The God of Calamity

Dr. Brian Allison

Last week we witnessed the funerals of some of the innocent children who were slaughtered by the child molester, Thomas Hamilton, in Dunblane, Scotland. As I reflected upon this tragic and evil event, I became regretful. I was unsettled because I thought that these children died so young – they were only five and six years old. They will never have the opportunity to enjoy and experience the various aspects of life – never will they know the thrill of a first date; never will they know the excitement of a graduation; never will they know the joy of owning their first car; never will they know the happiness of getting married and having children. Such thoughts made me melancholic.

Now, some view human suffering and death, especially premature death, as a mystery. How does one really explain it? Charles Lamb (1775-1835), the English essayist and critic, called premature death the "riddle of destiny." In his poem, "On an Infant Dying, as Soon as Born," he writes:

I saw wherein the shroud did lurk

A curious frame of Nature's work;

A flow'ret crushed in the bud,

A nameless piece of babyhood,

Was in her cradle-coffin lying;

Extinct, with scarce the sense of dying:

So soon to exchange the imprisoning womb

For darker closets of the tomb!

She did but ope an eye, and put

A clear beam forth, then straight up shut

For the long dark: ne'er more to see

Through glasses of mortality.

Riddle of destiny, who can show

What thy short visit meant, or know

What thy errand here below?

Life entails seemingly meaningless, dark moments which evoke the question: 'Why?' Do you ask yourself that question? This past week, an innocent mother was shot down in her own drive way with her child witnessing – in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why? Recently, an eighteen year old man was shot to death because someone wanted his wallet. Why? This past week, a thirty six year old executive, being faced with the possible charge of extortion, committed suicide. Why? The other day, a young girl ate under-cooked hamburger and contracted chronic kidney disease. Why? Life consists of seemingly meaningless, dark moments.

God orders the dark moments of life

Behind the dark moments of life lies the inscrutable wisdom of God. Behind the meaningless suffering and death of this life, there is a divine providence. The Scripture reads that the Lord God says, "I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these" (Is. 45:6b,7). God orders the good, as well as the evil (i.e., destruction and tragedy). He ordains prosperity, as well as brings about misfortune. He is the God of providence. He superintends all the affairs of life, although He uses means. The providence of God clearly has a dark side.

A number of years ago, my wife was carrying our first child. We were ecstatic. When she moved into her second trimester, she experienced complications, and as a result we lost the child; that was a difficult experience. My wife understandably became depressed; and yet we realized and acknowledged at that time (although we did not fully understand) that everything happens according to the will and plan of God. Even in our confusion, we realized that God is sovereign. We realized that he orders affairs according to the good pleasure of His will and that our response must be one of silence and faith, knowing that He ever remains God.

God is indeed a God of the dark moments of life – "creating the darkness...creating calamity." When rough times come, when stressful times come, there may be a tendency to say, "Well, it is just bad luck, or it is the cruel finger of fate." However, the rough times and the stressful times are not the result of bad luck, nor the result of the cruel finger of fate; nor are these times necessarily an expression of God's punishment for our personal sin and immorality. I was talking the other day to a young man whose life started to go wrong. He was encountering one problem after another, and he concluded that God must be punishing him. Just because problems and difficulties come into your life, it does not necessarily mean that you have sinned. It means that God has His plan and His purposes, and that they will be fulfilled. God does not have to give an answer to us, because He is God. When things go wrong in your life, do you believe that God is punishing you? When your prayers are not answered according to your liking, do you doubt God and wonder whether He really cares for you?

