Thinking about Katrina
As I write this, I am sitting in a popular and vibrant restaurant in upscale Newport Beach, California. In some people’s minds this fact alone should disqualify me from making any valid judgments concerning the tragic situation along the Gulf Coast of the United States in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. What do I know about trudging through brackish water and sewage; living on an interstate highway in 96-degree heat and 90% humidity; fighting off armed thugs who are raping and murdering at will; feeling the frustration of being told by authorities to find shelter in the Superdome or Convention Center in New Orleans and then waiting much too long for them to provide food, water, and protection from the violent elements of the city; walking by abandoned dead bodies left to rot until all those who need rescuing from the high waters are successfully brought to safety; living in a motel in another city with little or no hope of returning home or ever having the same job; having to start over in life at the age of 35, 45, 55, or whatever; or experiencing any other horrific catastrophe that our fellow Americans are enduring and will continue to endure for days, weeks, months, and even years? I know nothing about these kinds of experiences except what I have learned from the relatively little suffering in my own life, from history books, and from the Bible, the last of these being the best and most authoritative teacher of wisdom and knowledge about all of reality, including suffering.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” Moses wrote in the first verse of the Bible. If an automobile manufacturer produced a defective car and people were injured or killed as a result of the defect, we would haul the company into court, hold it accountable for poor design and negligence, and require it to pay millions of dollars in damages to the victims. The Old Testament even commanded the Israelites to put to death an ox and its owner if the ox was known to be dangerous and it killed someone (Exodus 21:28, 29). Why then do we not hold God accountable for creating a seemingly defective and clearly dangerous universe? Although one prominent Christian leader claimed that God had nothing to do with the tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean communities last year, if God had not brought the cosmos into existence, no tragedy would ever happen—not Katrina, not Hitler and World War II, not slavery, not cancer, and not tsunamis. Hurricanes cause unimaginable damage and suffering; diseases ravage defenseless, flesh-and-blood humans; and people shoot and kill each other in the world God created.
Perhaps some would blame this “defective” world on Adam’s and Eve’s rebellious decisions that resulted in their descendants (who include us) inheriting the rebellion. But even if we believe that God had nothing to do with Adam’s and Eve’s decisions, this question remains: Who created them in the first place? If God had not created Adam and Eve, they would never have sinned, and we would never have inherited their immoral disease.
Despite the Christian leader’s claim, God has everything to do with everything. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Even imagining that God created the cosmos and then retreated to a safe distance where He never involves Himself in His creation—or does so only when He wants to—does not let God off the hook. He made the cosmos. He is the “manufacturer” who produced the seemingly defective product. So if we hold human makers accountable, why should we not hold the Maker of the cosmos accountable as well?
Elihu gave this simple answer in the book of Job (33:12): “For God is greater than man.” Can man not hold God accountable for His actions simply because man is less than God and God is greater than man? How can this be? What does this mean? It means that God can design and create a dangerous, flawed universe that causes untold suffering and misery to countless of His creatures and yet not only is He not accountable in the sense that we could accuse him of negligence, but furthermore, He always remains good and right and just in His character and dealings with whomever and whatever He has made. Let us look at the example of God’s dealings with His creature Job.
Job lost his children, his servants, his cattle, and his health (Job 1 and 2); only his wife remained, and she urged him to “curse God and die.” Three close friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came quickly to help when they heard of Job’s disasters. They sought to comfort him by claiming that God would not have brought such suffering upon him unless he had committed some sin, assuring him that once he repented, God would relent and restore his fortunes. But Job maintained his righteousness and innocence, claiming that he had committed no such sin and that God was treating him unjustly. Finally, when all four friends had thoroughly frustrated one another and run out of arguments to substantiate their positions, a young man named Elihu, who must have appeared silently at the beginning of the conversation, mustered up the courage to speak. Anger and frustration had been slowly building within him as he listened to the older men who were supposed to be wiser and more knowledgeable about God and life but who had demonstrated the opposite. Thus Elihu proceeded to defend God properly. The four older men were unmistakably wrong, “for God is greater than man.” In this one short statement, Elihu destroyed all arguments against God’s right to deal with His creation and His creatures, including Job and us, exactly as He purposes.
