The Lord Was Not in the Earthquake

January 2, 2005



The Lord Was Not in the Earthquake (1/2/05)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

The scripture reading we heard read from the lectern this morning is found in 1st Kings. Just prior to this passage, the prophet Elijah has done battle on behalf of the Lord, killing the prophets of the false God Baal. I’ve never cared much for that part of the story, since I do not believe it is possible to kill in the name of the Lord. But I like the rest of the story. Biblical villains King Ahab and Jezebel vow to slay Elijah for what he has done, and Elijah flees to Mount Horeb, where an angel tells him that the Lord is about to pass by.

After the horrendous disaster our planet suffered through in this past week, this passage instantly came to mind. I want to read it once again, Elijah’s search for the voice of God on the top of Mount Horeb:

The angel said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It is, of course, in the sheer silence that Elijah finally hears the voice of the Lord. It seems that every few years a major disaster occurs that requires a sermon. I can’t imagine having an earthquake and tidal wave wreak death and destruction of the magnitude we witnessed this past week, and not talking about it from the pulpit. These are not the easy sermons. This is where the theological rubber meets the road. But we have to ask ourselves some tough questions: Where is God in all this? How could God let this happen? Did God have the power to keep this from happening and choose to let it happen? And if God is powerless—if God is unable to prevent such tragedies—why worship God? Why pray to God?

If you haven’t been asking these questions, well, I don’t understand why not. Even the most devout of Christians has to look at the wretched loss of life in this past week and say, “This just can’t be right. This just can’t be the way things are supposed to be.”

One of the things that bothers me most in situations such as this is the very thing from which many derive great comfort, namely, attributing the disaster to God’s will. And all over the world, on this Sunday after the earthquake and tidal wave, there will be preachers standing in pulpits making excuses for God. They will proclaim loudly and boldly that God is in complete control of absolutely everything that happens, and that it was God’s will for that disaster to occur. And they will go on to say that it is not for us to question God. Have faith! Trust God! Our puny little human brains cannot hope to understand the mind of God, whose purposes are always beyond the reach of human logic and reason.
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If you find comfort in that theology, I have no desire to change your thinking. But you must understand that many of us simply cannot accept the idea that God is behind such misery. We cannot believe it was the will of God for those tens of thousands of innocent people to die.

As a minister I hear that theology all the time. Cancer takes the life of somebody way before their time, and some nurse, or hospital employee, or well-intentioned friend says, “It’s God’s will.” A child chases a ball out into the street and is struck by a passing car, and the parents of that child are supposed to be comforted when they are told it was God, in effect, who ran over their child. God could have kept that from happening, but chose to let it happen.

Dear friends, I have never found any comfort in that. Now, I sincerely believe that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, even on our best days. But I find no comfort in the notion that God is so inscrutable, so beyond the reach of human reason, that the fatal illness of a child, or the accidental death of a teenager, or the loss of tens of thousands of lives in one hellish natural disaster are things that God wants to happen—things that God causes to happen.

I do believe God is the God of all eternity: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And I don’t think we need to fear the future, because God is already there, waiting for us. But that does not mean that God is moving us like mindless puppets through a series of steps that have all been planned out ahead of time. We are more than actors who play our roles in this world. In many ways, we write our own scripts.

Sometimes people look at the world—all the things that go wrong—and wonder why God created us in the first place. The analogy of a parent and child can be helpful. Imagine you are twenty years old and you can see into the future. You see your daughter who will be born to you in a few years. And then you see a scene when she is two years old and puts her hand on a hot iron. The tears! The pain! Next you see her when she is twelve and falls off her bicycle with cuts and scrapes, maybe even a broken arm.

Would you choose to bring her into this world? How could you go ahead and bring that child into the world when you know how she will suffer? Because you know the good times will outweigh the bad. And you know that on balance, she will be glad to be alive. And even though you know that bad things will happen to her, you go ahead and bring her into the world.

I think that’s the way it is with God. God knows bad things are going to happen, just like we know bad things will happen to our children. But I am convinced God knows how all this ends, and God knows that it ends well. Sometimes it takes some faith for us to believe that along the way, but in my heart that is the essence of the life of faith—believing that everything ends well—everything, from the fate of each of our immortal souls to the destiny of the universe—it all ends well.

Still, earthquakes and tidal waves that kill people by the tens of thousands put even the strongest faith to the test. And it is at times like these that I turn to one of my favorite books, a book that has helped me through such times in the past. The book is called The Will of God, and was written in 1945 by a preacher named Leslie Weatherhead. The fact that this book is still in print, over a half-century later, testifies to the power of Weatherhead’s ideas.

What I like most about this book is the way it tackles the most complex theological problem faced by humankind—theodicy—without using the word theodicy. Theodicy is a theological term that asks a very difficult question. If God really is good, why is the world such a mess?

I’m sure many theologians of Weatherhead’s day, as well as subsequent theologians, have bemoaned the fact that this author was able to discuss this question in a language that everybody could understand. And if you are looking for a nice, deep, academic study of the problem of evil—some dense theological reflection of the fact we live in a universe where conscious beings posit an omniscient deity in the face of a reality whose eschatological significance is anything but given… I would be happy to loan you one of the many books in my library that I no longer read.

