God & Tsunamis

F. Earle Fox

See first hand reports of God at work in the tsunami..

1. Theodicy

The human race has been catapulted into some of the most incredible of moral dilemmas in these last few years. First the advent of open and unabashed terrorism as a political tool. And now the worst "Act of God" in perhaps known history. What began as reports of maybe ten thousand deaths in the recent southeast Asia tsunami has escalated to 150 thousand, and climbing. The expected devastation from disease may out run the immediate deaths.

Everywhere people are raising the expected questions dealing with "theodicy", the attempt to reconcile our own sense of justice, which is presumably implanted by God, with what we see to be the behavior of God. It is the problem of pain in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent, all loving God.

The problem arises only if there is a Biblical kind of Creator God. If secularism is true, there is no one to blame, no one to get mad at -- although one sailor is reported to have shouted, as a tidal wave was about to swamp his ship, "And you don't even know my name!" He was angry at expecting to be killed by blind, uncaring, chance force. As secular folks tell us, "The cosmos does not have you in mind."

That means, of course, that the "Greens", the nature worshippers, have it all wrong. Nature is not our beneficent "mother earth". If there is no Creator God, Mother Earth mindlessly spawns us and then mindlessly devours us. Not because she is mean, but because "she" is really an "it". A mindless, mechanical process. Random chance.  We are the product of mindless evolution and of the so-called "Great Mother" of pagan mythology, the mysterious womb of life which is also our tomb. "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return." So there is no "problem" of theodicy. There is no personal deity whose goodness makes the pain and chaos not understandable. In a naturally chaotic world, you expect to get beat up.

But if there is a loving Creator God, we expect better. Then the existence of tsunamis, mosquitos, and divorces requires an explanation. Where did God's omniscience, omnipotence, and loving attitude go wrong? Are not these things evidence against His character, or even His existence? So some would have us believe.

Regarding the alleged "acts of God", we will, for now, ignore the "acts of man", e.g., the 40,000,000+ dead babies since Roe v. Wade, 1.5 million per year, 4000 per day -- except to point out that their silent scream is not much heard, not in the Christian community.  No out pouring of millions of dollars for a much harsher and quite deliberate treatment of many more guiltless human beings.  No international accusations of anyone being "stingy" to save the little ones.

2. Two Worldviews

There are many brave and intelligent attempts to reconcile human pain with the Biblical God, but most of them in the end put the answer in mystery. God is bigger than us, His wisdom is wider and deeper than ours. All of which is true. But it does not answer the question. It implies that there is no answer, at least in the here and now, maybe never, or not until the resurrection, the time of our final reconciliation with God.

But there is more to be said, certainly from Biblical witness, right in the here and now.

Most of the last two centuries were disasters for the Western Christian community because Christians lost their intellectual credibility, and were incapable of expressing the Biblical worldview in contest with secularism or paganism.  With the successes of the secularized "Enlightenment" and of the Darwinian theory of evolution as the explanation for the cosmos, Christians found themselves incapable of defending their own view of life. It seemed outdated by secularism. A universe which is inherently and totally impersonal and mechanical has no room for a personal God.

That, in a way, relieves us of the theodicy problem, but it does nothing at all to relieve the world of pain, confusion, chaos, or death. It just ensures that the pain and chaos will never be overcome, that life will always and forever be meaningless. That does not make the Biblical world true, but it does make it worth investigating -- problem of theodicy or not.

On the Biblical view, a personal God creates the cosmos intelligently and by design. The cosmos rests on His hand. He has a specific purpose for it, expressed in the two Great Commandments, the laws of love. The cosmos hears and receives His voice and word. The Biblical world is all about relationship between the fundamental entities of the cosmos, persons. The physical world is subject to persons, first of all God, but also to His created persons. We see some of that control in science.

