My Dear Friends,
The tsunamis that brought such unimaginable devastation to Banda Aceh, Southern India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, have deeply impacted our whole world. The sheer scale of the death, devastation and suffering, have left us all but speechless. Governments are presently out-doing one another in offering aid, and humanitarian agencies are using every conceivable resource to bring a measure of comfort and human kindness to millions of people bereaved, broken and bewildered by the calamity that has overwhelmed them. How are Christians to respond to such a dark and devastating providence? According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, this disaster cannot but cause Christians to doubt the very existence of God. He said, “The question, ‘How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?’ is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t - indeed it would be wrong if it weren’t.” Is this how believers respond in the face of tragedy, even such an engulfing tragedy as the Indian Ocean tsunami? Surely not.
In the first place, we must certainly avoid giving slick and easy answers in the face of unimaginable suffering. At the heart of the Christian Faith there is a holy reserve - “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” At our most spiritually insightful, we “see through a glass darkly.” Like Job, we must (perhaps more often than we do) put our hands to our mouths and simply say, “It is the Lord.” So, before we do and say anything we must cry to our God in prayer. John Bunyan wrote, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” But what are we to pray? Perhaps at least the following: “Lord, teach me to live by faith and not by sight; to view all of life through the astonishing grace of your love in our Lord Jesus Christ;” “In wrath Lord, remember mercy;” “Look after the orphans and widows in their distress”; “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; “Build your church and do not let the powers of hell prevail against it”; “Encourage, embolden and enable your persecuted people as they bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ in these lands that are so hostile to the gospel.” In prayer we confess our weakness, our dependence, our creatureliness; but no less our trust and hope in our Saviour, the sovereign God.
Second, the Scriptures command us to “weep with those who weep,” however they come to be weeping. Our Lord Jesus was full of compassion for sinners. He wept over impenitent Jerusalem. He wept when he saw Mary and Martha’s distress at Lazarus' death. But truly Christian compassion is not merely an emotion; it expresses itself in practical kindness. For us that must mean sharing our God-given resources with the destitute and the suffering, and especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ - “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” The Christians in these devastated areas are an often-persecuted people, suffering greatly for their faith in Christ. Many who read this letter have an abundance of good things. The example of the Macedonian churches should be a model for us: “For I testify,” wrote Paul, “that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability... they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.”
Thirdly, we must affirm without a hint of apology, that our God is sovereign over this world. The ultimate reality in this world is the living God and not Satan. Satan can do no more than God is pleased to permit. Every page of the Bible testifies to this. The words of the Psalmist say it all: “O Lord God Almighty, who is like you? You are mighty, O Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea” (Psalm 89:8-9a). In the days of Noah, God sent a tsunami that inundated the world. We do not have the prophetic insight to relate God’s judgements to specific sins and rebellions. We can however say that God is righteous and all he does is good and right, even if we cannot perceive it. More than that, we can say that his judgements are mingled with mercy: they are wake-up calls, summoning a rebellious world to seek the Lord while he may yet be found. God’s ways are not our ways - his ways are higher and holier than our ways. We live in a fallen, sinful world. There is no such thing as innocent suffering. This truth in part lies behind our Lord’s striking words in Luke 13:1-5. The people who perished and suffered in these awful tsunamis, were not worse sinners than any of us reading this letter. In the light of eternity, multitudes will bless God for his solemn and humbling wake-up calls.
History is littered with God’s judgements on this earth. All of them pointed forward to the day of final, irreversible judgement. God has appointed a day when he will judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. “So, be ready, for at such a time as you think not, the Son of Man will come.”
I am very conscious that more, much more, needs to be said. But let me leave you with the words of the apostle Peter: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn. But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
Yours in the gracious grasp of our sovereign Lord.