The Grace Letter
1998: Christmas Remembered
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
On December 26, 2004, the world reacted in horror as massive international disaster unfolded in South Asia. A major earthquake off the coast of Sumatra was followed by tsunamis, huge waves crashing ashore and submerging coastal areas from Indonesia to Somalia. Whole cities were devastated as tens of thousands perished in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India. Hundreds of Western tourists on holiday fell victim in their resort suites. A great number of children were among the casualties.
Many who survived lost everything: their homes, their possessions, and their beloved families. Their grief is heartbreaking. We have been moved to share in the relief effort through donations to UNICEF, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and many other worthy organizations.
As the magnitude of the devastation was revealed on television and the Internet, the question began to be heard:
It's not surprising that we would want to know why such disasters strike our world. We want to believe that there are reasons for every occurrence. To believe otherwise is too frightening: random chance means lack of control, which means that it could happen to us also.
So humans must find an answer which implies that all nature is still under control. The answer which is repeated most often among Christians and Muslims is:
"It was the will of God [or Allah]."
I'm sure millions of people will nod their heads and say, yes, it was God's will that so many people would perish so horribly. But I can't be one of those people. I'm sorry, but I do not believe the tsunami was a deliberate act of God to strike down this group while sparing others. My God is not like that. A willful act of death and devastation is not the creation of a God of love.
How do we then explain the tragedy? Now the non-believers state their case. "Either God willed this to happen," they say, "or else God was powerless to stop it. Either God is not all powerful, or else God is not all good. Which do you say?"
Which do I say? In my opinion, neither is correct. I do believe in God, but I believe God does not interfere in the natural order of this planet. Earthquakes result from movement of tectonic plates in the earth's crust. We don't know what makes the plates move as they do. Perhaps if their movement were to be interrupted or reversed, the molten core beneath the plates might develop so much pressure that it would explode in volcanic disaster. The laws of physics must be followed.
Death is a part of the natural process of our world. Whether we pass away at age ninety in our sleep, or prematurely in a cataclysm, no one gets out of here alive. I am quite sure the tsunami was not a judgment of God on non-chosen ones. I don't see it as a matter of impotence or of destructive will. It's just part of the price we pay for living on a fast-spinning rock with an unstable core. It probably won't be the last natural disaster.
To quote Forrest Gump, "..it happens."
Even less plausible as "God's will" are man-made disasters. Was the Holocaust God's will? What about the World Trade Center?
Why didn't God stop those awful acts?
What is Jesus saying in this fascinating passage? Certainly he makes the point that the victims of tragedy are not being singled out for their "sinful" acts. That much is clear. The rain fell on the righteous and the unrighteous. But he is saying more: "Unless you repent, you too will all perish."
But didn't we just make the obvious point that we will all perish anyway? What is the deeper meaning here? Let me speculate.
Jesus wasn't talking to the Galileans, or to the eighteen persons crushed beneath the tower. These persons were already dead. Jesus was talking to "religious" persons who interpreted these deaths as God's will or judgment on those who deserved such punishment. To these persons Jesus had one word: "Repent."
The word "repent" has been twisted out of its original meaning in the centuries since this encounter was described. People have come to associate it with "turning from sin." You'd better change your evil ways or you'll burn in hell, they say. While it's commendable to encourage better behavior towards our fellow human beings, this isn't the real meaning of the Greek word in the original manuscript. This word is metanoeo, and the associated noun, "repentance," is metanoia. They can be translated "to change one's mind, to reconsider, to think differently."
Not quite the same, is it? The changing of the mind comes first, then the actions follow. In Jesus's time, John the Baptist had already been exhorting his followers to "repent." When he saw the Pharisees, the most "religious" persons in Israel, he told them they should "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3: 8).
John, and Jesus, are saying "Think differently from the fixed ideas you have always held. Be open to new possibilities." Jesus's whole ministry was full of new possibilities. The precedence of love and service over legalism was too radical for the religious establishment to accept.
"God Is Still Speaking"
What if we should be "thinking differently" about this whole concept of disaster and tragedy? What if we take seriously the words Paul heard from the Lord:
Instead of "God's Will" as the dominant theme of our response, should we speak of "God's Grace" instead?
Many of us have experienced tragedy on a small, individual scale, as we have been rejected by families and friends. So often the rejection comes from the "religious leaders" of our modern society. Perhaps we, and they, can benefit from the true meaning of repentance - thinking differently. The conflict in our lives did not happen as a result of our sin, or of our parents' sins. It just happened. It's part of living in this physical world.
Grace is God's presence in our world. It has been described as "God's unmerited favor." We didn't earn grace by being good. God comes to us, to love us, to comfort and console us in our sorrow, to be our companion when we are alone. Through grace, we can go on with life even in the midst of tragedy, and we can open our minds to "think differently" about ourselves and our world.
God's grace allows us to survive, to endure, to continue to produce fruit. You are still alive. You are part of the generation to whom God is still speaking today.
Listen with an open mind.