But I read Leslie Weatherhead’s the Will of God at least every couple of years. Not because I have forgotten what the author says, but because what he says is so important, and makes so much sense. And I write a new sermon based on this book every few years, again, not because I am out of subjects on which to preach, but because Weatherhead’s ideas are so important. And so, let’s turn to the Will of God.

The first question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not God is all-powerful. Many theologians insist we can have a God who is all-powerful, or we can have a God who is all-loving; but we can’t have both. If the One who created this amazing universe is all-powerful in the way we usually think of that word, that God could hardly be all-loving. How is it loving to allow a child to be run down by a drunk driver? How is it loving to allow cancer to snuff out somebody’s life before it even has a chance to get started? Wouldn’t an all-powerful God have those 19 hijackers from September 11th simply drop dead from heart attacks on the way to the airport? No, in this crazy world in which we find ourselves, most of us have to believe that God is not in complete control of every little thing that happens.

Before we say God is not all-powerful, however, we should ponder for a moment what it means to be all-powerful. What if it really is the power of God’s love that holds the universe together? What if it really is the power of God that makes all the atoms and molecules in this vast universe behave in such a way that the world we discover before our eyes makes sense? And what if the claim of the great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich is true: that if God stopped loving for even a moment, all of the universe would fall into chaos and disappear?

That is all-powerful in my book. And I would rather live in a universe created by a God who holds all things together with unconditional love, and where bad things sometimes happen, than I would live in a universe where nothing ever went wrong, and where each and every one of us was programmed for perfection by some cosmic puppet-master.

So before we can think of God as all-powerful, we need to change our idea about what that means. But whether or not we want to call God all-powerful, we can certainly call God all-loving. And that must be our starting place when we seek to understand the will of God.

Weatherhead tells us we should think of the will of God in three different ways: God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will, and God’s ultimate will. God’s intentional will is that we live happy and abundant lives, loving one another and living in peace. But in this world something has gone wrong. We needn’t worry too much about what exactly has gone wrong at this point. Some attribute it to the devil. Some attribute it to the freedom built into the very essence of creation, a freedom theologians tell us must exist in order for love to exist in the created universe.

But sometimes creation does not unfold as perfectly as God would intend, and when God’s intentional will is thwarted, that is when God’s circumstantial will takes over. God takes the worst circumstances and still finds a way to bring good out of those terrible situations.

And finally, there is God’s ultimate will. Earlier when I said we have faith that all of this—our lives, our immortal souls, the whole universe—ends well, that is because of God’s ultimate will. God’s ultimate will is that every creature who has ever strayed away from God, or suffered pain, or been victimized by either the intentional cruelty of humanity or the accidental cruelty of nature—every creature that has ever lived will ultimately be held safely in the eternal arms of God.

That all sounds a bit theoretical, doesn’t it! So let’s take Leslie Weatherhead’s theology and apply it to the horrible events of this past week. First, I would never attempt to explain why that earthquake happened in the first place, and why the resulting tidal wave was so devastating. I do understand that the movements of the earth’s tectonic plates have a lot to do with how God was able to bring forth life on this planet in the first place. The fact that the crust of the Earth is active appears to be an essential element in the development of life. But that is no comfort to the mother whose child was dragged out to sea. For now, we must simply accept that the earthquake and tidal wave happened, and fall silent before the mystery of why.

First, consider God’s intentional will. Weatherhead would tell us that it was God’s intention for all the people who were killed in last week’s disaster to live full and happy lives. It was not God’s intention for an earthquake and tidal wave to cut all of those lives short, leaving hundreds of thousands of survivors in a state of mourning.

God did not cause the earthquake, and God could not stop the earthquake. But the earthquake happened. And that is where God’s circumstantial will takes over. At first glance we would tend to ask what good could possibly come from such a disaster. But there is much good that has come from it. People all over the world have fallen to their knees and prayed for both the victims and the survivors. People have given money to relief agencies. Loving and caring people from all over the world have pulled together to do whatever they possibly can to alleviate the suffering.

In the midst of this horror, humanity became a little more of a family. And we have all been reminded of the fragility of life, of the amazing gift that life truly is, and we have all looked at our friends and loved ones with a little more compassion, a little more love. The fact is, there is more love and compassion in the world today than there was a week ago. And that is God’s circumstantial will at work. I’m reminded of this morning’s Bible passage: Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It is in the sheer silence of humanity in the aftermath of this great tragedy that the circumstantial will of God blossomed to life.

And finally, there is God’s ultimate will. And this is the essence of our faith, the foundation of the Christian story. Those who were taken in this disaster—they are okay. They are not suffering. They are not in pain. That is our faith. The living mourn those who have passed beyond our reach, because we loved them, and we miss them. But our tears are for ourselves. For those who have passed beyond our reach, it is well with their souls. It is well with their souls.

This is God’s ultimate will, that in the end, faith overcomes doubt; hope overcomes despair; joy overcomes sadness; light overcomes darkness; and most important of all, love overcomes every evil the universe brings forth.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. That is the beginning of our story, and that is the end of our story. With God’s help, may it also be the story we write together with the living of our lives.