On the other hand, the secular/pagan cosmos emerges out of that mysterious womb of the Great Mother, that infinite and impenetrable impersonality. We personal beings are only blips on the screen, temporary bits of flotsam on the waves of chaos, to be washed away with the next tsunami. "And you don't even know my name...." There is no order in the cosmos, so whatever order exists is what we manage to impose. But soon, with us, it too washes away.

If persons, not things (such as atoms), are the fundamental building blocks of reality, as the Biblical world supposes, and if we human beings were indeed put in charge of the world, to subdue and to fill it, and if our capacity to be in charge of the world around us is dependent on our continuing healthy and holy relation with our Creator, then the Fall might well be expected to have consequences for the orderliness of the world around us.

That is clearly the picture presented in Genesis, that after the Fall, the cosmos itself begins to work badly. Adam must work by the sweat of his brow, Eve will have pain in child bearing, there will be enmity between the humans and the serpent. The world itself will no longer be the human-friendly place it had been in Eden. God had warned Adam that, should he eat from the forbidden tree (symbolizing a world of autonomy and independence from God), Adam would not live, but die.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil, the forbidden tree, is precisely the world of paganism and secularism, neither of which acknowledge the existence of, or loyalty to, the Creator of all things. And, in that Fallen world, as we know from sad experience, everything dies. The impersonal takes charge over the personal. God was telling Adam the truth. There is no eternal life in the world without God. We all die. We are all, no exceptions, subject to the random "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", as Shakespeare put it.

Our 19th-20th century Western descent into secular materialism and Darwinian evolution taught us that the cosmos is mechanical, that human beings have no effect on its basic nature, although we might control some of its fringes by our scientific prowess. We might even, some imagine, grasp control of the steering wheel of evolution because we humans are its leading edge -- through control of education, genetics, and other ways of manipulating how things are evolving. That has been THE project of secular humanism from the 1800's until now -- somewhat chastened by the disasters of the 20th century.

Even Christians who sit in pews on a Sunday have fallen into the secular trap, giving the material world priority over the world of personal relationship. This is probably a main reason why Westerners find it so hard to believe in God, and especially to say so out loud in public. It is certainly the main reason why even Christians can hardly believe that miracles happen. We are trying to paste our Christian faith over an underlying secular/pagan worldview. It feels very uncomfortable, it does not work, and it destroys our public witness.

3. Tiamat / tehom

Genesis 1 reads: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep...." The word 'void' in Hebrew is 'tehom', which is a cognate of a Babylonian word, 'tiamat'.  Tiamat was the name of the Babylonian "Great Mother" figure, the original source of all being, the original chaos out of which existence was to emerge in the Babylonian creation story.

The Fall in Genesis 3 is the descent of the creation into that chaos which is inherently the foundation of any world without God. Back to Tiamat/tehom. The Fall is into the world of secularism/paganism -- in which there is no eternal life, no true source of life at all -- only accidents that occasionally look like intelligent persons.

Tiamat (or the Hebrew tehom) represents that original chaos, which is always possible in a world with moral freedom. We can rebel. We can thumb our noses at God. We can launch out into our own world of independence and autonomy. And, we inherit the consequences. The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe our descent into that inheritance of chaos.

Isaiah, much later, writes (45:18-19):

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): "I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, 'Seek me in chaos.' I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right."

God formed the world to be inhabited, i.e. for personal relationships, community. The Kingdom. The Hebrews had backslidden into worship of chaos, the Great Mother. They had backslidden into a world where there could be no natural order, only that imposed by force and strategy.

St. Paul writes (Romans 8:19 ff.):

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now....

The revealing of the sons of God will be the revealing of those who are again to bring Godly order to creation, the intermediate leadership and authority over creation lost at the Fall of Adam and Eve.

Paul again (Romans 8:35 ff.):

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

"For thy sake we are being killed all the day long, we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Chaos cannot win.

4. A great calm...

In the heavenly worship described in Revelation 4, we see the twenty four elders seated on their own thrones before the throne of God, in front of which is a glassy sea. The sea was a common ancient symbol of the original chaos, the "tehom".   Here it has been tamed. It is glassy, calm and peaceful. The twenty four elders are casting down their golden crowns, their kingdoms of self, before the throne of God, making their kingdoms of self an offering to God -- repentance, the reversal of sin and rebellion.

