About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

On Tornadoes, Job and Providence

Comment One: Those of us who are neither citizens of the United States nor fans of the ways in which ‘Western’ media prioritises ‘Western’ events over those in, say, Indonesia cannot lose sight of the fact that this week’s tornado in Oklahoma was, indeed, a tragedy. The survivors in Moore remain in my prayers; the fact that they’re from the so-called first world rather than the so-called third world (forgive me if these are not the appropriate terms) ought not to harden our hearts.

Comment Two: Curiously, the Old Testament reading for Morning Prayer (Common Worship) this past Monday was Job 1, which contains this passage:

While this messenger was speaking, another arrived and said: “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, when a strong wind came from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It fell upon the young people, and they died. I alone escaped to tell you.” (Job 1:18-19 CEB)

Rachel Held Evans has drawn attention to John Piper’s tweet of Job 1:19, an apparent response to the Oklahoma tornado. She interprets the tweet as Piper’s insinuation that the tornado constituted divine judgement. (I don’t know if Piper has since elaborated on his tweet, but it’s fair to say that as her post stands, Evans has imported Piper’s previous form into his present [non-]comment.) If Evans is right and Piper is interpreting the tornado as God’s judgement, then I don’t accept this interpretation. To adapt a cruder phrase, tornadoes happen. And Oklahoma falls within Tornado Alley; tornadoes should be expected. Moreover, I think it’s extremely difficult to interpret any natural disaster specifically as God’s judgement. Without arguing the point too much, I suggest that, biblically speaking, usually there’s some kind of prophetic announcement promising actual judgement should repentance not result from the proclamation of God’s forewarning of judgement. At the very least, there would have to be some ecclesial reflection on an event for it even to be considered as God’s action in judgement. The reaction of one man, however godly, drafted on a mobile phone within hours of its occurrence cannot be held as an authoritative interpretation of this tornado and its ‘purpose’.

Comment Three: Consider these two passages from Job:

Job arose, tore his clothes, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped.
He said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there. The LORD has given; the LORD has taken; bless the LORD’s name.”
In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God. (Job 1:20-22 CEB)

Job’s wife said to him, “Are you still clinging to your integrity? Curse God, and die.”
Job said to her, “You’re talking like a foolish woman. Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” In all this, Job didn’t sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10 CEB)

Job is often held up as an example of how to respond to personal tragedy, but I’m not absolutely sure this is the case. True, the texts mention that Job does not sin; but this needn’t mean that what Job says in either instance is true. Look at this quotation, a comment on Job 1:21:

Job sees only the hand of God in these events. It never occurs to him to curse the desert brigands, to curse the frontier guards, to curse his own stupid servants, now lying dead for their watchlessness. All secondary causes vanish. It was the Lord who gave; it was the Lord who removed; and in the Lord alone must the explanation of these strange happenings be sought.

Francis I. Andersen, Job: An Introduction and Commentary. TOTC 14 (Nottingham: IVP, 1976) p. 93

If this is truly how Job saw his circumstances, if all secondary causes for him had vanished, then I have two things to say. First, perhaps facetiously, Job’s opinion goes against the mighty John Calvin, who insisted that we should give secondary causes their proper place. But secondly, and more seriously, the character Job’s interpretation could simply be wrong – an error, not a sin – and the omniscient narrator of Job (the book) is cognisant of this fact. Where Job (the character) is no doubt correct is in his turning towards God; but there’s so much in Scripture to suggest that such a turning towards God need not include Jobic resignation, but real protest and lament, and real pleas for restoration. And so for the people of Moore, OK, and for all those devastated by tragedy, let us pray:

Lord God, whose Son, Jesus Christ,
understood people’s fear and pain
before they spoke of them,
we pray for those in hospital;
surround the frightened with your tenderness;
give strength to those in pain;
hold the weak in your arms of love,
and give hope and patience
to those who are recovering;
we ask this through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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