Natural Disaster: God's Sovereignty and Grace, Part I
"It came on Mississippi like a ton of bricks," said Gov. Haley Barbour. The same is true in regard to Alabama and Louisiana with reference to Hurricane Katrina. The disaster is perhaps the worst of its kind in United States history. "The New York Times" reported that "Chaos gripped New Orleans on Wednesday as looters ran wild, food and water supplies dwindled, bodies floated in the floodwaters, the evacuation of the Superdome began and officials said there was no choice but to abandon the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps for months. President Bush pledged vast assistance, but acknowledged, 'This recovery will take years.'"
Having lived in New Orleans for a time, I have friends in all three of the affected states as many of you do. That small circle of friends is but a representative microcosm of the people as a whole in that a loved one has perished, others have not been heard from, many have lost their homes, and others are not out of harm's way yet. Those who got out don’t know what to expect when they return. For now, they are refugees.
As far as New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is concerned, my home for a number of years as a student, like the city, it is now under water. A friend and professor when I was there, now President of the Seminary, Chuck Kelley said to Baptist Press by phone from a hotel room in Birmingham Alabama, "Pray for the circumstances of our seminary family. They're all over the southeastern United States. Virtually all of us on campus now are homeless. My wife and I have what we can put in our car in an hour, and that's it. We're all homeless."
The future for the city is yet uncertain. Again, the "Times" reported "...to the rising toll of victims killed, injured or homeless and jobless were added other plagues: possible epidemics of disease; overwhelmed hospitals and sanitation facilities, lost communications and transportation systems and almost everywhere hellish scenes of wreckage-strewn communities...The bulk of the city's refugees were in or around the Superdome, which [had] become a shelter of last resort for more than 20,000 people. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana said conditions there had become desperate, with food, water and other supplies running out, with toilets overflowing and the air foul, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees and tempers flaring. [It became] untenable,' the governor said. 'There's no power. [It was] difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials.'"
Individual stories are heart wrenching. Harvey Jackson, of Bilozi Mississippi, told CNN he believed his wife was killed. They were in the rising waters after their home had been destroyed and she simply slipped away. A broken man, Jackson said through tears, "She told me, 'You can't hold me,...take care of the kids and the grandkids.'"
The Superdome has now been evacuated, finally. Relief is coming and the people of New Orleans may be catching a glimmer of hope, though many are still stranded and the death toll is sure to floor us. It will take years to dig out of this one. At the same time, these horrific scenes lead us to ask a number of questions. What does it all mean? What is the purpose? Where was God when Katrina made landfall? What can we say about this disaster as well as others from a biblical perspective?
The first thing we can say is that God is absolutely sovereign over all things including Katrina and the heart wrenching devastation left in her wake. Consider the words of the prophet Amos: "If a trumpet is blown in a city, will not the people be afraid? If there is calamity in a city, will not the LORD have done it (Amos 3:6)?" The prophet refers here to a trumpet of warning. There is no doubt the Lord of all creation has many purposes in mind with a calamity of this nature and magnitude. At least part of what He intends is that people would fear Him that they might get a sense of their own lost and helpless condition in order that in turn they might fly to Christ and be saved.
At the same time, Amos affirms that if there is calamity in a city, it is the Lord who has done it. This simple truth may shock the sensibilities of some, but who would want to worship a God who is not sovereign? God’s sovereignty does not negate His goodness and grace. His sovereignty is simply a fact. He governs all things, including hurricanes named Katrina. The prophet Isaiah agrees with Amos and could not be more clear when he quotes God Himself: "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things (Isa. 45:7)."
Of course, this discussion raises the issue of why New Orleans was hit and not somewhere else. We must affirm that New Orleans (and Biloxi and Gulfport, etc.) were hit as the result of God's sovereign providence and choice. While many would point to the wickedness of the city of New Orleans (more on that in terms of temporal judgment in a future installment), our Lord has some interesting and sobering words for those who would point to that dynamic apart from other purposes that God may have in mind: "There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that 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 (Lk. 13:1-4).'"
The point is that while New Orleans is indeed a wicked city, all cities are wicked and exalt themselves in one way or another against God. Whatever the Lord has in mind is largely unrevealed. Yet, He certainly could have chosen New York, San Francisco, or Pleasant Grove, depending upon what the full extent of His purpose is in this tragedy.
Further, surely we see a measure of God's common grace on display in God's sovereign choosing of New Orleans. While the destruction is pervasive, the city has not been destroyed beyond repair. While some speak of abandoning the site, others have now resolved to rebuild New Orleans for the glory of the grand old city. God could have completely destroyed that resolve and everyone in the place for that matter, but He did not. He graciously withheld the full force of His wrath. God in His sovereignty and grace spared the city to live again another day.
Looters and rapists in New Orleans certainly give us a glimpse into the heart of man apart from Christ. If ever a doctrine was clearly on display, it is the doctrine of man's total depravity. Of course, total depravity does not mean that human beings are as sinful as they can be. It simply means that every aspect of the individual has been affected by sin including his thoughts, desires, words, actions, etc. We must of course then affirm that the only reason man is not as sinful as he can be is the common and restraining grace of God. God's grace is on display in that not all of New Orleans' lost population resorted to raping, looting, or shooting. God is sovereign in terms of how much restraining grace He dispenses to each individual. This truth does not negate the responsibility and free moral agency (free choice) of man. It simply affirms the truth that left to himself, man would be much worse than he is. God in His sovereignty and grace restrains evil men from being abandoned to their own evil desires.
Of course, the real question is not, "Why was New Orleans hit with such a devastating storm." The real question is, "Why are not more storms hitting more places with more frequency and ferocity in light of the sinful condition of human beings?" "Why were New York, San Francisco, and Pleasant Grove spared?" They were spared because of God's sovereign grace. God did not spare Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, God did not spare the world in the days of Noah. Yet, God is His sovereignty and grace has spared us though we don't deserve such.
Moreover, just how gracious is a God who would put His glory on display for a predominantly lost world to enjoy? Being from South Carolina, I or even many who don't know Christ could be at any number of beaches on the East Coast in a matter of hours, soak up the sunshine, and see the beauty of God's creative handiwork without the fear of a hurricane. Why does God allow that? Why does God bring calamity to New Orleans and leave Myrtle Beach alone for now? The answer, of course, is sovereign grace. God in His sovereignty and grace gave many people a day at the beach, even today. When thousands of beach combers and sun bathers should have been gathered with the people of God on this Lord's day (yesterday) for the express purpose of worshipping God, He allowed them to enjoy the beach with no consequence. God in His sovereignty and grace has given them another day of life, and perhaps, another day at the beach.
May those of us who were spared Katrina's (God's) wrath cry out to the Lord for His mercy on the hurricane victims. But, not before we cry out in thanksgiving to God for sparing our lives one more day that we might find our refuge in Him and nothing else.
[Part Two Tomorrow]