Then in Revelation 21, we read:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband...

The corrupted creation had passed away, the sea (chaos) was no more. The holy city, New Jerusalem, bride of the Son of God, consummation of all relationship and community, was happening.

Well, people might say, that makes good reading, but what can actually happen???

Apparently something "actually happened" on the Sea of Galilee (Mt. 8:23 ff.):

And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, "Save, Lord, we are perishing!" And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?" Then he arose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.

Well, yes, Lord, but that was a long time ago, we say skeptically. What have You done for us recently?

Let me tell you of some (comparatively) recent and personal events where I saw the Lord change the weather. It was not a tsunami, but I saw who controls the weather.

About 1980 or so, I was the priest at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in East Haddam, Connecticut. We had a Nathan Hale school house (a one room school where Hale had taught briefly before he was hung by the British on Long Island as a spy) in a park on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River just behind the Church. It was (as I recall) the 4th of July, and the town was having a parade up the main street to the schoolhouse with a picnic on the grounds. I was to deliver the invocation and benediction.

As the parade gathered several hundred yards down the street from the church in a parking lot, the weather was promising rain. Wind-driven clouds were roiling above, and there was an occasional drip-drip, but not enough to get anyone wet. I asked the Lord what was to happen. He replied, "I am in charge of the weather." I shrugged, and toted my Bible as we marched to the church and the school house.

At the invocation, I prayed for good weather, with a very cautious "thanks" ahead of time. The event went on for well over two hours, during which time the clouds continued to roil unabated, and the occasional drip, just to remind us. I had never before seen it rain like that. No one got wet, and everyone had fun.

Then, at the benediction, I again made a very cautious thanks to God for protecting us. I had no sooner gotten the last word of benediction out of my mouth when I saw a wall of water coming down out of the sky. We all were thoroughly drenched as we ran to the shelter of the church, with many remarks heard about prayers and weather.

I deeply regret having not been more bold and forthright in my praying and thanking God, and letting people know that God seemed to be up to something.

About 1985, when we lived in Norwalk, Connecticut, the hurricane, Gloria, was coming up the coast into New England, aiming right over Norwalk. It was Friday morning, and I gathered my family in a circle to pray for protection. As the winds began to whip up, I went outside to make sure everything was secure. When I came back in, I left the front door open until the winds would force us to close it. Something seemed to suggest it. We watched two flowering dogwood trees out the picture window as they swayed on either side of our walkway to the street. The storm came, full force. One could see large oaks and elms and maples swaying up and down the street. I noticed that our dogwoods were just fluttering as in a breeze.

And then a quiet. The eye of the storm was over us. We walked out and surveyed broken limbs up and down the street. Then it began again, wind in the opposite direction. Again our dogwoods fluttered, swaying slightly. Up and down the street, large trees were bending and breaking in 70-90 mph winds.

And finally, again, a gradual calm as the storm passed over. I then realized that during that whole storm, we had never closed our front door, only the screen door. The wind had never gotten strong enough.

So, what, then, can we say of a tsunami which takes the lives of 150 thousand persons and climbing, and creates thousands of orphans, spreading disease and other havoc?

5. Intelligent Design
Under the Highest Law

Ultimately, in the secular/pagan world, the world of the Fall, there is no law. There is no natural order. Everything erodes into chaos, the original state of things. Life, in the end, is a tsunami. Life is not about anything.

But in God's world, the two highest laws in the universe define the purpose for existence of all the rest of things -- the laws to love God and to love one another. Life is about relationship, and the basic entities are persons, not things. Things (atoms and molecules) do not define the meaning of persons or of relationships -- just the opposite.  Persons are in charge of things, God first, and then His appointed exercisers of dominion and tillers of the ground.