The Biblical perspective on these calamities and misfortunes, which comprise the fabric of life, is to realize that they are the result of God's wise and inscrutable will. The brothers of the Biblical character Joseph sold him into slavery. He was then taken to a foreign land, Egypt, by people he did not know. While serving in Egypt, he was thrown into jail on trumped up charges. If you had been Joseph, how would you have explained all these bad things that were happening to you? How did Joseph explain them? Joseph had the right perspective. In explaining to his brothers why these apparently bad things happened to him, he said (now having been appointed a ruler in charge of the food supply during the famine in Egypt), "And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here [by selling me into bondage], but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and Lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt" (Gn. 45:7,8). Again, Joseph explained (attempting to allay his brothers' fears of reprisal), "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore, do not be afraid" (Gn. 50:20,21a). Now, why is God pleased to use evil in order to achieve His purposes? I am not sure, but He does. God has His reasons which are known only to Himself. Yet, again, we read, "If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?" (Am. 3:6).

God's tool for the dark moments of life

Although the Lord sovereignly orders, He is pleased to use means in bringing about the various calamities in our lives. Satan and his demons are directly responsible for much of the evil and tragedy that befall us. God permits Satan and his demons to have access to us, though their actual influence is limited by Him. So, the apostle Paul says, "And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself. Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness'" (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Even our Lord Jesus Christ, in the days of His earthly existence, was not exempt from the providential ordained satanic onslaught. After His baptism, he 'was driven' into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to be tempted by Satan. At the end of His earthly ministry, Satan entered Judas who betrayed Christ, which resulted in affliction and crucifixion.

Now, God is not the author of sin. He uses sinful people and He uses evil acts and events to fulfil his purposes, but He is not the author of sin. He uses the evil which is already evident in His fallen creation to fulfil His plan. He cannot perform moral evil, yet He superintends the whole of history, in its manifold aspects, in His infinitely wise, and ultimately inscrutable, way, interweaving the various elements of His fallen creation in order to achieve His will. Of course, with the fact that God uses evil for holy designs, we are faced with a mystery. On the one hand, we have divine providence and, on the other hand, we have human responsibility. The two truths seem in conflict. It appears to be a paradox. It is ultimately a mystery that God works through human responsibility to fulfil His will.

This paradox is even seen in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. The apostle Peter pronounced, "Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst just as you yourselves know – this Man, you delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men, put Him to death" (Acts 2:22f.). Men killed the Lord Jesus according to God's sovereign plan, and yet they were still responsible; that is a paradox. We must hold both those truths in tension: the providence of God in ordering all things, and the moral responsibility of people who act and choose in the free exercise of their wills. It is like two railroad tracks running parallel beside each other. Theoretically, they do not converge; but from one perspective, standing in between them and looking into the distance, they seem to converge. Similarly, these two truths converge – are reconciled – in the mind of God.

Accepting God's dark moments of life

In knowing that God sovereignly reigns, we need to bow to the dark providence of God, whatever that dark providence may be – whether cancer, or the loss of a child, or the persistent torment in the mind. We are neither to defiantly challenge Him or to faithlessly question Him, nor to angrily react to Him. Our response should be one of humbly acceptance. Further, we need to maturely respond. We should do all that we can do to address and resolve the situation within our means and ability. The providence of God does not mean that we must become fatalists. Yet, having done all that we can humanly do, we must then entrust ourselves to God, declaring that He is God. A few years ago, I was working in a Christian institution. I disliked aspects of the job. I sought another ministry; I tried different ways to get out, yet God shut every door. I remained there for six years. I realized that God wanted me there; He had something to teach me. I had to yield to His providence. God had to humble and break me so that I would learn to bow to His dark providence.

All forms of suffering, for the believer, are under the supervision and control of God. For instance, God allowed Satan to afflict Job. Job suffered physically – he contracted skin boils, elephantiasis. He suffered psychologically and emotionally – the man was bereft, he was confused. He suffered spiritually – he became embittered with God. Now, there is a religious design to all this suffering. The furnace of affliction, the anvil of pain, is God's way of bringing about spiritual and moral perfection. He is molding and refining us into the image of His Son.

