There are no ‘easy’ answers, as Job was to discover as he struggled with the catastrophes that overtook him and his family. Of course his friends were convinced that he was being deliberately punished by God. But their understanding was discredited by God himself, who declared they had “not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7).
Many years later, the Lord Jesus Christ was asked about the massacre of Galileans in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers. The case of the Tower of Siloam, also in Jerusalem, was also fresh in their minds. It had collapsed and killed eighteen people. Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “Do you think that [the people who suffered] were worse sinners than all other men?” He provides the answer: “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
All have sinned
Both these examples provide clear guidance. We should not make dogmatic statements that God is specifically punishing individuals or groups who are caught up in catastrophes. Of course, we may be aware that many of those affected by the tsunami in 2004 were living godless lives; we may be conscious of the religious superstitions and corruption in a country like Haiti. But do we think that other parts of the world are being spared because they are less corrupt? The heart of man is desperately wicked wherever you look and there is no shortage of godless policies in many parts of the world.
We are told that there will be many natural catastrophes that will characterise the “last days” and that God intends to “shake the earth” in judgment (Matt 24:7; Heb 12:26,27). We also know that all suffering, whether caused by our mortal weakness or by natural disasters, is linked back to sin. Because of man’s first disobedience, God brought a curse on the earth which affects us all. “For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22,23). In consequence, “the whole of creation groans and labours with birth pangs”, for it has been “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20-22).
In such a world, there is no fairness about the way disaster occurs. People may, of course, suffer because of their foolish behaviour. The corrupt, inept and also godless policies of organisations and governments may, and very often do, have catastrophic consequences. But we cannot presume to attribute specific cause and effect to God, as Job’s friends tried to do. We can only say that suffering, death and disaster are part of our world to remind us all that there is something seriously wrong – and that we need to face that fact. The toothache tells us we ought to see the dentist. The disaster in Haiti shouts out to us that “here we have no continuing city”. We need to act to be saved from this world whose wicked works are to be burned up. This was the point that Jesus made: “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5)
The love of God in Christ
We can also assure people that God’s saving purpose shows that He is not indifferent to the state of the world. God gave His Son “that whosoever believes in him should not perish”. The Lord Jesus himself entered into the very arena of human suffering and endured its worst effects, even death on a cross. He suffers when we suffer, and his sympathetic care can be with is in the worst disasters:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
When we have a relationship with our Heavenly Father through His dearly beloved Son, “in all these things we are more than conquerors” – because He does not forsake us in our troubles and promises to deliver us out of them all (Romans 8:35,37; Psalm 34:19).
If God’s love can be experienced in the worst of situations, then we need ourselves to be instruments of that love. We must continue to broadcast in all the world the message that Jesus Christ died “to deliver us from this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4); and we must render what practical assistance we can to those who suffer, wherever they may be (Romans 12:17-20).