I can’t get her face out of my mind. She was a five-day-old baby, dehydrated and fevered. When I first looked, I saw no movement and thought, “the poor child is dead.” The mother was desperate and did not know if her baby was alive. But then I saw the infant turn her head and move an arm. She was alive; there was hope.
Her mother had just walked up out of the fetid waters covering downtown New Orleans. She sat holding the baby in a canvas folding chair, crying and looking for help. Fortunately a news crew flagged down a passing police car, and the child and her mother were taken to a safe refuge, hopefully a hospital where help could be administered.
A devastated region
This was one poignant scene out of many thousands to arise in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm cut a deadly path through the southern U.S. Gulf Coast last month. It is being called the largest natural disaster ever to strike the country. As we go to press, early estimates of the death toll run into the thousands, and the cost estimates are in the range of $100 billion. As the storm approached the coast, everyone knew it would be big, but no one foresaw it would be as devastating as it was.
In a reference to the Asian tsunami of December 2004, one official called it “our tsunami.” In New Orleans, a city that sits below sea level and needs a series of levees (which were breached in three places by the storm surge) and pumps to keep water out, 80 to 90 percent of the city was flooded.
Famous tourist spots such as Bourbon Street are under several feet of water. More than 10,000 people took shelter in the Superdome and were later evacuated when the failure of all essential services turned the facility into a squalid relief center. It will take weeks to turn on the water and electricity and begin the long task of cleaning up one of America’s major cities.
What is happening to our weather?
With the rising frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, there is the inevitable question of what is happening to our weather. The nation has seen other, even stronger, storms in its history. But it appears for now that the frequency of these storms is increasing. The debate about global warming and changes in the earth’s atmosphere continue and will get renewed attention from scientists. There is no doubt that warmer water temperatures generate more powerful storms such as Katrina, and the earth does go through changing weather cycles as a part of natural meteorological changes.
Nature’s forces know no political, ethnic, social, religious or racial bounds. To use the biblical phrase, it rains “on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 Matthew 5:45That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
American King James Version×). People speak of “Mother Nature” as if it were a living deity, perhaps to avoid acknowledging the Creator God.
It is not a theology of nature with which man should be concerned. Rather, it is the clear unmistakable message of God that is vital to hear.
Last December’s Asian tsunami was caused by a massive underwater earthquake. Seismic disturbances like this are not unknown in that region. Population increases along exposed coastal areas added to loss of life. Very often it is human development, population shifts and development in marginal coastal areas that add to the human cost when nature’s forces roar through.
Throughout the Bible we see that tragedies, both natural and human, are occasions for collective and personal repentance. When asked what would be one of the signs of His second coming, Jesus said, “There will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:7 Matthew 24:7For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
American King James Version×).
Natural disasters rising in frequency are part of the times preceding the coming of Christ. There can be no doubt about the meaning of Christ’s words and the implications for society in the time of the end. As pointed out above, many factors within human control will aggravate and multiply the impact of earthquakes, hurricanes and other weather-related disasters.
Notice how Christ used a well-known disaster in His day to urge His audience to repentance. In Luke 13:4 Luke 13:4Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think you that they were sinners above all men that dwelled in Jerusalem?
American King James Version×He referred to the collapse of the tower of Siloam. The tower fell and killed 18 people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Christ asked, “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5 Luke 13:4-5 4 Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think you that they were sinners above all men that dwelled in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, No: but, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish.
American King James Version×).
Personal repentance is Christ’s advice in the face of suffering. A cold, hard look at your personal life is in order at such a time. How does it measure against the teaching of Christ and His Word? Christ deals with eternal life, and He is very serious about how people conduct their lives.
Jesus was always eager to help the suffering and attend to the immediate needs of people. He healed sicknesses, fed the hungry and gave encouragement to the emotionally distressed. He also encouraged us to examine our ways and change where needed to conform to the teachings of God.
On another occasion Jesus wept over Jerusalem, knowing its future fate. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34 Luke 13:34O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kill the prophets, and stone them that are sent to you; how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen does gather her brood under her wings, and you would not!
American King James Version×).
People did not hear Christ’s words when He walked Jerusalem’s streets any more than they did when the prophets stood in the same quarters and pleaded with leaders and citizens to repent by acknowledging their sins and turning to God.
More than 500 years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah stood in Jerusalem’s streets and squares and gave a warning message to Judah. He saw that a time of trial, a judgment from God for sin, was coming in the form of a powerful nation, Babylon. Jeremiah’s message was quite specific about what lay ahead for the nation if they did not change their ways. But Jeremiah did not just thunder a message without compassion. He was a patriotic citizen who loved his nation and its people.
He saw that a time of trial was not always an end in itself, but a means to an end. God desires fruit for His Kingdom. That fruit involves changed lives that lead to salvation and eternal life. He saw that one who experiences trials and chastening can learn from the despair. God is not against any group of people. He loves His creation and without partiality desires repentance and good works from all.
The 30th chapter of Jeremiah contains a message from God that applies specifically to the people of America, Australia, Britain and Canada today. It also applies to all nations as a lesson about why God allows the suffering of trials and disasters as part of the human condition. Verse 7 speaks to the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (a period of national travail that lies yet ahead of us).
Nothing we have seen in this recent hurricane or any previous to it can compare with what lies ahead for the modern descendants of the patriarch Jacob. Yet even in this great trial God says, “He shall be saved out of it.” Verse 17 says, “For I will restore health to you and heal you of your wounds.” Even when He is warning of impending trial, God is also giving the reason behind allowing the suffering and promising hope beyond it. He says He will bring back the people to the land promised to their fathers (verse 3).
Trials and suffering are an opportunity to examine our lives and change. They provide a time to learn from chastening and begin to look to God, knowing we are not sufficient of and by ourselves. The judgment of disaster is never the last word. There is time and space to repent in the aftermath.
We grieve for the suffering of those in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Support in many forms pours into the region. As lives and cities are rebuilt, the question will be whether we will stop to consider God’s eternal message. Time is short and it’s later than you think. God may be providing a wake-up call for your life. Use this opportunity to learn more about God’s truth and His purpose for your life. Our booklet Why Does God Allows Suffering? will give you a deeper analysis of this important question.
I still think about that little five-day-old baby. I pray she will live to hear her mother tell the story of the day they walked to safety out of the water-soaked streets of New Orleans. I also pray she will soon see the day when God wipes away the tears of suffering in the better world to come. WNP