Reactions to God's dark moments of life

At this juncture, there are at least two concerns that may arise. First, maybe you are saying, in light of what has been said, that this aspect of the providence of God seems to make God unjust, cruel, and insensitive. I remember a young man reacting to this teaching, saying, "If the Christian God is this kind of a God, if He is the one who creates the darkness and calamity and circumstantial evil; if He allows millions of children to starve, hundreds of thousands of fetuses to be aborted, and innumerable injustices to be committed against the homeless and the oppressed, then I want nothing to do with this God." Is that what you have been thinking? God has an answer for you; He says, "Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker – an earthenware vessel among the vessels of the earth! Will the clay say to the potter, 'What are you doing?' Or the thing you are making say, 'He has no hands'? Woe to him who says to a father, 'What are you begetting?' Or to a woman, 'To what are you giving birth?'" (Is. 45:9f.). We need to be very careful how we evaluate and judge God. We need to be very careful that we do not evaluate and judge God according to our limited, faulty, and tainted understanding. We need to be very careful that we do not place demands and expectations upon God to conform to our standards, as if He does not know what He is doing. He is God, and our response is to put our hands over our mouths and bow to His dark providence.

The second reaction that is often raised against the teaching of God's dark providence is that such a teaching denies the truth that God is a God of love. Doesn't God care for people? Doesn't He care that people are being killed in Sri Lanka? Doesn't He care that children are starving in various parts of Africa? Doesn't the Christian Bible teach that God is a God of love? Love is often severe. Parents do not spank their children because they hate them, but because they love them. Parents sometimes must exercise discipline, and sometimes harsh discipline, not because they hate their children, but because they want the best for them. Similarly, "Whom the Lord loves He disciplines" (Hb. 12:6). We may not always understand the reason for the Lord's disciplining; it may not always make sense. Yet, what we do not understand now, we will understand later, and then we shall praise and glorify His holy name.

Resting in the God of the dark moments of life

Consider your work situation, or your family situation, or your relational situation, or your financial situation. Is the situation a bit rough right now? It is not that God is not listening to you or that He does not care. It is in the midst of one's pain and suffering that one comes to acknowledge God to be God. When everything in your world seems to argue against any humble and accepting response to the calamities of life, but rather encourages you to raise the defiant fist to heaven and to ask God to give an answer; and yet, in spite of the dark providence, you can still bow the knee and acknowledge Him to be God, then at that point you have entered into the reality of faith and of worship; and not only do you have God, but God has you. William Cowper (1731-1800), penned the following words which sum up well this dark side of divine providence. He writes:

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill,

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain..

As we look at our world, we realize that it has 'gone mad.' It has become chaotic, and yet behind all the chaos, and the confusion, God is fulfilling His inscrutable purposes. This should be your confidence and consolation, my Christian friend – "I am the LORD, and there is no other. The One forming the light and creating the darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity. I am the LORD who does all these."

Closing Prayer

Father, we confess that we understand not Your mind; therefore we must walk in faith. Father, forgive us if we have tried to bring You down to our level, implicitly expecting You to give us an answer that is appeasing and acceptable to us; asking You to give an account of the things You do in our lives; falsely believing that the suffering and pain are a result of Your disfavour or Your punishment. Father, forgive us for not walking in faith and saying again, even as Abraham, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right." Father, forgive us for becoming angry and embittered when our marriages have not gone well and when our children have been rebellious; when we have experienced seasons of dryness of soul; when we have felt the burden and pressures of life while working with various co-workers who are irritating and obnoxious. Forgive us, Father, for becoming upset and questioning Your goodness when our dreams have not been realized and our desires have not been fulfilled; and in the self-deception of our minds, thinking that our anger and our upset, in some sense, will cause You to respond, as if You need our love and our allegiance. Forgive us, our Father; and by Your grace, and through Your grace, grant that we may understand Your sovereignty in our lives; and teach us what it means to accept the dark moments of life, bowing to Your dark providence, knowing that You are God and beside You there is none else. Give us some understanding, our Father, and, short of understanding, strengthen our faith. For we pray in Your Son's name, and for His sake. Amen.