God, Chaos, and the Nashville Tornado
Many of us awoke on Tuesday, March 3, to news that storms had killed numerous people in middle Tennessee. Among the devastation which hit four counties was a tornado that mowed over parts of Nashville.
It’s frightening enough to wake to news like that. But let’s not forget that some Tennesseans were awakened in the middle of the night as the storms themselves ripped through their neighborhoods.
At home in bed is the last place anyone expects to encounter a deadly disaster. Natural disasters can make brutal intruders. Savagely ransacking homes, storms such as these violate the peace pact we thought we had with life.
Chaos scares us.
It’s odd that we call them natural disasters, because they feel anything but natural. We scan the aftermath in wide-eyed dread as if seeing one’s homeland overrun by a foreign empire. It’s otherworldly to see entire neighborhoods mowed over, buildings splintered, furniture strewn, and bare trees standing awkwardly as if they feel exposed. Nothing about the chaos feels natural.
Chaos scares us into saying clumsy things.
“Everything happens for a reason.” “It was meant to be.” “It was their time.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” We use these phrases as if they were torches we could swing to beat away the encircling anxiety. For disasters such as these invite the dread that, in the end, chaos wins. We fear the creeping suspicion that there is no plan, no overarching purpose.
Chaos scares us into crafting clumsy theology.
Job’s friends, for example, made sense of the righteous man’s suffering by concluding that he couldn’t have been righteous. Such a theology helped them make sense of what was otherwise a terrifyingly chaotic series of events. But they were wrong.
In the Gospels, we are told that the common assumption when something bad happened was that the victim must have been a bad person. This wasn’t Jesus’ assessment, but it was the common assumption of the day. So, for example, when the disciples saw a man who had been born blind, they were able to make sense of the tragedy by reducing the possibilities to the only two which made sense to them: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” “Neither,” Jesus replied (John 9:1-3).
Similarly, when a tower collapsed and crushed 18 men, the assumption was that the 18 must have been evil people. But that too was the wrong conclusion, Jesus explained (Luke 13:4-5).
Another example: In the Jerusalem temple, the Roman Governor Pilate had executed Galileans such that their blood was “mixed with their sacrifices” Again, the assumption was that they must have been “worse sinners than all the other Galileans.” Yet again, Jesus explained this was the wrong moral to draw from the story (Luke 13:2-3).
Their theologies were wrong, even if those theologies brought them comfort by compartmentalizing the chaos.
What’s uncomfortable but true is that, this side of Eden, chaos is a given. Jesus didn’t try to explain the chaos away. Rather, Jesus used the chaos as a starting point from which to talk about two things:
- what God could accomplish through it
- what we must do as a result
As for what God could accomplish through the chaos, listen to Jesus’ explanation of the person’s blindness: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3, emphasis mine).
As for what we must do as a result of the chaos, again listen to Jesus: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:2, emphasis mine).
Chaos is a given. The good news is that Jesus has been creating order out of chaos since the beginning.
At one time, “The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). But into the void, Jesus began to create. “Through him all things were made” (John 1:3a). “All things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16b).
We have all sorts of evidence that Jesus can create good out of chaos. He proved His power at creation. He proved His love at the Cross. And when chaos encircles, we can trust that Jesus will do something even more powerful and loving than beat the chaos back. We can trust that Jesus will take whatever chaos we experience and will work it “for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).
After all, this is the Jesus who can transform a rugged cross into a glorious altar, and tombs into birthing rooms.
Today, we weep with those who weep. But thanks be to God that we don’t weep as those who have no hope.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21).