English poet and hymn writer, William Cowper (1731 – 1800) wrote these words, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” Cowper was no stranger to God’s mysterious ways.
His mother died when he was six, he was ill-treated by his father and boarding school left him scarred for life. He became a Christian during one of his numerous spells in care overseen by a believing doctor who later became his friend. His life-long battle with depression left him institutionalised many times with many unsuccessful suicide attempts.
His friend John Newton, writer of the hymn Amazing Grace and aware of Cowper’s disposition towards melancholy and despair, proposed a collaboration on a book of hymns together. “God moves in a mysterious way,” is the first line from one of those hymns.
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Over the past months we have seen many natural disasters across Australia. It seems this summer we have lived up to Dorothea Mackellar’s description that we are a land of “droughts and flooding rains”. In fact Tasmania has not been immune with even the chaplain of our own Hobart Boy’s Brigade losing his family’s house in the bushfires.
While there are quite a few differing opinions regarding the extent to which humanity’s actions are the causes of recent climate change; that the climate is changing is quite obvious. How fast and in what ways it is changing is still open to debate.
These recent events serve to show that despite our best efforts we cannot control the weather no matter how much we would like to think we can. They remind us that we are at the mercy of weather patterns that are more powerful than we are.
Yet our desire to control the weather reveals, I believe, how we struggle to maintain a biblical view of our responsibility over creation. While we are called to be good stewards of creation we are never called to control it, but rather treat it with appropriate care.
Today the consensus of scientists is that the level of CO2 in the air and global temperatures are increasing, polar caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. The subsequent call for more care of our environment resonates deeply with our God given responsibility. However, I tend to agree with those who suggest . . . Read more >>>
In a world that has largely dismissed God as irrelevant, antiquated or dead, it seems strange that one of the few things God still gets credit for are natural disasters. Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and landslides are deemed “acts of God” – just read your insurance policy.
An “Act of God” is a legal term for events outside human control for which no one can be held responsible. Insurance companies use it to identify things they don’t cover in their policy and in Queensland this has lead to public outcry as it has left many without insurance cover.
All this talk of “acts of God” has not been good press for God or for the gospel. It only serves to reinforce a strongly embedded view within Australians that God is a wrathful overseer, inflicting unfair retribution on wayward humanity. But that is not the God we know and love, and it is in stark contrast to the teaching of Jesus. He taught of God’s unfailing goodwill to all and said God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Many ask: Was Japan’s earthquake a retributive act of God? Did he send the rains and floods into Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland as judgment? Did he shake Christchurch for their sins? We answer a resounding, “No.” That is not the God Jesus represented.
Yet, we are left with questions. While science can help us understand why natural disasters occur and Jesus helps us appreciate God is not causing disasters, we still struggle to understand why God allows them to occur.
So why do natural disasters happen?
Answers are not straight forward, but the Bible does give strong hints to where the answers lie. It explains how the natural world is held in the grip of decay and groans under the weight of this bondage. It explains how creation is waiting in the hope of liberation, transformation and freedom (Romans 8:19-22).
Here the Bible depicts the world not as fixed or settled, but in the process of becoming. Using the image of childbirth it suggests that ferment, unrest, confusion, and disarray are to be expected as the process of history unfolds.
In a similar vein Jesus said, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come . . . There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6-7). He confirms that natural disasters are to be expected in a world still developing and becoming all it was designed to be. In fact he goes on to say that these are just the beginning of the birth pains.
Jesus encourages us to take a long term view of God’s plan for the world. It began in the Garden of Eden thousands of years ago, it peaked in the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth a couple of thousand years ago and only God knows how much long it will be before the end will come.
Until that time, Jesus was very clear about what he wanted us to do.
Those who exhibit true “Acts of God”
Once we appreciate that natural disasters are not “acts of God” but the consequences of complex earth systems still incomplete and awaiting liberation (although they are exacerbated by imperfect management by us humans) we can begin to see what true “acts of God” are – the actions of those who follow Jesus in loving others.
Today in Japan on the frontline of care are many who follow Jesus. Amongst them is the Salvation Army with their slogan, “Combating natural disasters with acts of God.” Think about that. It is brilliant.
“Combating natural disasters with acts of God” helps redefine “acts of God.” It reinforces the point that “natural disasters” are not caused by God. It refocuses “acts of God” on the actions of people one to another.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and the like will keep on happening, we can’t stop them. But we can, in the name of Jesus, make a difference to those who suffer. Let us pray that God will grant us, and our fellow believers across the world who are helping in disasters, grace to love and care just as Jesus would.
Have you ever experienced an “Act of God”?
Stephen L Baxter