WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?
FACING DOWN YOUR FEARS WITH FAITH
By DAVID JEREMIAH, Stephanie Rische
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2013 David Jeremiah
All rights reserved.
DISASTER: The Fear of Natural Calamity
We will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Psalm 46:2
At least the Trowbridges had a place to hide—a neighbor's cellar. Kelcy, her husband, and their three children filed into its cool darkness, huddled beneath a blanket, and listened to the warning sirens howling through a Monday afternoon in May of 2013. The Trowbridges lived in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, and a deadly tornado was on its way.
The family could only sit, holding hands and listening as the sirens were drowned out by sounds that were louder and far more terrible. Shrieking winds converged upon the house, and there was a violent pounding on the cellar door. The children began to cry. "Shhh, it's just debris," Kelcy said. "Loose things blowing around, hitting the walls."
Then, after about forty minutes, an eerie silence fell. The Trowbridges emerged into the light of a world they didn't recognize. The neighborhood was a shambles. Where was their home? It lay flattened to the earth, like rows of other houses on their street. Where was the family car? They eventually discovered that it had been lifted into the air, carried down the street, and then thrown on its roof.
One by one, the neighbors emerged, all speechless. Where there should have been birds singing, there was only the sound of muffled sobs. Here were the remains of their lives and the loss of comfortable illusions—illusions of stability and security in a rational world.
Mr. Trowbridge wasn't one to stand around. He went to work salvaging, sorting. But after a moment, he pulled back abruptly.
"Call the police," he said in a flat tone.
There, amid the bricks and pipes and rubble, was a little child—a girl no more than two or three years old. She was dead. Mr. Trowbridge was stoic until the police arrived, and then he lost it—weeping for the girl, for his family, for the violence of the earth.
Meanwhile, near Plaza Towers Elementary, Stuart Earnest Jr. saw and heard things that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life. The school was directly hit by the tornado. Seven children lost their lives, and Earnest couldn't block out the sounds of the tragedy. He heard the voices of those screaming for help and the equally heartrending screams of those trying to come to their assistance.
A fourth grader named Damian Britton was among the Plaza Towers survivors, thanks to a courageous teacher who had saved his life. It seemed to Damian that all the horrors occurred in a five-minute period before the students came out of their hiding places. It was much the same everywhere—five short minutes for little ones, or anyone else, to learn such profound lessons of life and loss.
I have to tell you that it is difficult to recount those stories. It would be so much easier to keep the tone pleasant and comfortable, even in a book about fear. The problem, of course, is that the stories are true, and we know it. And they can happen again in another five minutes or tomorrow or the next day. Every year the news brings us yet another reminder that the natural forces governing this planet are troubled and unstable.
We live in a kind of necessary denial. We proceed with our daily lives as if we have guarantees of security that simply aren't possible in this life. We congratulate ourselves for our impressive advances in technology, and we pretend we've conquered every challenge to life and health. But it's not so. Nature is gorgeous and inspiring—and also monstrous and inhuman.
In 2004 the big tragedy was the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 230,000 people. I can't get past those numbers. In 2005 we encountered Hurricane Katrina. And who can forget 2010–11? The earthquake in Haiti cost another 220,000 people their lives; the tsunami in Japan, at least 15,000.
But those are merely the headline weather events. There are too many earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, famines, storms, and tsunamis for us to even keep a running tally. Natural calamities rage on in our world, costing us countless billions of dollars and, more significantly, hundreds of thousands of lives.
Natural disaster raises many 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 sharing about a biblical character who experienced two natural disasters in the space of twenty-four hours. His name, of course, was Job.
NATURAL DISASTERS IN THE LIFE OF JOB
Job has become the quintessential model for enduring disaster, and if ever there was someone we'd think didn't deserve it, it was Job. The first few verses of his book give testimony concerning Job in four areas. We learn first of all about his faith—that he was a man who was "blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1). Job was not sinless, but he was mature in character and a man of righteousness.
