PASTOR’S CORNER, David Harris, Fellowship Baptist Church, Liberal

Earlier this week, disaster struck Baltimore, Maryland, and the greater American consciousness when a large cargo ship (that we now know lost power)[1] rammed directly into the iconic Key Bridge. The crews that leapt into action to communicate the danger and clear the bridge are no doubt responsible for saving many lives. Seven were taken in the water who were not able to evacuate. As of this writing four are presumed deceased. While we should be grateful the loss of life is not worse, the additional effects of the collapse will be both logistical (considering the port of Baltimore’s major role in our economy) and in our collective morale. The vision of a powerful icon being torn to shreds by failed technology is a painful check about what we can do and expect, about the limits of our technology.

Some Christian voices have, unfortunately, interpreted this disaster (and others) as evidence for something like “God’s judgment on America.” Yesterday I came across a post from Stacey Shiflett, a Baltimore-area pastor. His interpretation was representative for this kind of thinking. He linked the bridge collapse to some recent foreign policy developments with Israel. Invoking the curse of Genesis 12:3, this pastor suggested that the Baltimore collapse was God’s way of getting back at the U.S. for disagreeing with Netanyahu’s view of the cease-fire being called for in the Middle East. Pastor Shiflett suggestively asks, “Is God saying something? Something to think about…”[2] Apart from the blunder of confusing Genesis 12 with the modern secular state of Israel, there is something deeply troubling about this interpretation.

I do not mean to unfairly target one pastor here, or to imply he is unique in this unfortunate take. In truth, this rush to interpret God’s providence is widespread – we see it among those segments of the church where cultural evaluation amounts to looking for clues about God’s judgement and blessing in the latest headlines. This happened during the attacks on September 11, 2001, and during many crises since. Is this what followers of Jesus should be doing when disasters happen?

The biblical answer is a resounding “no.” Reading providence has a history that goes all the way back to Job’s friends. Like many Christians in the wake of 21st century disaster, these ancient men operated on a twisted assumption: if bad things are happening around you, God must be judging some specific sin. What does God think of their assumption? The ending of the Book of Job offers a reply to the readers of providence, and to the confused Job himself. To Job, God offers not answers, but a dizzying array of impossible questions to show that the world (and God’s sovereignty in it) is even more mysterious that Job could have dreamed. Christians would do well to remember this. When it comes to Job’s friends, God demands sacrifice for their persistent sin of speaking on behalf of him. It turns out, God is not pleased when people take it upon themselves to make things up and suggest to others that God is speaking:

“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.’ So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.” (Job 42:7-9, NIV)

Jesus helps us see this in his earthly ministry when disaster struck first century Judea. One disaster involved Pilate barbarously executing some people. Another involved an accident with a fallen tower. In their hearts, Jesus’ listeners are, like Job’s friends and their modern-day American counterparts, reading providence to look for God’s judgement on others. Jesus is unimpressed. Christ not only corrects their thinking, he seems to think that their approach is indicative of their own need for repentance.

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’” (Luke 13:1-5, NIV)

Here's the problem with this kind of thinking that Jesus seems so annoyed by: it assumes we can look around at our circumstances and know, by that, what God thinks of us. Is that true? The prosperity gospel says it is: wealth and comfort equal God’s favor and disappointment indicates God’s anger. But is that really how it works? Can Christians look around and assess God’s blessing on them based on how well and easy their lives are going?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the life of our Savior Jesus. All of Passion Week is a constant, unrelenting reminder that the One most approved of by God the Father is the one that suffered more than anyone else. Jesus’ life was going terrible all the time, in terms of his personal wealth and comfort. This is the reason, you see, why prosperity gospel thinking has never been adopted by orthodox Christianity – it must leave out the most important parts of the Bible to work, including the whole earthly experience of our Savior.

How should we respond to Baltimore? Pray for those involved. Pray for the families of the loved ones who have been lost. Pray for the city officials and government workers who will have a lot of work to do. Pray for the engineers and construction workers who will help rebuild. Pray for the caregivers in the Baltimore area who will help the traumatized adjust to normal life. Pray for churches of all denominations in the city to share the gospel.

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