This will be about as far as I know how to go in answering the questions about the hurricanes, tornadoes, and other tragedies God allows into the lives of His beloved. At the conclusion, we’ll be glad to receive further input and comments from readers (on our website), particularly insights from Scripture.
Here are some questions we ought to ask when tragedies come, alongwith questions we ought not to be asking.
1. NOT ‘WHY ME?’ BUT ‘WHY NOT ME?’
A year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer, and under the tongue, of all places. If you want to hurt a preacher, that’s the place. The day we drove home from the oral surgeon’s office after receiving the report of the biopsy, I thought, “Cancer doesn’t happen to me. Cancer happens to other people.” That’s how it had been for forty years of ministry. People all around me suffered with cancer and my job was to minister to them. But now, it had become my turn to experience what they had endured.
Asking “why me?” seems to indicate I think I’m better than others. “Why not me?” is the better approach. People far better than I, godlier, smarter, holier, better in every respect, have battled this dreaded disease, some successfully, some not. Did I think I was to be excused from this kind of suffering? Doesn’t the Bible say, “It is through much tribulation that we enter the Kingdom”? (Acts 14:22) Our Lord said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Perhaps the Lord wants His people to pass through the same suffering as others in order to demonstrate the difference His presence can make. The Lord lets His disciples be arrested and thrown into jail in order to have the gospel preached in court. (Matthew 10:18) The authorities in the throneroom or courtroom might never darken the door of a church or accept the invitation to a revival meeting or read a gospel tract. Someone is going to have to be arrested and put on trial in their presence, then tell his story. In the telling of the disciple’s story, in making his defense, the truth about Jesus comes out. That is precisely what happened when Paul stood before Caesar, making his case. It was an awful experience in a hundred ways, especially when the other disciples found more pressing matters to attend to that day. Paul stood alone, but, as He said, “Nevertheless, the Lord stood with me. And He strengthened me, in order that the proclamation (of the gospel) might be fully made through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear.” (II Timothy 4:17)
2. SO, THE QUESTION IS NOT ‘WHY DID GOD LET THIS HAPPEN?’ BUT ‘WHAT DOES HE WANT TO HAPPEN NOW?’
It’s so irresistible. We see a disturbing situation and our first impulse is to ask why God did that, or at least, allowed it to occur. We have good company; the disciples did it before us.
Walking by a man blind from birth, the disciples turned to Jesus and asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Interesting theology, infallible reasoning. All suffering is caused by sin, this man is suffering, therefore, sin is the culprit. The only question remaining for the disciples was whose sin. With only two suspects, this seemed to be an open and shut case: either the man sinned in his mother’s womb or the parents sinned and God punished them by having their son be born blind. I don’t think you want these disciples teaching in your Sunday School. Their theology of God could use some enlightenment–help which the Lord proceeded to administer. (Their “infallible” reasoning, of course, is based on a faulty premise, that all suffering is caused by sin. You wonder if these fellows had ever heard of the book of Job. I wonder the same thing about Christians so hasty to announce that Katrina was God’s judgment on the Gulf Coast.)
“The issue is not anyone’s sin,” Jesus said, in effect. “This is all about doing the work of the Lord. And we have to do that while it is day. The night comes when no one can work.” (John 9:1-5)
Sitting around discussing why God let blindness afflict a child or a shooting occur in a church or a hurricane destroy a city is tempting, almost pleasurable, and heady stuff. Do it for an hour and you come away with the feeling that you have somehow been doing the Lord’s work, that you have done something about that suffering, that you have defended God. As I say, it can be heady stuff. I suppose theologians and pastors and teachers must grapple with these issues–in a small way, I’m trying to do that here–but for most of God’s children, this kind of banter and word-wrestling is pointless and meaningless and off limits. The issue is not why He let it happen, but what He wants to happen now.
Jesus proceeded to heal the man of his blindness, then to redeem him from his sin. But that was not all God wanted to happen. The word about Jesus traveled far and wide, and others turned to Him in faith. Even that was not the end of it. John recorded the story and untold numbers over the centuries have read its account in Scripture and believed in this Savior. And it all started with the sufferings of one man. If I’m any judge, I’d say up in Heaven, that dear soul is feeling pretty good about how God used his blindness. A few years’ suffering, an eternity of blessing for millions.
We in New Orleans are blessed and overwhelmed by fellow believers from 41 states who have left their Baptist churches and descended on our area to live in church buildings, rise at 3:30 am, and cook thousands of meals a day for the homeless, emergency workers, and volunteer teams, and not get time to sit down and rest until midday, then do it all again an hour later. They lived in churches when there was no power, operating chain saws and eating MREs and working until dark, then getting up the next morning and doing it again. These people did not sit around discussing God’s judgment. They were living His grace. We are immensely impressed and eternally in their debt.