Job is also distinguished because of his fortune: "His possessions were seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred female donkeys, and a very large household, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the East" (Job 1:3).
In Job's day, wealth was calculated in terms of land, animals, and servants, and Job had all three in abundance. He was the wealthiest man of his time.
He wasn't just a man of fortune but also of family. The first chapter tells us that he raised sons and daughters who were close knit. They held great birthday feasts for one another, after which their father would make burnt offerings to God on their behalf. He said, "It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts" (Job 1:5). Faith and family were intertwined for him.
Finally, he had many friends. Some are famous for their role in Job's book, but there were no doubt many others who weren't mentioned. Job 2:11 recounts how a group of his closest friends arrived to mourn with him after the great losses he sustained. If you know anything about Job's narrative, you remember that these friends ended up letting him down. But still, they were his friends, and they came from distant parts to minister to him in his time of need.
They were right to sit with him to help him bear the load of mourning. Where they went wrong was when they attempted to give pat explanations and solutions for a situation that was anything but simple. In the end, they brought out the worst rather than the best in Job. Yet we're told that he forgave them and there was reconciliation (Job 42:9-11).
What those friends couldn't know—what Job himself couldn't know—was that spiritual forces were in play far beyond their reckoning. The details are recounted in Job 1:8-12:
The Lord said to Satan, "Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?"
So Satan answered the Lord and said, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!"
And the Lord said to Satan, "Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person." So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Armed with God's permission, Satan went to work, and Job's ruin came rapidly, with four calamities occurring in one day. These were the terms: Satan could come after Job's possessions, but not his person. And so the great experiment began. But what we see already is that it's clear who is in charge of this world. The devil can test Job, but not without God's permission. Our God reigns, and we can't afford to forget it during a discussion of disaster—or any other time.
What do you give the man who has everything? Disaster—that was something Job had yet to experience. It begins during one of those feasts, with the sons and daughters all gathered together, laughing and enjoying one another's company.
A messenger approaches Job with disturbing news. Sabean raiders have descended on his estate, hijacked Job's cattle, and killed his servants. This messenger alone has survived to tell the tale (Job 1:13-15).
Yet even before the servant has finished his account, before Job has taken it all in, the door opens and another messenger stands there. He is pale, his eyes wide, as he whispers, "The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants" (Job 1:16).
At this point it seems that Job's day can't get any worse. But a third messenger is right behind. The phrase "while he was still speaking" is used three times in this passage. For Job, at least, the old adage is true: calamities often come in bunches.
The third messenger brings news that there has been a raid by the Chaldeans. They have stolen the camels, killed the servants, and yes, left one distressed messenger (Job 1:17).
A lot has gone wrong for Job—calamity piled upon calamity. But before he can make sense of any of this, let alone form any kind of recovery plan, the coup de grâce falls:
While he was still speaking, 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 dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!"
Along with everything else, Job must have been blessed with a strong heart. Can you imagine taking in such news? He was devoted to his children, constantly bringing them before God. Despite all his intercession, they have died in one fell blow. He faces ten fresh graves and an aching silence from heaven. Why, God?
The book of Job has always been the go-to book to help people cope with the existence and effects of evil. At the outset, the book shows us three major sources of evil. First, there are evil individuals, such as the Sabeans and the Chaldeans who killed Job's servants and stole his oxen and donkeys. Then it shows the destructive evil of natural disasters in the fire that destroyed Job's livestock and herders and the windstorm that killed Job's children. And behind it all, we see evil on a cosmic level in the hand of Satan who, with God's permission, orchestrated the entire disaster.
Since scholars consider 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 human beings have walked the earth. The Bible doesn't gloss over the tougher questions of life; it doesn't try to make us avert our gaze. We're invited to stand with Job in the cemetery, looking down at the ashes of his dreams, and ask God why? The first question evoked by this story in particular and natural calamities in general is this: What do these recurring disasters say about God?