Not all “creators” are alike. Automobile manufacturers make wonderful machines that daily provide us with marvelous mobility. But they do not make cars as God made the universe. They make cars out of existing material. God made the universe out of nothing. Once automakers produce their cars, they no longer have any control over them; they have nothing to do with the continuing existence of the cars they make. But God did not just make the cosmos and shove it out the door of His factory, never to deal with it again. He made it, He continues to cause it to exist, and He controls it. As Elihu went on to say to his four older listeners,
God thunders with His voice wondrously, doing great things which we cannot comprehend. For to the snow He says, “Fall on the earth,” and to the downpour and the rain, “Be strong.” He seals the hand of every man, that all men may know His work. Then the beast goes into its lair and remains in its den. Out of the south comes the storm, and out of the north the cold. From the breath of God ice is made, and the expanse of the waters is frozen. Also with moisture He loads the thick cloud; He disperses the cloud of His lightning. It changes direction, turning around by His guidance, that it may do whatever He commands it on the face of the inhabited earth. Whether for training, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen. (Job 37:5-13)
Automobile manufacturers know a lot. But they do not know what God knows, and they are not wise as God is wise. As Elihu pointed out (verse five above), “When God thunders with his voice marvelously,” He does “great things which we cannot comprehend.” God’s wisdom is so far above ours that if we were to sit in a courtroom where He was the defendant and listen to His entire argument for why He brought into existence a flawed universe and created devastating hurricanes and people who perpetrate wickedness and evil towards Him and one another, we would not understand it, “for God is greater than man.”
Automobile manufacturers have a good plan and purpose for what they do. But their plan and purpose is nowhere near as good as God’s, just as man is nowhere near as good as God. The automaker’s plan and purpose is for himself and others—that is, to make a well-deserved profit for himself and to provide his fellow man with a beneficial machine. God’s plan and purpose for making the cosmos is ultimately to bring glory to Himself—that is, to demonstrate His creativity, His goodness, His justice, His grace, His mercy, His forgiveness, His love, and His eternality.
The automobile manufacturer’s plan and purpose is complete when he ships his creation out the door. But God’s plan and purpose is not complete. He is using His creation to tell a story; and we who are not greater than God do not know yet how all the story’s details will contribute to its conclusion. For now, we must wait and believe God, who has told us the story will have good ending. The Apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote,
For I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. […] For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:18-22)
After listening to both Elihu and God, Job finally admitted, “I know that You [God] can do all things, and that no plan of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Job finally saw that it was God’s plan to destroy his children, his servants, his cattle, and his health—and that as his creator, God had a perfect right to do so. This was God’s argument when He spoke after Elihu and asked Job,
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone? […] Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of distress, for the day of war and battle? Where is the way that the light is divided, or the east wind scattered on the earth? […] Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that an abundance of water will cover you? Can you send forth lightnings that they may go and say to you, “Here we are”? Who has put wisdom in the innermost being or given understanding to the mind? Who can count the clouds by wisdom, or tip the water jars of the heavens, when the dust hardens into a mass and the clods stick together? (Job 38: 4-6; 22-24; 34-38)
The calamities God makes did not give Job—and do not give us—the right to haul God into court and accuse Him of negligence and malfeasance. Why? “For God is greater than man” and has the divine right to create a universe with tragedy, devastation, suffering, wickedness, evil, violence, and love, grace, mercy, justice, kindness, patience, and gentleness. God’s creation includes tragedy, but it also manifests His love that results in great joy. We need only look at the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
If we want God to pay for the damage He has inflicted upon the world by creating a “defective” universe, He has certainly done so through Jesus, the man who is God and God who is man, who died for our sins on the cross of Calvary two thousand years ago. Jesus died the death we deserve, and God required this in order to give us His eternal mercy and forgiveness. God Himself has not escaped this flawed cosmos without experiencing pain and suffering.
And it is in God’s pain, in this Jesus who was perfect and innocent and deserved nothing but man’s adulation and praise, that we find part of the answer to the ubiquitous question, “Why did Katrina occur and cause so much suffering?” Katrina happened in order to motivate us to lift our eyes and hearts to heaven and seek the mercy of our Almighty Creator whose plan and purpose to glorify Himself no one can thwart. Like Jeremiah, we faithfully declare,
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth? (Lamentations 3:37-38)
Five hundred years after Jeremiah, after many disciples had abandoned Jesus because they could not handle His enigmatic statements to the effect that anyone who wishes to follow Him must eat His flesh and drink His blood (meaning simply that they must believe that He is the Messiah and Savior of the world), Jesus asked the remaining disciples, “Will you leave me, too?” Like Peter, we boldly announce,
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God. (John 6:68-69)
The God of Job is the God of Peter, and He is our God if we will humble ourselves and believe that He is both the unassailable God of creation and the merciful God of our eternal salvation before, during, and after each and every devastating or wonderfully enjoyable experience of our brief human existence on this earth.
May God grant us the grace to believe this truth if a Katrina ever hits us, because it would be only by His grace that we would believe in the midst of such heartache and suffering. And may God grant us the grace to care for the victims of hurricane Katrina with whatever means He has put at our disposal. “For God is greater than man.”
Copyright October 2005 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.