3. THE QUESTION IS NOT ‘WHAT DOES GOD WANT OTHERS TO DO?’ BUT ‘WHAT DOES HE WANT ME TO DO?’
Jesus was getting in some last-minute teachings and instructions with the disciples before leaving. He had done His work–His death, burial, and resurrection were behind now–and He was preparing to ascend to the Father. One final item on His agenda was to prepare Simon Peter for his future. In John 21, Jesus tells Peter some things he can expect to occur, ending with, “Follow me.” Perhaps feeling uncomfortable under the heatlamp of the Lord’s attention, Peter tried to deflect it by turning to a nearby apostle. “Here’s John, Lord,” he said, “What about him? What’s going to happen to John?” Jesus said, “If I want John to remain alive until I return to earth, what’s that to you? You follow me.”
I know people who can tell you God’s agenda for their church, their pastor, and the deacons. But they don’t have a clue what He wants they themselves to do. Since Katrina, people have expressed frustration to me that their churches and leaders are not doing what they should. After a bit, I sometimes say, “And what about you? What are you doing?” It’s usually met by a blank stare.
It’s so easy to prepare work assignments for others. So difficult to turn away from that and attend to our own tasks.
As soon as my insurance company sent the money, I signed the contract with a small local company to reroof my house. Throughout metro New Orleans, thousands of homes are wearing the blue plastic put there by FEMA to prevent further rain damage until the roofs can be replaced. Local home builders and renovators have moved over to devote themselves strictly to roofing houses. That’s the case with my friend Jimmy. For years, his company had installed custom garages. Seeing the need, he trained his workers and they became roofers. I checked his references and then asked him to do mine. In the middle of the job, my next door neighbor came over.
“They’re doing a lousy job,” he said, and pointed out a couple of flaws in their workmanship. I called Jimmy the contractor, and my wife invited a friend who knows about these things to come over. We sat around the table and discussed the issues my neighbor raised, eventually settling them to my satisfaction. But during the discussion, something unexpected happened. The contractor said to my neighbor, “I see you’ve got some people putting a new roof on your house. They’re doing it all wrong.” Before the neighbor responded, our handyman friend chimed in. “He’s right. This is as bad a roof job as I have seen.” We had to call them back to the subject, reminding them we were discussing my roof and not the neighbor’s. But the point had been made: the man criticizing my roof needed to be focusing on his own. It’s natural, it’s easy, and it’s almost fun to our carnal natures. But Scripture deals harshly with this kind of hypocrisy from one end to the other.
Rick Warren says the most dangerous question in the world is “What do you want me to do?” Ask it and God will tell you. The question He will not answer, however, is “What do you want my brother to do?”
4. THE QUESTION IS NOT ‘WHAT IS GOD SAYING TO THE VICTIMS?’ BUT WHAT IS HE SAYING TO ME?’
This is a variation of the last question. “What’s God trying to say?” we hear, as though the Lord is having difficulty getting His point across.
One day some citizens approached Jesus with a report that Pilate had just slaughtered some Galileans who were in the process of killing their own sacrificial animals, thus mingling their blood. Jesus said, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans to die in such a manner?” After pausing to let it sink in, He said, “No. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Then, the Lord added a current event of His own. “How about the tower of Siloam that fell, killing those 18 people. Do you think they were worse sinners than the citizens of Jerusalem? I tell you no. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
The citizens of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast have been subjected to this kind of self-righteous judgmentalism since Katrina and Rita. For some reason, many religious people felt free to pronounce that God is judging us because of the wickedness of the French Quarter and the casinos up and down the coast. In a letter printed in our newspaper responding to this, I pointed out that I am fascinated by the certainty of some that God is judging us as well as the certainty of others that He isn’t. A better course, I suggested, is to say He might be; we deserve it; let us seek the Lord.
Jesus warned against this kind of judgmentalism in this passage. He knew how quickly shallow minds seize on the opportunity to judge victims of catastrophes, and He tried to stop it in its tracks. The question is not what is God saying to the victims, but what is He saying to you. What He was saying to those people, Jesus said, was “Repent.”
To those who pronounce that God is judging us for our sins, I’ve said somewhat facetiously that they should watch out, because “you’re next.” That sounds harsh until you realize that it’s a variation of Psalm 130:3. “If the Lord should mark iniquity, who would stand?” If He starts judging sin, run for cover, friend, because you’re on the same list as the rest of us.
