The recent collapse of a condo building near Miami and weeks of searching through 22 million pounds of rubble for 97 victims took me back. I couldn’t break away from the coverage. And it reminded me of a question I’ve been asked after several catastrophes.
In November 2001, I visited New York City. I was there with a colleague to interview pastors after 9/11. We wanted to hear how they ministered to grieving families after the terrorist attacks that felled the World Trade Center towers.
We talked with pastors about their ongoing care for a city still in shock. We asked chaplains about ministry to beleaguered first responders. A church planter described riding his bicycle through bedlam that day, trying to reach his son’s school still shrouded in concrete dust and jet fuel smoke. At the weekly prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle, I found myself listening for more than an hour to the sobs of a woman whose husband died in the collapse.
She was asking the unanswerable why.
“Some people said to me this is God’s judgment. Do you think it is?”
More sobs spared me from answering, but her question echoed the next day as I stood as close to Ground Zero as we were allowed to go. Eight weeks afterward, the air was still chalky. At a church three blocks away, one where George Washington had worshiped and rescuers recently slept on the pews between shifts, the wrought iron fence around its ancient cemetery was caked in white powder. Concrete and bone.
Was this a judgment from God?
Zoom ahead five years. After Hurricane Katrina, a member of the church I had pastored in New Orleans in the previous decade asked the same question. She told me the long story of trying to put her waterlogged life back together.
“Some preachers are saying the city deserved this, that the flood is God’s judgment for sin.”
I thought the preachers might have a point. After all, New Orleans was founded as a wicked getaway for pirates. Not much had changed in 300 years, despite the rise of the middle class and the influx of Baptists. Would I have preached comfort or judgment if I still lived there after the flood?
I wanted to blame bad civil engineering and the faulty decision to build a city six feet below sea level. I wanted to quote Isaiah: Comfort, comfort ye my people. Her pointed question stopped my wondering. “Do you think this was a judgment from God?”
Her ache was deeply theological, and even more important than comfort in the eternal scheme of things. Was God angry? And if so, would he act on that anger?
I heard a preacher wrestle with this subject. After the worst of Covid-19, he sought to reassure people who might feel the messiness of life is evidence of God’s displeasure. God loves you, he said. Your troubles aren’t punishment from God.
I wondered, Can you promise that?
In my preaching schedule, I don’t usually camp out at the wrath of God. But terrorist attacks, repeated natural disasters, and pandemics do make me wonder if God is aggravated. And the continual decline of our society only serves as justification for his possible righteous anger. American culture has gone from bad to worse, and just when we think it can’t get any worse, it does.
Make your own list of things that could tick God off. Is it long? If I were God, I would have lost patience a long time ago. The only thing that holds back his judgment is his mercy, giving the world just a little longer to repent and return before time runs out.
But mercy doesn’t preclude God’s use of tragedy to get our attention. Churches were full in the weeks after 9/11, but the lesson was mostly lost by Christmas. Since then, faith and faithfulness continue to slide. It has been many decades since repentance produced revival that stuck.
We need it now as never before.
I’m thinking of all this as the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 approaches. We will relive the crashes and collapses and the reading of names, but not many people will ask whether it was judgment. Whatever we may ponder as God’s anger, we can only hope it draws us—and our culture—back to our knees.
Eric Reed is editor of IBSA media.