American hyper-Calvinist pastor John Piper has come in for criticism in recent years for making pronouncements about the reasons behind various natural phenomena. In 2009, he famously interpreted a tornado as God’s judgement on the church for not speaking out against homosexuality. (For the sake of balance, here’s a pretty comprehensive rebuttal offered by pastor-theologian Greg Boyd).
That was five years ago. Why am I talking about this old story now?
As UK readers will know, large portions of the country – particularly in the south west – have recently been hit by severe storms and flooding, causing widespread misery as thousands of people have been forced to abandon their homes.
David Silvester, a UK Independence Party (UKIP) local councillor from Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, decided this was the perfect opportunity write to his local newspaper to explain how he had warned the prime minister that disaster would befall the nation if the government insisted on pressing ahead with same sex marriage legislation. (You can read the full story on the BBC News site.) In Silvester’s mind, there is a clear causal link between the decision to recognise same sex marriage and the arrival of devastating storms and floods.
This is not really an issue I want to dwell on at length, but I will say this: if this is how followers of Jesus respond to tragedy, it’s no wonder the general public often sees Christians as a laughing stock and has a completely distorted view of God.
This kind of thinking creates major theological problems. If you believe that God sent storms and floods as judgement on same sex marriage legislation, you are likely to also end up looking for divine causes for all kinds of events. If someone drives his car into a tree and suffers horrific injuries, what sin did he commit to deserve such judgement? (The answer, of course, is none.)
Also, why did God choose to send judgement in response to the same sex marriage legislation in particular? What about abortion, which has been legal in the UK since 1967?
Or let’s make it more personal. It’s often been said that, to God, all sin is equally vile. If that is so, why isn’t the nation under judgement for adultery and divorce? Or for excessive greed driven by unfettered capitalism?
Why do we do this? Why are some people so quick to assign blame and appeal to divine judgement as soon as disaster strikes? Allow me to offer three reasons:
1. As fallen human beings, it’s in our nature to assign blame. Whether we blame another person, an ethnic group or an entire race, it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that by blaming some other person or group, we get to feel superior. We hide from our own fallenness by demonising others. And that’s exactly what David Silvester did in the news story referred to above: at a stroke, he demonised both the prime minister and homosexuals. I hope he felt better afterwards.
2. We desperately want an explanation for the chaos that sometimes threatens to engulf us. Job’s friends did it: rather than accept that there is much that happens in the world that is seemingly random, and that this inevitably means bad things happen to good people, they pinned the ultimate blame for Job’s suffering on Job himself, and on God for sending what they wrongly assumed was His judgement. A desire to find meaning is laudable, but needs to be balanced by an understanding that we live in a highly complex world where a direct relationship between cause and effect is often difficult if not impossible to establish.
3. We assign terrible events to divine judgement because we have a faulty view of God. Yes, you can find examples in the Old Testament of God executing judgement on individuals and communities in response to specific sins. But we need to remember two things. First, some of these ancient writings express a developing but still incomplete view of God. That’s not to say they aren’t true; it just means they have to be read with that understanding in mind. And second, that was then, and this is now. We no longer have to rely purely on sketchy Old Testament pictures to know what God is like, because we’ve seen him up close in the person of Jesus Christ.
Before I finish, please note what I’m not saying in this post. I’m not saying same sex marriage isn’t something we should be concerned about as Christians. (If you want to know what I think about it, read my earlier post here.) Nor am I saying that God turns a blind eye to sin. He doesn’t. He was concerned enough about sin to take on human flesh and die on a Roman cross. That’s where God’s judgement against sin was poured out.
I just wish Christians would think before they start shouting God’s judgement from the rooftops. If we’re going to judge anyone, it should be ourselves; let’s leave others to God. If you’re going to shout anything from the rooftops (or from your blog, Facebook account or wherever), why not shout about God’s love, mercy and grace towards a hurting world?
[ Image : Marcelo Gerpe ]