With shuddering force, two tectonic plates grind deep under the ocean. A section 750 miles long suddenly shifts 50 feet, displacing a massive volume of water. Huge, rolling waves race across the globe at the speed of a jet plane. As they rush to shore, they rise up with deadly force, overwhelming everything in their path for miles inland before getting sucked back out to sea.
So it happened the day after Christmas, when a catastrophic earthquake near Sumatra unleashed a giant tsunami thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean. The death totals are staggering: more than 80,000 in Indonesia; more than 30,000 in Sri Lanka; more than 20,000 in India; more than 140,000 in all, and counting. Half a million survivors are injured, and tens of thousands are still waiting for aid, their lives hanging in the balance. Very simply, it was and is and will continue to be one of the most horrifying natural disasters of our generation.
The stories of suffering are almost unbearably sad: parents who last saw their children playing happily on the beach, or who had their babies swept from their very arms; little children wondering where their parents have gone; solitary survivors who lost everyone in their families, or even their entire villages; people who wonder how they can go on living. And these are only the survivors. What stories would the dead have to tell us, if they could rise from their watery graves and describe their dying moments?
We have also heard heartwarming stories of love and survival. All twenty-eight children from the Samaritan Children’s Home in Sri Lanka were saved when the director rushed them into a boat only moments before the first wave struck. An English girl remembered what she learned about tsunamis in geography class and rescued a beach full of vacationers. A baby went out to sea and came back floating on a mattress. Grieving parents found their little boy halfway up a hillside, wrapped in blankets to keep him safe and warm. Parents who lost their children have welcomed orphans into their homes to make new families. And now we are witnessing the largest humanitarian effort in human history, as millions of people all over the world are donating billions of dollars in food and other forms of aid.
But as encouraging as they are, these stories do not dispel our sadness. Nor do they answer our deep theological questions: Where was God in all of this? Why did he let it happen? What purpose, if any, is he working to achieve? And what about the death of so many, many children, who were too weak to hold on and too slow to outrun the tsunami?
We know that God permitted this disaster to happen—indeed that by the counsel of his sovereign will, he ordained it. Not even this was outside his control. If this were not so, there would be no hope at all. We would simply be at the mercy of the random and impersonal forces of nature, doomed to die a meaningless death, whether by land or by sea. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times on New Year’s Day, “the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe’s main concern. We’re just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.”
We can understand this perspective, but if we believe in the God of the Bible, we do not accept it. The Scripture says that the God of heaven and earth rules over the earthquakes under the ocean and the waves that sweep across the sea. In the words of the psalmist, “The sea is his, for he made it” (Ps. 95:5); “He commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea” (Ps. 107:25). And this God has been revealed in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who commands the wind and the waves (Luke 8:25).
Yet even if we know that the giant tsunami was under God’s control, we are very far from knowing its purpose in the eternal plan. Was God exercising some mighty act of divine judgment? Was it merely a coincidence that the nation of Sri Lanka voted just one week earlier to become a Buddhist nation? Or, alternatively, is God working in some way to bring the gospel to people who have never heard about Jesus Christ? Christian workers in Indonesia and elsewhere now have access to militant Muslim enclaves that have never been exposed to Christianity. Or perhaps there is no single purpose in this disaster at all. Like rain from the sky, it has fallen on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:45), without regard for color or creed.
God is probably working to accomplish several different purposes. He usually does more than one thing at a time, and it would be unwise to think that we can discern all of his intentions. Who can say what God has done?
We can only say that God is the righteous Judge of all the earth, and that he will do what is right for each and every person who died in the tsunami, from the greatest to the least. And we can grieve the loss of those who have perished. This is a time to mourn the dead, to lament the staggering loss of life, and to weep for those who weep. We grieve for those who died because we share a common humanity, and we suffer with the fellow human beings who have lost everything they love.
This is also a time to do what we can to help. Through modern telecommunication we have seen some of the devastation for ourselves, and through faithful relief agencies, we can do something to help. Many Christian organizations are doing what they can to help in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, and in years to come they will continue to need our financial support, and perhaps in some cases our personal involvement.
We can also recognize that this event, as calamitous as it was, does not change our perspective on life and eternity in any fundamental way. People were dying all over the world the day before the tsunami, and the day after. They are still dying today, including many children. The tsunami did not change the real situation of fallen sinners in a fallen world. But it did intensify the great issues of life and death, so that we witnessed as never before the utter vulnerability of our humanity. What is our only safety in life and in death? That the God who “sits enthroned over the flood” (Ps. 29:10) has promised that we will not be swept away in his wrath, but that through faith in Christ, we will land safely on his eternal shore.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org