“Dress in sackcloth and lament, you priests; wail, you ministers of the altar. Come and spend the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God, because grain and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God. Announce a sacred fast; proclaim an assembly! Gather the elders and all the residents of the land at the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What do you say to someone who has just experienced a tragedy? That’s a bit of a tough question to answer. Trying to talk to someone who has just experienced something really hard can be painfully awkward. Think about how you feel when you get to the front of a funeral visitation line. There might be more uncomfortable moments in life than that, but it’s definitely on the top ten list. Let me change the question just a bit on you: What do you say to someone who has just experienced a tragedy, but you’re pretty sure it was their own fault?
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the nation was realizing just how bad it really was for the city of New Orleans, Pat Robertson infamously announced his opinion that the storm was God’s judgement on the city for its rampantly sinful (and well deserved) reputation. The reaction to his wannabe-prophetic pronouncement was swift and negative. Everyone who was anyone lined up to condemn him for his gross insensitivity to the situation. The people of New Orleans were in truly dire straits and he was condemning them for their sinfulness? There were even several prominent evangelical pastors who were part of the crowd shaming Robertson.
The general sense of…well…everybody was that his was a wildly inappropriate comment to make. When someone is hurting, you don’t tell them it’s their fault because God was angry with them, you tell them, “I’m so sorry,” and “How can I help?”
Consider Job’s “friends” in his tragic tale. They did their level best to convince him that all his pain and suffering was the result of his sinfulness. Not only were they wrong in their assessment, but in the end they were condemned by God for it in the strongest possible terms. The fact is, when a tragedy strikes, we simply don’t have enough information to pronounce whether it is the direct action of God or simply a fact of living in a broken world.
But…sometimes we do. The plagues that hit Egypt during the Exodus were unquestionably judgment from God. Sodom and Gomorrah? God. The drought that hit the nation of Israel during the reign of Ahab? God.
The question that haunts us here is how do we know which is which? How do we know whether a disaster is natural or supernatural in origin? How do we know when God is actively doing some judging and when He is simply not restraining the natural evil of sin?
Joel here was reflecting on a locust invasion that doesn’t seem to have been caused by God at all. It just happened and he was using it to make a spiritual point. And he would eventually get to the point, but here at the beginning of his reflections he starts with grief. He starts with sympathy and calls for mourning. The spiritual reflections would come later.
The fact is, when it comes to something like Hurricane Katrina, nobody knows whether it’s God or natural evil absent a special revelation from God (and I do not by any means believe Robertson had that). And in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy, our first response as followers of Jesus needs to be exactly what the church’s response was then: compassion and mourning; relief and hope.
But, that doesn’t mean we should avoid spiritual points altogether. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the tragedy (or the blessing, though we’re slower about doing that) and use it to reflect on the bigger picture. As big as this or that disaster might be, at some point, things are going to be worse; much worse. We should indeed seek out what God intends for us to learn through the trauma. The timing of such reflections matters, though. Let us always be guided by grace and kindness in the way we process the world around us and how the people around us are impacted by it.