The Summer of Disasters: Making Biblical Sense of It October 13 2017

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

After the September 2nd blog about Houston’s Good Samaritans in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I had not anticipated writing again any time soon about disasters.  But after Hurricane Irma (Florida and the Southeast), the decimation of Puerto Rico by Maria, the pure evil of the shootings in Las Vegas, and now the relentless fires in northern California (at least 32 deaths so far and 3000 homes and businesses lost), there is too much happening for me to ignore it.

The people affected by all of these events have several things in common:

  1. the magnitude of the disaster was unusually large;
  2. the chances of the disaster happening to them individually was very small and unexpected; and
  3. many of them lost all the earthly possessions they had.  In developed countries like the U.S, we have come to expect that we can control most situations – not prevent disasters entirely, but at least limit their impact.  These five events were well beyond our ability to control.   The word “humbling” comes to mind, and at times, “helpless.”  Unexpectedly losing a family member or having no home to go back to is difficult, no matter when it happens.  When it occurs on this scale, it is a very sobering reminder of how fragile our lives on earth really are.

Our home in southern California is only about five miles from the San Andreas Fault.  I remember reading about the fault as a youngster back in Virginia and wondering how people could live with the scary prospect of falling into the ocean!  Although my view of the San Andreas was shaped by a grade school imagination, I also never imagined that we would end up living near it.

Geologists say that it’s not a matter of if we will have a major earthquake here, it’s a matter of when.  And they say we are overdue.  So it’s very possible that we could be in the same position that thousands of Americans are in right now.  In fact, the Great American Shakeout is scheduled for 10:19 a.m. on October 19, when all of us in earthquake country have our annual “Drop, Cover, and Hold” drill, with many emergency preparedness reminders – three-day supply of water and food; anchor bookshelves to the wall; secure loose objects, etc.  Although we are aware of the danger, and we do what we can to prepare, we are not in control of the outcome.

With the disasters this summer, we have had to once again come to grips with unexpected death and billions of dollars in property loss.  But as believers, we have a tremendous advantage over those who don’t know Christ, when it comes to disaster preparedness in a spiritual sense. For example, we realize that we are merely stewards of what we have on earth and that the end of our life here, like earthquakes, is also not a matter of if but when.   Our chance of earthly death is 100%, unless the Lord comes back first. But our chance of eternal life is also 100% for those who have come to know Jesus as their Savior. We see from the Scriptures that as we live for and serve the Lord here on earth, we need not fear either death or loss of material things, as traumatic as the circumstances may be.

The end of the book of I Corinthians has a wonderfully hopeful and triumphant reminder of the believer’s victory over death.  It is in the context of Paul’s writing about our resurrected bodies:

“But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” (I Corinthians 15:54-58)

This passage is set in the context of Paul’s statements about the foundation of our faith being the resurrection of Christ (I Corinthians 15:12-20 – which was covered in the September 29 blog).  In other words, because of Christ’s resurrection (and ultimately our own) we have the freedom to “abound in the work of the Lord,” even taking risks like the Good Samaritans have done in Houston, and Florida, and Puerto Rico, and Las Vegas, and Santa Rosa. In Las Vegas we saw people using the bodies as shields for others, lifting people over fences amid a hail of bullets, and giving bloodied strangers rides to the hospital.  Each disaster has brought out extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice.

As believers, we can demonstrate love in both the mundane flow of daily life and in crises, because “our toil is not in vain in the Lord,” even if it should somehow cost us our life on earth.  For us, death means a graduation, even though, like Paul, we struggle with how soon we want that to happen.  Here is a description of Paul’s struggle from Philippians 1, written from his confinement in prison:

“… but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.  But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” (Philippians 1:20-24)

We see that Paul’s desire to serve was rooted in the recognition of his own mortality.  He was not afraid to serve, because he was also not afraid to die in the process of serving.  The beauty of this principle is that when we serve others not only do we not need to worry about whether we die doing it, but we also do not need to worry about whether others appreciate it or even know about it, because it’s not really for them but for the Lord.  This is the essence of what Jesus meant by dying to self (Luke 9:23-24).  The secret to saving our life (part of which involves having God’s peace and joy) is losing our life for His sake.

On the surface, this appears to be a paradox, but it is a deep truth of the Christian faith.  It also is an extraordinarily challenging one to learn, author of this blog included.  But we together can ask for God’s grace to see life and death as Jesus did, and as Paul apparently did, even as he was tugged in both directions.

As we see this and practice it more fully, our peace and joy will become less dependent on earthly circumstances and more rooted in things that eternally matter.  It is not that we don’t care about what happens on earth.  We do care, for believers and unbelievers alike.  But as we grow in maturity, even when earthly tragedy strikes, we are more able to say with Paul “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  This was our pastor’s theme passage when Shashi’s father went home to be with the Lord at age 50, now 41 years ago, and it resonates with us still.

And in closing, we say to Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Santa Rosa, and those in the surrounding areas, we’re continuing to pray for your recovery and that God will use this in your lives to strengthen your faith and build up the body of Christ.

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Steve Smith