In the Biblical picture, natural law, the object of much scientific study, is under the law of love. The physical world is created to provide a stage upon which the community of persons can happen. That is its reason for existence. It has no independent existence or meaning of its own. Water freezes at 32 degrees F. because, in God's Intelligent Design, that is the best temperature for building such a cosmos. The world belongs to God and is intelligently designed for His own purposes.

Jesus told His disciples (John 14:12 ff.):

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.

So, if something needs to be done on earth, God may be asking us to do it.

All this leads to the conclusion that there is no event in all creation which is out of the control of God, and which cannot be submitted to that highest and overruling law of love. We must conclude, therefore, that we, the Body of Christ, are not yet in shape to handle the authority God has willed to us. We are still proving ourselves unworthy of our inheritance.

Jesus continues:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

We live in a cosmos, designed by God so that we will all be mutually interacting, all mutually accountable, all vulnerable to each other's slings and arrows -- and, all potentially blessed by our faithfulness to the plan of God.  So, as Job noted, we must take the good with the bad, trusting that God knows what He is doing, and that God knows how to make all things, over the long run, come together in the Kingdom of mutual love and support -- for those who want it.

In the meantime, those who do want it are vulnerable to the behavior and consequences of those who do not, and of those who will get in the way of exercising authority over tsunamis, cancer, and mosquito bites.

6. And where were you when...

As Big and Bad as they look, tsunamis are under authority. Tectonic plates are not masses of grinding inertia independent of the authority of God.  Massive waves of water moving at several hundred miles per hour are not too big for God to handle. They all exist in the palm of His hand. They are all under His authority. Which drives the question home: Why, then, does not God intervene?

But God also shares His authority (that interactive, interdependent community again) -- which points to our own place in this arrangement. He shares His authority every time He issues a command. Every command is a granting of authority for us to run our lives a certain way, and to call others to that same way. We are not only told to behave a certain way, we are, by grace, enabled and set free to do so.

Jesus remained asleep in the back of the boat until His disciples awakened Him, and then He upbraided them for their lack of faith. The storms Jesus told His disciples they could calm, and the mountains they could move, surely include tectonic plates and massive waves of water. Would He not likewise upbraid us modern Christians for letting the tsunami happen?

I once thought that God's answer to Job was a bit unfair. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" i.e., "You think you are so smart!? Did you create the earth? Can you instruct Me?"

But we get authority only by being under it. And the only authority there is to be under is that of God.

So the theodicy question comes back from God to us again. We are trying to justify the ways of God to our own sense of justice. But we must let our own sense of justice first be taught and formed by that of God.

God is asking: When will you obey Me? When will I search and find faith on the earth? When will your behavior conform to the sense of justice which I have asked of you, and which I have demonstrated for you? When will my purpose for your existence become your own passion? When will you make your bodies living sacrifices for the welfare of your neighbor? When will you pick up your crosses daily and follow Me?

If that is the kind of person who can move mountains and command tsunamis, then small wonder that modern Christians stand helpless before the destructive forces of nature.

In the world of the Fall where, in good behaviorist form,  the physical commands the personal, the Biblical answer to our helplessness makes no sense.  But in the world of God, where the personal commands the physical, our authority under God makes the only sense. Until we become persons resting on the hand of God and submitted to the authority of the voice of God, we will continue to be ravaged by the forces of nature, protected at best by our necessary, but wholly inadequate, efforts at scientific and technological control.

Scientific control of nature through natural law is a safety net which God provides when our personal relation with Him erodes so badly that we have lost our way. There is an impersonal kind of stability to which we can turn.

But that does not compare with the stability and command over creation which a personal relation with the Creator affords. When we do it God's way, as Jesus promised, we will move mountains and calm storms. Our personal relation to the Creator will enable us to take authority over the creation which will far overshadow what can be done through technology.

7. The Cross and the Self

The word of God to Job cannot really be understood until we follow Jesus to the cross, until we die with Him, and are raised with Him new creations.

