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Friday, Nov 28, 2014

In Sandy's Wake: Biblical Perspective From a New Yorker

  • (Photo: Paul de Vries)
    Paul de Vries, PhD, is president of the New York Divinity School and a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals.
November 9, 2012|5:42 am

New York City, my town, was just hit by the fiercest storm ever in its 400-year history. There are huge personal and material losses. Dozens died in the storm – men, women and children –and others saw their life-savings washed away by an ocean "surge." This Hurricane Sandy truly was an awesome disaster of "Biblical proportions." A whopping 40,000 lost their homes in the City alone, and thousands of businesses were destroyed, universities forced to close for a week, and millions of people were without heat or light for many days. In neighboring New Jersey the destruction was greater. Present estimates are more than $40 billion in property destruction, total in New York and New Jersey – and certainly not at all accounting for the many deaths, injuries and personal suffering, where there is no calculation or compensation.

Even for a City accustomed to doing things BIG, the Hurricane Sandy was enormously overwhelming. And the whole population of 25 million in the New York City metropolitan area is suffering measurably. With gasoline shipments delayed for days, it takes 4-5 hours waiting in line for people to get a few gallons of gas for their electric generators or cars – sometimes only to find out that that gas station has just run out of fuel again! People are on edge, stressed, at the ends of their ropes, depressed, despairing, and even dangerous. When I merely drove by a long line of dozens of cars waiting for gas station service – on my way to get a couple bags of ice to preserve some food at home – an officer of the law nearly had a heart attack when for a second he thought I might try to cut in line. It is like a bit of the "wild west" here in New York City, the Big Apple!

Natural disasters that are the toughest barriers for people to believe in the God of the Bible – the living God, the God of grace, compassion, and salvation. Within a temporal framework, people question how an all-loving God could allow for such levels of human danger and suffering. And yet, without comparison, the Bible is utterly realistic about this world. Unlike the scriptures of the various world religions, the Bible depicts a temporal world of stunning unfairness. Evil people often prosper. There is no "karma law" balancing out the good and bad; there is no suggestion that the best people never suffer. Often the Godliest people go through the worst physical trauma. Often, the good even die young – as even with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself.

The perspective of eternity is essential – but our temporal lives are pilgrimages of soul-making. What can burn will burn; what will break in 90-mile an hour wind will be destroyed. Nevertheless, our spirits are strengthened only by real challenges. There is only one way to grow in trust, courage and patience – through risk or suffering – and such earthy soul-making is part of God's design in the temporal world. Jesus' own Spirit is not only praying for you in your distresses, as Max Lucado says well; he also has invested in a powerful and purposeful design in even your worst distresses. We can see the Almighty in everything because he is always powerfully present, even within our sufferings – maybe especially within our sufferings. Our temporal traumas may be "tuition" for the priceless earthy lessons for eternity. We will certainly pay the tuition, but will we learn the Lord's lessons? Our hugely consequential and challenging personal pilgrimages continue, looking forward to the City whose eternal foundations God himself has made – where there is no temple, because his vital presence is vivid throughout that City.

Some years ago, my wife and I were in two of our country's worst floods, powered by hurricanes. Both storms spilled 20 feet of water in the streets – filthy flood waters churning above the second floor ceilings of homes and stores. In one of those hurricane-powered storms, 35 inches of rain fell in our community within a 24 hour period, in the beautiful Piedmont area of Virginia. No one predicted such mortal danger. Hundreds died and thousands were traumatized. What we experienced and saw both in that storm and in our relief work are as vivid in my mind and soul as anything happening today. In profound paradox, though, the Sovereign God of love, compassion and salvation was in those savage storms. We knew and felt his powerful, grace-filled presence.

While God speaks often in a "still, small voice," he regularly speaks in storms, too. To ancient Job, God spoke through a storm, out of a "whirlwind," a tornado or hurricane. In the Bible text, Almighty God has three speeches, after many days of Job's deep personal anguish (1) from the heartrending deaths of his children, (2) from tragic loss of the family's property, (3) from his personal physical pain, and (4) from the ignorant comments of his "friends" who use a corrupting karma-like theology to falsely judge Job. Throughout, Job persistently pleads for an answer from God. People often reference "the patience of Job" – but his was what I call "c.o.l. patience," crying-out-loud patience!

God has three responses to Job's pleas, and each of these storm speeches of the Sovereign Lord are intensely relevant to us all in our present whirlwinds, our physical or spiritual storms. These pronouncements from the Lord are not soft "pastoral" responses; instead, they elevate our understanding and give significance to our sufferings. These definitive, divine speeches are found in the last five chapters of the Biblical book of Job.

In his first speech (Job 38 and 39), through dozens of penetrating questions, the Lord God dramatically reminds Job how little he knows about running the universe. Do you know how to invent light? Can you design and create a strong horse? Can you teach a hawk to fly – or instruct eagles how to build their nest on a cliff? As in the example of ancient Job, we know so very little. The more our sciences advance, the greater is our awareness of the deeper mysteries. We fully understand very little, and control even less. In hurricane Sandy's wake are exposed the deeper mysteries of natural and supernatural powers and purposes. Intensely respectful wonder and humility before the Lord is in order, now as always.

In the Lord's second speech (Job 40 and 41) he repeats some of the same themes as in the first speech – but also adds the parables of Behemoth and Leviathan. Behemoth (a giant hippopotamus) eats only grass and lolls around in the river – but he is strong and bold, with tough skin, and never alarmed, even when the river rages. Leviathan (a giant alligator) also has tough skin; he is not easily tamed or traumatized by storms or by other animals. These awesome natural creatures of God can be models for humans, the Lord suggests. God gives challenges that help us humans to grow in strength and boldness, courage and patience, and to acquire tough skin – and that also help our hearts to become more tender toward others and the Lord.

Actually, the Lord never gives his third speech. Instead, Job dramatically interrupts the Lord's beginning of the final speech. He confesses that, in his pleading for God to answer him, he had spoken of things he did not understand. Then Job makes a stunning observation, perhaps the main event of the book of Job: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you." (Job 42:5, ESV) Job is suddenly content because he has met God. Earlier he had only a doctrinal understanding; now he has a dramatic, divine encounter. Earlier he had only a theoretical, theological awareness; now the amazing grace of the Sovereign God has opened his eyes to see the Unseen. Earlier he had lost everything, including his "religion;" now he has a priceless, personal relationship with the Almighty. That transformation made all the difference.

Now in our own time, in our own traumas – storm-related or not – we too can suffer substantial personal and material losses, as Job did. May we, with Job, also encounter the Eternal, Almighty Lord more vividly and vibrantly, even if temporal treasures are lost – and maybe because some temporal treasures are destroyed.

And may Sandy's wake awaken all of us to treasures that cannot be destroyed by flood or fire. May we find authentic contentment in the relationships that last. As one Sandy survivor expressed, after losing her house and personal possessions to the ocean storm surge, "We still have each other, and we are thankful."

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, itinerant speaker and author. Dr. de Vries is Senior Pastor of Immanuel Community Church in lower Manhattan, and since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.
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