In the wake of every natural disaster, some public figure feels compelled to utter a theological interpretation of events that is clear, compelling, and fundamentally wrong.
This time it was presidential contender Michele Bachmann who told a friendly audience God sent Hurricane Irene and the east coast earthquake to demonstrate divine disfavor at Washington's out-of-control spending.
While many will find Ms. Bachmann's comments in bad taste, her statement does give voice to a conviction shared by many that God sends natural disasters to punish people for their sins. And frankly, such folks have a lot of Bible on their side. Can you spell Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, or Jonah and the whale? And the Psalms are permeated by the confidence the natural order gives voice to both the glory and, at times, the disfavor of God.
But it is one thing to believe a sovereign God is at the helm of the universe and quite another to claim to know the mysterious dimensions of God's presence and purpose in any given natural disaster. Why, for example, is God's judgment in natural disasters always deemed to be directed at someone else and never at the person making the pronouncement? Jesus warned against just such prognosticating when commenting on a collapsed tower that killed 18 unsuspecting citizens: "Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, NO but unless YOU repent (italics mine), you will all perish just as they did" (Luke 13:4-5). In other words, natural disasters are an invitation for us to awaken to God's claim upon our own lives, rather than a shot across the bow of whoever happens to be our enemy at the moment.
As for lessons drawn from the Noah story, Jesus says he himself will do the suffering until his Coming sweeps away the wreckage of the indulgent, self-absorbed life (Luke 17:25-27). As for Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus warns his contemporaries their own rejection of God's grace and goodness, present in him, is a far worse sin than anything those ancient cities were guilty of (Mt. 11:23-24). As for Jonah, Jesus says he will enter the belly of the whale and spend three days entombed in the earth, winning the salvation of the world (Mt. 12:39-40). Indeed, during the worst storm of all--as darkness descended from noon till three while Jesus hung on his cross--he, as always, was powerfully, personally present at the epicenter of the world's pain.
If God was sending any messages in the recent earthquake and hurricane that wreaked havoc with the east coast, it was this: "Life is fragile, life is precious. And when tragedy snatches it away, show up with a shoulder for folks to cry on and a shovel to help them dig out and rebuild. For when I sent my Son into the world, that is what I asked him to do."