this happen, what do we call them? We call them "acts of God".
So for us to say that God is not involved in these cataclysmic events is too simplistic to explain all the facts. Whether it's comfortable or not, we must discuss this issue with theological integrity. The Bible teaches us that God is sovereign, that he reigns in the nice moments and in those that are not so nice. Let's look at some of these reasons why disaster can exist in a world that God controls. First of all, as we study the Bible, we discover that God employs the elements of nature in the operation of the world. I mean, the Bible contains many passages refuting the idea that God set nature in motion and now lets it run as it will. These Scriptures present a hands-on God who was involved in controlling and sustaining all the events of the natural world.
In the book of Job, here's a passage that describes it. "For he says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth,' likewise to the gentle rain and the heavy rain of his strength". "By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen. Also with moisture he saturates the thick clouds. He scatters his bright clouds. And they swirl about, being turned by his guidance, that they may do whatever he commands on the face of the whole earth".
God employs the nature that we see in the operation of his world, but the second one is a little more difficult, yet it's nonetheless true. God also employs the elements of nature on an occasion in his opposition to evil. We know that by studying the Bible. Not only does God use the elements of nature to keep the world running, he also uses them as punishment to drive his people toward righteousness. For instance, early in the Bible, we find God sending a flood to destroy a sin-blackened world, sparing only Noah and his righteous family. Later, God sent judgment upon Dathan, Aviram, and Korah, who had rejected him, and the Bible says the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with all their goods. God sent fire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. He sent plagues to punish Egypt. He crafted a plague that killed 70.000 men because of David's sin in numbering the people. He sent a fierce storm to get Jonah's attention and bring him to repentance.
Now, I'm not saying that is what is happening to us now as a result of our wrongdoing and sin, but neither can we rule it out. When we distance God from responsibility for the calamities of the world, we are claiming more than we know, for, you see, if God is not in control of the world's disasters, then how can we depend on him to be in control of our lives and our future? Either God is involved in all the world's operations, or he's involved in none of them. So God cannot be divorced from disasters, but neither can God be discredited by disasters. Some people remove God from the equation entirely. For them, he just doesn't exist. We call them atheists. They argue that disasters are all the proof we need that there is no God.
C.S. Lewis, once an atheist himself, sees disasters, not as a proof against the existence of God, but as an actual proof of God's existence. "My argument", he wrote once, in one of his books, "against God, was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But", he reasoned, "how had I got this idea of just an unjust? A man cannot call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be a part of the show, find myself in violent reaction against it"?
"Thus", said C.S. Lewis, "in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist, in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless, I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality, namely my idea of justice, was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole of the universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. Just as if there were no light in the universe, therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning". One thing we often overlook is that massive deaths caused by disaster cannot discredit God any more than a single death can. We know who brought death into the world, and it wasn't God.
So God cannot be divorced from disasters. He cannot be discredited by disasters. Neither can he be defined by disasters. In the aftermath of every disaster that I have remembered, we often hear something like this: "I could never believe in a God who would allow such awful things to happen to his creatures".
Now, those who define God solely by the evil he allows, overlook the flip side of their complaint. Of course, there is evil in the world, but there's also an enormous amount of good. If God is not good as they claim, how do they account for all the good we experience? Is it fair to judge God for the evil and not credit him with the good? No, God cannot be divorced from disasters, cannot be discredited by them, and he cannot be defined by them, neither can God be defeated by them. When disasters happen, we are sometimes tempted to think that God's purposes have been thwarted. Maybe God isn't who we think he is.
So let's allow God to speak for himself on this subject. Here's a passage from Isaiah 46, that speaks loudly. These are the words of God: "For I am God. There is no other. I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure'". "Indeed I have spoken it. I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it. I will also do it".
One reason we fear disasters is that their occurrence makes it seem that God is not in control, that somehow things have slipped out of his grasp. At such times, we must remember that a single thread in the grand tapestry cannot comprehend the pattern of the whole. Our view is too limited to perceive any ultimate meaning in a calamity. How our present suffering fits into God's ultimate purpose, we are not able to discern, yet as Paul tells us, Romans 8:28, "We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose". Like every other part of this entangled subject, this verse is easy to confuse in its meaning.
James Montgomery Boice tells us Paul is not saying that evil things are good. The text does not teach that sickness and suffering and persecution and grief, or any other such thing is itself good. On the contrary, these things are evil. Hatred is not love. Death is not life. Grief is not joy. The world is filled with evil, but what the text teaches is that God uses these things to effect his own good ends for people. God brings good out of evil. God used the work by which Satan meant to destroy Job's faith. He used the awful reality of the crucifixion of a perfect Christ for wonderful purposes. In God's wise and powerful hands, evil events are used as tools to work toward good ends. When our pain leads us to see God is uninvolved in calamity, powerless to control it, or defeated by it, we saw off the limb that supports us, and we plunge into fear, and this leaves us without hope, for an all-powerful God is our only solace in tragic times.
