When Calamities Come
The horrific event in the centre of Glasgow this week has given many pause for thought. In terms of lives lost there have been far greater calamities but the circumstances of Monday’s tragedy involving an out-of-control bin lorry make it particularly poignant. There is the sheer ordinariness of what was taking place at the time, with people going about their normal business. There are the close family ties among the dead and injured, with both young and old being involved. And there is the fact that just over a year ago a similar tragedy occurred half a mile away when a police helicopter crashed onto a building killing ten people. In both cases it seems that there was no malicious intent on the part of any individual: things simply went beyond all human influence.
Now is the time for sorrow on the part of the bereaved and sympathy from those who are close to them. Even though we may have no personal connection to those affected we can and should pray for them, that they may look to the Lord and find the comfort that He alone can give. As Christians we enjoy access to God as our heavenly Father and may make known to Him not only our own needs but also those of others, with the knowledge that He is not indifferent to our plight or our pleas.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of a disaster of a different kind which took place on the other side of the world and caused death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. On 26th December 2004 an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean led to a series of massive tidal waves or tsunamis which struck coastal communities, killing well over 200,000 people in fourteen countries, with many others missing, injured or homeless. Indonesia was the worst affected nation, followed by Sri Lanka and Thailand. It was what is often called a ‘natural’ disaster – in other words one in which no human agency of any kind is involved.
Events like these raise many questions, some of them difficult. By no means do we always have the answers but we do believe that the Bible provides the light we need on the calamities that occur to instruct our minds and direct our lives. That is what we require in the end: not to have our every curiosity satisfied but to be in possession of a real and lasting hope. We may consider briefly four important questions.
Firstly, Why do such calamities happen? We are on the way to answering this question when we recognise that this is an imperfect world and understand why it is so. All will agree that affairs on this earth are far from ideal but they differ fundamentally as to the reason for this. Many maintain that the world is continually improving from a primitive beginning. Their explanation is ‘evolution’ which they believe trends ever-upwards. They acknowledge that the world still has many problems but they trust in man’s abilities to solve them all eventually.
Scripture teaches the exact opposite. It reveals that God made this world very good but it is now fallen because of man’s sin, witnessing to our broken relationship with our Creator. After his disobedience Adam was told, “cursed is the ground for thy sake” (Gen. 3:17). Paul says: “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain until now” (Rom. 8:22). The solemn truth is that “this present evil world” (Gal. 1:4), with sinful man at its centre, is destined for destruction.
Secondly, Who is responsible for such calamities? The answer to this question is a sobering one. It is common to refer to tragedies such as those in Glasgow as ‘accidents’ but if this is meant to suggest that they happened by ‘chance’ then we cannot agree. God is sovereign and His kingdom rules over all (Psa. 103:19). The powerful providence of God extends to every created thing and to every action of every created thing, such that Jesus could say to His disciples that even the humble sparrow cannot fall to the ground “without your Father” (Matt. 10:29). To affirm anything less would be to rob God of His deity and to leave even His own people fearful to go through the city streets where, as John Calvin says, we “are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs.”
At one time calamities like the tsunami used to be referred as “acts of God”. We believe that such a term is faithful to the teaching of the Bible. Through Amos the prophet God asks a series of rhetorical questions which includes the following: “shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). The reference is not to moral evil for that would have implications for the character of God as perfectly holy and good. Rather, as Calvin says again, Amos “does not...treat here of sin: but...according to the usual practice, calls whatever is adverse to us, evil.”
The fact is that our lives are forfeit because of our sin and that our temporal fortunes – especially the circumstances in which we leave this world – are at the disposal of an infinitely wise God who is the first cause of all things. He is working out His secret purpose in and through every event which He has appointed – a purpose which will only be fully revealed at the end of time but which has at its heart the display of His glorious grace in the salvation of His church by Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, What should we learn from such calamities? This question is answered by Christ Himself. When some people told Jesus of the Galileans who were slain by Pilate as they were offering sacrifices in the temple He was emphatic that they must not conclude that the tragic manner of their death meant that these Galileans must have been worse sinners than other Galileans. He warned His hearers: “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” He went on to remind them of an earlier incident, an ‘accidental’ one: “Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay.” Yet His challenge was the same: “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
The stark message of this passage is that the poor souls referred to were unready to meet God because they lacked repentance: they had a miserable end in that they died without having obtained forgiveness for their sins. That is the danger which every unbeliever is in: not the prospect of an unpleasant end here (many believers have experienced that) but the far worse prospect of eternal suffering hereafter. When we depart this life our place and state are fixed for eternity in either heaven or hell: “if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be” (Ecc. 11:3). That is why we are not to pray for the dead: believers no longer need our prayers; unbelievers cannot possibly profit from them.
Finally, Will such calamities ever come to an end? As Christians we answer this final question with a resounding and joyful “Yes!” By faith we are looking for the fulfilment of our blessed hope, the coming of our precious Saviour at the last day when heaven and earth will pass away and there will be “new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). In the sinless state of glory, “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
With a view to God’s eternity and our mortality Moses prayed: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psa. 90:12). May the calamities which confront us here bring home the brevity and uncertainty of our lives; may the Word of God make us wise unto salvation.