"Self-abandonment", "abandoning ourselves" to something, seems rather dramatic, but we do it routinely. We abandon ourselves to the ground. We put the whole weight of our physical being upon it to stand and walk. But, as we learn where to walk, the ground has proven itself so worthy to that trust that we think nothing of it. Our feet thus become symbols of our inherent dependency and trust.

We abandon ourselves to things other than ourselves simply because we are not self-sufficient. We will depend, in that manner, on things outside of ourselves whether we like it or not. We will not become, as the serpent promised Eve, "like God", meaning self-sufficient to the challenges of life. We will always have to trust for essential things. We have to trust for that most basic of all items, our very being. We do not create or sustain ourselves. We are not, and will never be, self-made men.

When Adam and Eve decided to go it alone without God, they cast themselves into a cosmos in which there was only a twisted vision of God to which to entrust themselves, and so they withdrew that trust. And for increasing numbers, there was no personal creator God at all. In that state, we begin to trust ourselves to, abandon ourselves to, things in the world rather than to God whom we have alienated. We have no other choice. So we abandon ourselves to the ground much more readily than to the hand of God, our real ground of being.

Our spiritual self, our personal identity, is the real issue.  We are as dependent on others for our sense of selfhood as for our physical being.  In the pre-Fall Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve easily abandoned themselves to God because they had never known anything else.  They were created already in that state.  They did not have to grow from infancy into that state.  After the Fall, lacking an open relation with God, they had no choice but to trust, abandon themselves to, things in the creation. They began to worship the creature rather than the Creator.

We can successfully abandon ourselves only to that being which is our Creator, our source of being -- because only there will I, in the act of self-abandonment, thereby find myself. Because my Creator is He from whom I receive myself, my true source of life, I can successfully abandon myself to Him. When I abandon myself to something other than my Creator, my selfhood, my identity, my personhood will of necessity be corrupted and erode.

The Fall is thus the rejection of true self-abandonment, of receiving myself from my true source of being.  We choose to find ourselves in the hands of things which cannot sustain our being. And mostly do not even want to or plan to.  We cannot take authority over a world upon which we are dependent.  The only way to take authority over the world is to move our dependency from the world to God.   

No longer receiving ourselves from God, we lose our authority to command. As the demon replied to the seven sons of Sceva, "Paul I know, and Jesus I know, but who are you....???"

The recovery of our authority to command the world requires the recovery of self-abandonment into the hand of our Creator, true trust for our being. Giving up our trust of things in the world, no matter how good, is the way of the cross, giving up our hold on things we feel needful but which are idols. It hurts, but the Way of the Cross is the only way to strong, healthy selfhood, the self given to God in grateful return for God having given it to us.  Casting down our golden crowns...

Paul says that the fallen, broken creation awaits for the revealing of the sons of God, those who will again take command and bring the order of the Kingdom right into nature. In the J. B. Phillips translation: "And all creation standing on tip toe just to see the sons of God come into their own...."

God seems to have the cosmos set up so that nature itself yearns for the fallen sons of God to find their way back to the Father.

God is calling us into a freewill covenant, and although God is the Judge of all the earth, He expects us to discern, to judge, between true and false divinities, so we must ask the theodicy questions. The true God will be able to be true to His own law of love.

Abraham asked, "Shall not the judge of all the earth do righteously?" -- of God's intended destruction of Sodom. And God did not seem to take offense at the question. We, too, must ask. But we, too, must listen and learn. God is not lacking in love or compassion for His creation. It is we who lack, certainly by the standards God has set for us.

So, though our questions are valid, our first order of business, as we look for specks in the eye of God, is to examine for our own logs. We must allow ourselves to be examined by the very God whose behavior we fear, for only in Him are we secure, and only in Him have we direction and purpose.

And, since all authority has been placed in Jesus' hands, only in Him will we ever rightfully command anything at all, let alone a tsunami.

[See also first hand reports of God at work in the tsunami.....  and
"Blaming God First -- Why Children Have to Die" -  Michael Novak]

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