THE gentle sea suddenly changed character, and in a fit of madness, became a monstrous hand that snatched thousands away in its deadly grasp. It left behind a scene of death and devastation that has haunted the world with terrible images of bloated, rigid, decaying bodies strewn along beaches and among endless miles of debris.
The media brought into our homes the sounds of wailing parents carrying their dead children in their helpless and tired hands.
The world stood still, dumb-stricken for a moment, as the magnitude of this tragedy sank home. Then a global chorus of support for the victims produced massive relief efforts, from big organisations to ordinary individuals living in far-away towns. It was as if the tremendous and unprecedented worldwide response was a determined challenge against the uncertain and cruel ways of nature. The best of human nature and compassion swept like a healing wave across the world, encouraging and inspiring many. Unfolding stories of unusual human courage, resilience and volunteerism warmed our hearts.
Amid responses to help the victims were difficult questions. What was God doing when the tsunami did its destructive work? Is He not powerful enough to have done something? Is He not loving enough to have saved the thousands of children who died in the disaster? Was this disaster a punishment from God, as some have suggested?
It is quite common for people to think that those who suffer on earth are being punished for sins they have committed. Bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. However, the book of Job challenges such notions. Bad things can happen to a good man. Wicked people can enjoy good times (Ps. 73:2-12).
The reality is more complex than is popularly understood and we must not jump into hasty and mistaken judgements.
Why do disasters happen? It is easier to explain things if it involves human sin and wickedness such as war and genocide. But when it involves natural disasters, it is more difficult. In such instances, we turn to God and expect Him to explain Himself, for does He not control nature?
In the biblical account of creation, we have the story of the beginning of sin and human suffering. God told Adam and Eve that on the day they disobeyed Him and turned away from Him, they “will surely die” (Gen. 2:17).
Tragically they sinned, and as a result death and suffering have become part of the human condition. Even the ground (nature) was cursed (Gen 3:17). No surprise then that Paul wrote that “the whole creation has been groaning”. (Rom. 8:22).
DON’T JUMP INTO MISTAKEN JUDGEMENTS
‘It is quite common for people to think that those who suffer on earth are being punished for sins they have committed. Bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. However, the book of Job challenges such notions. Bad things can happen to a good man. Wicked people can enjoy good times (Ps. 73:2-12). The reality is more complex than is popularly understood and we must not jump into hasty and mistaken judgements.’
We all know that human beings have also been groaning (Rom. 8:23). What is amazing is that God is also described as groaning with us and with disturbed nature (Rom. 8:26). This reveals to us a God who is with us in our tragedies and who has plans to liberate creation and bring freedom to human beings.
When we experience disasters and tragedies, we must remember that we live in a tragic and disturbed world infected with sin. It is not helpful to extrapolate this general truth and turn it into direct judgement of people who suffer tragedies. Final judgement belongs to God and we each must give an account of ourselves to Him. There will come a time when all shall be revealed and everything set right with God’s perfect justice. But on this earth, personal suffering cannot be seen as specific judgment on specific sins.
When Jesus was informed about what must have been the “breaking news” in His days – that some Galileans were cruelly executed by the Romans, He asked, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” (Lk 13:1-5). His answer was an emphatic “No!” His straightforward sermon was: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus also referred to a “natural” disaster – when the tower in Siloam fell, 18 were killed. Again Jesus said, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.” Disasters are times for us not to judge others but to judge our own hearts. We are called to examine our ways and to repent.
But repentance does not come easily. In Rev. 9:18 we read of a global calamity that will wipe out one third of the world’s population, far larger than the death toll of the Asian tsunami. The scenes of such a calamity are difficult to imagine; the world would be devastated, paralysed and drained of all hope.
The sobering fact is that in spite of this, the rest of mankind would still not repent (Rev. 9:20). Repentance does not come easily; such is the human heart. One of the great challenges for us in disasters like this one is to repent, both from our personal sinfulness as well as from our collective sins. It is the greed and injustice of sinful human beings and their general indifference that have contributed to the kind of inequality and poverty that produces fragile and flimsy housing that is no match for the rage of a tsunami.
But repentance is difficult to come by. We must change our ways, both in our hearts and in our world. We must repent and return to God.
Besides repentance, the other great challenge is to respond compassionately. In fact, repentance will be the bedrock of real and lasting compassion. If not, even our compassionate responses can be tainted with less than noble intentions. Dr Ajith Fernando, who is overseeing relief efforts in Sri Lanka, has written a helpful article entitled “Disciplines for Emergency Workers.” Among other useful advice, he warns that “we can publicise our work just so that people will be impressed by us”. Our attempts to help victims can degenerate into competition, self-promotion and public-relation exercises.
In the exhilaration of media spotlights, what Jesus said goes against the grain:
“when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets … do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing … ” (Mt. 6:1-4). Of course, in that Sermon, Jesus also said, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”. (Mt. 5:16). I believe these are not contradictory statements. One speaks about our attitudes when doing good. The other speaks about the results. If we do good with our eyes on the audience, we would have failed. But if we do good with our eyes on the victims, the world would notice.
Compassion can also fade away quickly. Part of the reason for the outpouring of global support is the extensive media coverage of the disaster. Soon the event will fade quickly from the attention of the world. The challenge is to make our compassion last and to extend it to other areas of human suffering. The lack of media spotlights on millions dying of deadly diseases, violence and poverty in this world leaves them largely ignored or forgotten.
Writing one week after the tsunami disaster, Johann Christoph Arnold’s sobering words should make us think more deeply and act more compassionately and consistently:
“We do not need to weep for those who have died. We need to weep and pray and take action for all those who remain alive, for the millions who are suffering hunger and thirst, and facing diseases such as cholera and malaria. And meanwhile, we ought to ask ourselves how much time we are still spending considering the meaning of this incomprehensible disaster.
“Only a week has gone by. But how many of us have already returned to petty pursuits like hunting for post-Christmas bargains at the mall? Even on the news, this event is beginning to fade — it’s back to Janet Jackson. We care so little about the rest of the human race. Nothing matters as long as it isn’t us. Yet it could be us next time; it is an eleventh-hour warning. How many of us take that to heart?”
In a disaster like this, our challenge is to repent and to act with wide and lasting compassion. Our eyes should be on Christ and His cross. There we see a God who groans with us, and is present in our sufferings and calamities. He offers redemption. He shows us how to respond – through self-giving love.
The cross also urges us to repent and turn to God – for our own good, and for the good of those who need our compassion. We praise God for the compassionate responses that have already emerged from Christians in our churches and elsewhere.
Let us be like the islanders who showed “unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2) to Paul and his fellow ship-wrecked travellers who were washed ashore on a strange beach, cold and hungry, victims of an angry hurricane and an equally violent sea.