5. THE QUESTION IS NOT ‘WHAT CAN I NOT DO?’ BUT ‘WHAT CAN I DO?’
When the pastor begins laying before the congregation the devastation of a tsunami or a hurricane, people start finding reasons not to be involved. “I can’t just drop everything and go to New Orleans to help those people. I have a business to run. Or a family to take care of.” “I’m not Bill Gates. I can’t write a check for a million dollars for those people.”
I have good news for you, friend. When you stand before the Lord at judgment, He will not hold you accountable for what you did not have or could not do. He will not judge you for not giving what you never owned. He will not condemn you for not going where He did not command. But what He will do is hold you responsible for what you did with what you have.
And that’s scary, isn’t it.
All four gospels tell the fascinating story of the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet and hair with the costly perfume, although with some variations. When the disciples began criticizing her–“She could have sold that and taken the money and fed a lot of poor people!”–Jesus said, “Let her alone. She has done what she could.”
That may be about the finest accolade any of us could ask for. You did what you could. That’s all He asks.
6. A BETTER QUESTION, HOWEVER, IS NOT ‘WHAT CAN I DO?’ BUT ‘WHAT WILL YOU HAVE ME TO DO?’
This may be the most often asked question in Scripture. Paul prayed it on the road outside Damascus when he was on a murderous rampage intending to wipe out Christianity. The Lord knocked him off his high horse and blinded him with a light from Heaven. As Paul, then called Saul, stared into the brightness, he heard a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul said weakly, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus–whom you are persecuting.” Saul did not hesitate. “What will you have me to do?”
It was Mary’s advice at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when the party ran out of wine. To the servants, she said, “Do whatever He tells you.”
Our Lord left us what may be called His watchword: “I do always do the things that please the Father.” (John 8:29) I cannot say that and doubt if you can either. But it stands as the goal, the standard for the Lord’s people.
It’s the best question. We want to know now why God did this, what He’s saying to others, what He wants them to do. All we need to know is what He wants us to do at this moment.
When I was in seminary a long time ago, one of our denomination’s great statesmen spoke in chapel and said something which we all thought was profound. We wrote it down and the words showed up in our sermons later. It took me a long time to realize it was not true; in fact, it wasn’t even close to being true. What he said was, “Wherever there is a need, there is a mission field, and the nearest believer is the missionary.”
It sounds right. We ought to be meeting needs. But it leaves the Lord out of the equation. Believe that philosophy and you will be running helter skelter from task to task, frantically trying to meet every need you see, leaving this task unfinished while you scurry to the latest and most urgent problem. Thankfully, the Lord did not give us such an assignment. Our task is to ask, “What will you have me to do?” and go do it.
That makes it truly liberating. By knowing what God wants you to do and focusing on it, you may rule out all the other tasks that come along. Over the years, as church and denominational nominating committees call on church members asking them to serve on committees or boards, I’ve found myself admiring the ones who can promptly turn them down by simply saying, “I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing. Anything else would be a distraction.”
Our Lord had spent a long day healing and teaching. Finally, all the people went home and he retired for the night. Early the next morning, while it was still dark, He stepped outside and walked into the hills to pray to the Father. Before long, the disciples found him. You can almost hear the irritation in their voices. “Lord, we have a long line of sick people back at the house. There’s work to do. We need you there. You don’t have time for this.” Jesus said to them, “Come on. Let’s go to the next town and preach the gospel there. Because that’s why I came.” (Mark 1) He walked away from needs in order to be obedient to the Father and to carry out His assignment.
Most often asked question. Best question. Most liberating. Most dangerous.
But it’s the only question that fits every situation of every believer.
One caution: when you ask the Lord what He wants you to do, get ready to be surprised. It may be exactly the opposite of what you would normally have done. And I can almost guarantee that it will be far more than you think you can do. All through Scripture, people whom the Lord calls have responded with cries that, “I can’t speak, Lord!” “I’m too young, Lord!” “Who am I, Lord?”
In time they began to see that the Lord believed in them more strongly than they did in themselves. He saw potential where they saw nothing.
To Moses, the Lord said, in effect, “This is not about you. It’s about me. I will be with you.”
Great lesson. Follow the Lord and you will find yourself doing far more than you ever thought you could, developing more strength and more gifts and abilities than anyone thought you had, becoming more like Jesus than the person you were previously.
“What would you have me to do?” is the scariest question you can ask. The most exciting. And absolutely the best.
The next time you find yourself in a bad situation, ask it. And get ready for some excitement.