NATURAL DISASTERS AND THE REALITY OF GOD
God Cannot Be Divorced from Disasters
Some say that God should not even be included in the discussion of disasters since He would have nothing to do with such evil. The explanation goes something like this: God created the world, but He is not involved in the operation of it. This philosophy is called deism. It accepts the existence and goodness of God but distances Him 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 affirm the goodness of God in the face of terrible evils simply by saying it's not His fault. He created a good world, and He should not be blamed if it goes wrong. But Scripture is clear that God is actively at work in the universe (Job 37).
Another way we extricate God from responsibility for disasters is to blame them all on Satan. But we know from our study of Job that Satan cannot do anything without God's permission (Job 1:8-12). If Satan has to get permission from God to do what he does, then God is still in control and reigns in human affairs. People sense His control over everything when they call natural disasters "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—He reigns in the nice moments and in those that aren't so nice. Let's look at some of the reasons disaster exists in a world that God controls.
GOD EMPLOYS THE ELEMENTS OF NATURE IN THE OPERATION OF THE WORLD
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 is intimately involved in controlling and sustaining all events in the natural world. Here is a small sampling:
Whatever the Lord pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places. He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain; He brings the wind out of His treasuries. Psalm 135:6-7
He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:45
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 them On the face of the whole earth. Job 37:6, 10-12
GOD EMPLOYS THE ELEMENTS OF NATURE IN HIS OPPOSITION TO EVIL
Not only does God use the elements of nature to keep the world running, He also uses them as punishment or to drive His people toward righteousness.
Early in the Bible, we find God sending a flood to destroy a sin-blackened world, sparing only righteous Noah and his family (Genesis 6–8). Later, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God sent judgment upon Dathan, Abiram, and Korah, who had rejected Him. The "earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up ... with all their goods" (Numbers 16:32).
God sent fire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness (Genesis 19:24); He sent plagues to punish Egypt (Exodus 7–12); He crafted a plague that killed seventy thousand men because of David's sin in numbering the people (2 Samuel 24:15); He sent a fierce storm to get Jonah's attention and bring him to repentance (Jonah 1:4-17).
In Amos 4, there is an extended passage describing God's dealings with the disobedience of His people. If we're ever tempted to separate God from natural disaster, this passage should stop us in our tracks. Here is Eugene Peterson's vivid paraphrase:
"You know, don't you, that I'm the One who emptied your pantries and cleaned out your cupboards, Who left you hungry and standing in bread lines? But you never got hungry for me. You continued to ignore me." God's Decree.
"Yes, and I'm the One who stopped the rains three months short of harvest. I'd make it rain on one village but not on another. I'd make it rain on one field but not on another— and that one would dry up. People would stagger from village to village crazed for water and never quenching their thirst. But you never got thirsty for me. You ignored me." God's Decree.
"I hit your crops with disease and withered your orchards and gardens. Locusts devoured your olive and fig trees, but you continued to ignore me." God's Decree.
"I revisited you with the old Egyptian plagues, killed your choice young men and prize horses. The stink of rot in your camps was so strong that you held your noses— But you didn't notice me. You continued to ignore me." God's Decree.
"I hit you with earthquake and fire, left you devastated like Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the flames. But you never looked my way. You continued to ignore me." God's Decree.
Amos 4:6-11, The Message
When we distance God from responsibility for the calamities of the world, we are claiming more than we know. For 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 the future? Either He is involved in all the world's operations, or He's involved in none of them.
Before we move on, it is critical that I make a distinction between God's general judgment on the sin of humankind and His supposed judgment on the sin of particular men and women. It is true to say that all God's judgment is because of sin and that He uses disasters in administering judgment. But it is not true to say that every particular disaster is His judgment of some particular sin committed by some particular person or nation.
After 9/11, some people were quick to point out that the disaster was God's judgment on our nation for our rebellion against Him. While that may have been true, how would anyone on earth know for sure? (Continues...)
Excerpted from WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF? by DAVID JEREMIAH, Stephanie Rische. Copyright © 2013 David Jeremiah. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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