Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Our Double Grief

Last week's Wall Street Journal ran an editorial theodicy in light of the tsunami. In Sunday's sermon, John Piper responded to the double grief of both tragic events and tragic theology:

Our grief in these days since the Tsunami struck (December 26, 2004) has been doubled—first there is the untold suffering and death. One entire church on the coast of Tamil Nadu, India was wiped out while they were worshipping. Only one survivor from the whole church. Story after story breaks your heart.

Then there is a second grief: the religious people around the world, including some Christians, who say so many God-belittle things. Like one article in the Wall Street Journal, that said, “No Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends” (David B. Hart, “Tremors of Doubt,” WSJ, December 31, 2004). Such talk compounds this calamity with greater and greater evil.

Biblical hope and love in this calamity are sustained in many different ways by the Bible. The central one is that Christ came into our suffering and conquered it so that it does not have the last word. But Oh, how much more the Bible has to say so that we are not carried away by calamities from our hope in the sovereign wisdom and power and goodness of God. How could a person say what this man said, if he read and believed his Bible? He writes as a Christian theologian!

Shall we not believe in the God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah? Genesis 19:24—“Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” Genesis 13:10—“The Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Shall we not believe and worship the God of the Exodus? Exodus 13:15—in the final plague on Egypt it says, “The Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt.”

The people of God in those days knew far better than we do what Moses would write later in Deuteronomy 32:39. Thus says the Lord: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”

Shall we not trust and reverence the God of Joshua? Joshua 10:11—the Amorites gathered against Israel, but it says, “The Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.”

Shall we not fear and worship before the God of David? 2 Samuel 12:15—when David committed adultery and made Bathsheba pregnant, it says, “The Lord afflicted the child . . . and he became sick” and he died. God owns all life. He gives and he takes according to his own wisdom which mingles justice and mercy in perfect proportion. He does not owe any human any life (Job 1:21).

Over and over in the Scriptures we have descriptions of God’s judgment on the nations and on his own people. For example Amos 4:10 where God reminds Israel what he had done: “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses,and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord.”

Or in the same time Isaiah 37:36 describes what God did to Sennacherib and the Assyrians when they came against his people, “The angel of the Lord went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.”

And this is what the book of Revelation says will happen in the last days of God’s wrath on the world. For example Revelation 16:9 describes one stroke against the earth: “They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursedthe name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.” Oh, let us not be among that number.

Paradoxically, stories like this from the Old and New Testament keep us from being knocked utterly off balance by the calamities of our own day. They keep the solid foundation of God’s sovereignty under our hope. They sustain hope. The heart-rending calamities of our time are not new—and they are not over. We don’t know all that God is doing in them. But to say that God cannot be in them, and that his “inscrutable counsels” are not at work, and that this suffering does not “mysteriously serves God’s good ends”—to say that shows (to use the words of Jesus) “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).