A Brief Theology of Disaster: Our Motives in Providing Disaster Relief

To be honest, my tendency is to be bit skeptical when I think of churches banding together to help those who are recovering from a disaster. If we are not careful success will be redefined by how many people are fed, lots are cleared, children are ministered to, etc. rather than implementing a strategy to reach a community with the gospel.  Silently the evangelistic reports will pushed to the back of the pile.  We will be giving out bread, but forgetting to mention that it is in Jesus’ name. 

If we are not careful we will forget the true mission of God to rescue and redeem man from sin, not just from the current disaster.

We will forget that incarnation is about a holy God living among a sinful people for the purpose to rescue and redeem them from sin.  While we may mimic the incarnation by having middle class people live in impoverished communities to deliver them from poverty. We are just people reaching other people through the grace and providence of God.

disaster reliefI’m not saying that we should not help the displaced, but that we should be diligent in how we do it, because I also know that not every work done in Jesus name is actually from Jesus (Matthew 7:21-27).  It behooves us to follow Jesus’ model and listen to his words.

It is not enough to simply recall bible stories we were taught and say, “Jesus always met the physical need before the spiritual.”  That’s simply not the case.  Sometimes he forgave sin first (Mark 2:5), sometimes he asked if people believed that he was able to heal first (Matthew 9:27-31), and countless times he was approached by people who already believed he had the power to heal.  The reality is that according to the biblical record, Jesus did not indiscriminately meet physical needs then preach the kingdom, indeed he was preaching the kingdom and in the process he met physical needs (in my opinion as authentication of his message). The gospels are clear that Jesus was concerned with the spiritual above the physical (Luke 12:4-5).  Why else would he knowingly call his followers into physical suffering for the sake of the proclamation of the kingdom (Matthew 10:38-39, Acts 9:16)?

Then there are the times that he did not heal or perform signs because people would not believe (Matthew 13:58).  There was also a time that he challenged his hearers to see past the signs to see that they were pointing to the power and provision of God (John 6:26-33).   There certainly was not an apology for the gospel of Jesus part in the midst of doing good works like healing people.  The signs and wonders that we often point to as Jesus meeting physical needs were accompaniment to the proclamation of the kingdom, not the other way around.

The purpose of disaster relief should be modeled off the life and message of Jesus which is to, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).   This requires some discrimination in determining what kind of works we will be a part of and how we will use resources to meet needs while we are proclaiming the gospel.  It is important that we follow Jesus in performing our good works before men and do them in such a way that causes them to give glory to our father in heaven.

The gospel must not only be present, but the very motivation of our efforts in disaster relief.

A Brief Theology Disaster: thinking biblically in the wake of tragedy

By nature a disaster indicates a world in which death and suffering are predominant. A world very different that the one described by God as “very good” in Genesis 1:31. A world in which disaster often occurs is a world in desperate need of a savior. When victims cannot alleviate their suffering, they must look beyond themselves to an outside source to deliver them from suffering and set the world right as it once was. This is actually the testimony of the Bible: Jesus Christ has come to save those who cannot save themselves.

disaster relief

A proper understanding of disaster will take into account the issue of sin. The Apostle Paul reminds readers in the book of Romans that, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, ESV). The Apostle Paul indicates in Romans eight that even all of creation groans under the curse of sin. The sin of Adam was so great because precisely through one sin the whole world fell to sin. Adam opened the door for disaster to come into the world and now those presently alive find that the world is not always “very good” as indicated by God in Genesis 1:31.

At this point many people blame God for the condition of the world and make charges that if God were good or loving that He would at the very least prevent disaster from happening. However, such allegations view to lightly the scandal of sin and the holiness of God. The scandal of sin places the trigger for disaster squarely in the hands Adam and through Adam all mankind. While some disasters may be seen as punishment for sin, not all disasters are. Indeed many disasters are the mere product of living in a fallen world. Directly or indirectly, the sin of Adam in particular and the sins of mankind in general have caused the current condition of the world. To levy the argument that the love of God ought to compel him to prevent disaster is an attempt to un-ring the bell of sin.[1]

Yet, this is the very thing that God promises! This is the very story of the Bible! Where man is unable to relieve the suffering introduced into the world through sin and death; Jesus Christ stepped out of heaven and in to space and time, lived a sinless life, embraced death through obedience to God and rose again from the dead conquering death and promising to return ushering a new heaven and a new earth. In essence God has promised to rid the world of sin and suffering.

This leaves Christians in an interesting place spreading the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ. This proclamation should not be silenced in the wake of disaster, but proclaimed all the more. In the wake of disaster Christians have the opportunity to act out on a small scale what Christ has done for us on a large scale.

Christians are called to regard the image of God in each individual, boldly declaring every individual to be of a special worth (Genesis 1:27). While domesticated animals may be of a specific worth to their owners, all human life is valuable to God. It was to man that God gave the right and privilege to subdue the world and rule over it (Genesis 1:28).

Christians should also call into account the calling of the church, noting that Christ has commissioned his church to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). Indeed part of being a disciple is being a fisher of men (Matthew 4:19). Jesus often modeled a ministry of provision and preaching. That is while he was preaching he was also healing, multiplying loaves and fishes, etc. In essence Jesus was meeting physical needs as a way of demonstrating the authenticity of his message. This should challenge believers today to share the good news of Jesus in the midst of disaster while pointing to Christ as the ultimate means of salvation.

[1] Thought this isn’t a quote, I do owe my thoughts on this an article I read … John Garvey, “Is God Responsible,” Commonweal 132, no.2 (Jan 2005), 10-11.