So now let us take a moment and look at the ways in which experiences like the ones we are going through right now can actually bless us. First of all, natural disasters bring responsibility to man. In the midst of pain and grief, it's hard to realize that disasters can bring vital benefits. Here's the first one: Disasters teach us to repent of our sin. Almost all the disasters and tragedies that have befallen our nation in the last several years, have incited some pundit to declare the tragedy a particular judgment for a particular sin that had been committed in the immediate context of the disaster.
I remember when the AIDS epidemic started, some pundits, some of them preachers, came out and said that AIDS was a punishment, and then they would talk about some particular thing that God was punishing. The truth is, we don't know all the mysteries of God's heart, and we are foolish when we assume to know something we cannot possibly know. Here's a good illustration of that from the teaching of Jesus.
In Luke's gospel, Jesus warns against playing the armchair prophet. Pilate had murdered some Galileans, and others had been killed when a tower fell at Siloam, and when asked about it, Jesus said, in Luke chapter 13, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those 18 on which the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish".
Jesus was reminding us that, in our fallen world, disasters happen, and they happen, both evil and righteous people, without distinction or explanation. It's not up to us to label this one as misfortune or that one as God's judgment, but simply as Jesus pointed out, to ponder the sin in our own hearts. God uses disasters and tragedies to accomplish his perfect will in us and through us and sometimes to bring us to himself in the first place. So disasters teach us to repent of our sin, and they also teach us to reflect on God's goodness.
When I watch reports of natural disasters as they are instantaneously delivered to us through the media, my first thoughts are for the many lives lost and the many families that have been torn apart. I have also experienced a sense of gratitude that my family and the people I know were not touched by these events. I used to feel guilty about this in the same way I felt guilty about the people who got cancer at the same time I did, but did not survive as I did. But I have since come to understand that it is proper to be grateful that I have been saved, even while I mourn for those who have been lost.
God's blessings abound. They are the norm, and it's proper to be grateful for them at all times, regardless of surrounding circumstances. Disasters teach us to repent of our sin. They teach us to reflect on God's goodness, and disasters teach us to respond to the hurting. In the past couple of weeks, countless stories have emerged about the ordinary and extraordinary ways people have responded to the hurting during this pandemic. Disasters perform a painful surgery in our inmost parts, but Jesus's hand is tender and sure, and he wants to make us better and stronger and more capable of ministry in a world of broken hearts.
As we minister to our own pain and the pain of those around us, we take on a growing resemblance of the Savior, who healed pain everywhere he encountered it. So disasters teach us to repent of our sin. Disasters teach us to reflect on God's goodness, to respond to the hurting, and disasters teach us to remember God's promise.
Did you know that God has given us a spectacular all-encompassing promise that provides the ultimate cure for our fear of disaster? Here it is from the book of Revelation: "And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away".
Disasters remind us that God doesn't intend for this fallen earth, with its death, disaster, and corruption, to be our permanent home. The old spiritual says it this way: This world is not my home. I'm just a passin' through. Finally, disasters not only teach us to repent of our sin and to reflect on God's goodness and to respond to the hurting, and to remember God's promise, disasters teach us to rely on God's presence and his power. We began this message by looking into the terrible experience of a man named Job, so it's fitting that we return to his life again to discover how the tragic events of his life fully played themselves out. Job experiences severe depression as he struggles to deal with his losses, but soon he finds within himself a powerful, trusting commitment to God.
In Job 13:15, he says, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him". By the grace of God, Job managed to maintain his strong faith and reliance on God, certain that something better was in store for him. In the 19th chapter, he said these words: "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and he shall stand at last on the earth, and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me". Finally, God speaks to Job and his friends, but instead of explaining his ways, he proclaims his almighty power and puts to shame their bumbling attempts to explain suffering.
On hearing the voice of God, Job humbles himself and repents of his questioning of God. In the 42nd or last chapter of the book, he says, "I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes". If the God of heaven and earth, who is mightier than all the world's armies, who can cause the earth to melt into the sea, is not Lord of your crisis, you're in deep trouble, and so am I. I'm here to tell you that God is sufficient. He is in control. He holds the destiny of the galaxies in his hands, all the while knowing the precise number of hairs on your head and mine. Above all else, he loves you, and he chose to pour that love out, not in words, but in blood.
Is he enough for you? Have you found God to be sufficient in this time of trial through which you are going? Do you have a relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ? Has there ever been a time in your life where you have said to God in prayer, "God, I need you. I want you in my life. I am not capable of dealing with the things that are happening today. I need Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior"?
Did you know that through a simple prayer that you can make in your heart right where you are, Jesus Christ will come to live within your heart? And he will bring with him the comfort and encouragement that he alone can provide, and you will discover, when you invite him into your life and receive his forgiveness for your sin, that he is indeed enough. He's enough for your sin. He's enough for your pain. He's enough for your suffering. He's enough for your worry. He's enough for all the concerns you have during this particular time.