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Decoding the Bible

Does God have a hand in natural disasters?

By Catherine MacLean

I woke up falling back down onto the bed. I got to my feet, pulled the curtains aside and threw the window open. It was glorious. In the dark of the night, trees were lurching, rain battered the sidewalks, and light was circling in the sky like a scene from the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. 

“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:2-3).

Lightning had struck the building. That’s what woke me.

The next morning, in the calm of blue skies and breakfast, I learned a tornado had touched down outside the city. I was in Grand Rapids, Mich., part of the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, where last June, delegates from 108 denominations met at Calvin College. Over coffee and toast, we shared past experiences of rogue waves, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, flash floods and ice storms around the world. I had my own stories of hail and forest fires.

My grandmother Faith lived near the Bay of Fundy, whose great tides pull and shove at the foot of the cliffs. She taught me Psalm 46: “Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam. . .” Did Faith teach me that God pulled the tides? That God’s hand formed the wave that shoved a person underwater? 

No. The notion of God the potter shaping the earth seemed whimsical to us, a metaphor rather than a threat. Wind power, rock formations and the ocean were matters of science and discovery. The awe in our prayer life acknowledged the wild, dispassionate nature of climate and geology. We understood natural beauty and strength as indifferent, not intentional. 

But our ancestors in faith clearly thought differently. “God wrapped in light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2): this meant holy presence. “Leviathan that you formed to sport in the sea” (Psalm 104:26): this was unholy terror. Nature and threat are intertwined in much of Scripture. 

Other ancestors in faith, however, led us in another direction. John Calvin was swept up by a fierce faith in God’s sovereignty. Some people think Calvin was all about refraining from pleasure on pain of guilt, but truly he saw God as extravagantly generous. Imagine a world where you had to buy your way to salvation, and then imagine that purchase overturned by Calvin’s assertion that God loves you no matter what. Calvin taught us to centre ourselves on God, who loves us without reservation. This is difficult to grasp for a culture — his and ours — that thinks we earn love. Karl Barth taught it, too: there’s nothing we can do to deserve God’s love. God loves us, full stop. Does the God who loves us send disaster on some and not on others? No.

 Where I make my home in Alberta, I experienced the effects of a long drought. The water table is dangerously low. Grasshoppers and squirrels have their way with crops. The prophet Joel wrote about a similar situation: “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4). Is this the hand of God? No.

Joel asked, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children,  and their children another generation” (Joel 1:2-3). 

What do we tell our children and the generations that follow? That God rides “on the wings of the wind” (Psalm 104:3)? No, but rather that God loves them no matter what, even when the storms of life envelop them. That God cares for them, even when the land is dry or unyielding or moves under their feet. That God is present and will never desert them, even if God is the only one left to hold their soul. 

I think back to the tornado this summer. Does God cause or prevent natural disasters? No. Why would God save me from The Day After Tomorrow but not save the people of Haiti?

I trust that God is personal and cares. I believe God is with us in the drought and earthquake and tornado. God holds our hearts in hard times, and propels us into places that need any grace we can give. And we, you and I, are the holy hands that clutch the child from the rubble, the swimmer from the sea, and the widow while she weeps.

Rev. Catherine Faith MacLean is in ministry at St. Paul’s United in Edmonton.

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