Is God in the Midst of the Storm?

Hurricane Harvey has officially made landfall, making it one of the strongest storms to recently hit the Texas coastline. Total impact has yet to be assessed, but tales of the challenges faced by those in the direct path of the storm are beginning to trickle in via social media. Suffice it to say that this will be one that sticks with us for a while and will lead at least a portion of the faithful to ask, “Where is/was God in the midst of it all?”

As far as I can tell, the thought of Judeo-Christian authors about storms has changed somewhat over the ages. Older texts, like Genesis, Jonah and Job all  seem to suggest that God is the direct cause of storms, often using them to punish or at least re-direct people, bending them to the divine will. This, troublingly for most contemporary readers, is probably the point of view that is most fitting with the understanding of God as omnipotent (all-powerful) and personal. IF God created the world and has control over it all, then why wouldn’t he use every tool in his toolkit to get the attention and obedience that he’s looking for.  Sadly, though, this approach always makes God look capricious and petty – kind of like the more naturalistic Gods of other ancient pantheons. If God has everything at his disposal, why would he choose something as universally destructive as a storm simply to change the heart or mind of an individual? Seems ham-fisted and inelegant to me.

Later believers, like the author of the books of the Kings and many of the writing prophets, begin to see the world a little differently. Recall that in the story of Elijah on the mountain, we explicitly DOES NOT find God in the storm, or the earthquake or the flash of fire. Stories like this one seem to suggest that storms simply exist and while God may be the initial creator and cause, He is not ultimately an active participant in any single event. This is far short from the Deism that would form in the Enlightenment, but one can see the roots.

The Gospels, and St. Paul to a lesser extent, appear to start at the prophetic point of view and then take it a step further. Storms show up relatively infrequently in the Gospel story, but they are never explicitly caused by God. But neither is God ultimately absent from them. Quite the opposite, in fact. To the extent that Jesus is, literally, in the midst of the storm and is God incarnate, then God is literally IN the storm. Jesus (that is, God) exercises control, certainly, and he often seems a little dispassionate, even sleeping in the bottom of the boat, but he also experiences the storm with his people and actively works for their good.

We’re not really ever at our best when we talk about “progress” in our understanding of faith and mean simply the different between what we read in the Old Testament versus what we find in the New. Neither do I think, however, that we can ever totally harmonize stories like “Jesus calming the storm” with “Noah’s Ark.”. What I think we have to ask ourselves, though, is which one makes the more salient statement of faith for us. Which one is more like the God we experience when we’re not in the midst of the storm? Which one better supports the faith that we hope to have? Is God capricious and petty, taking joy in messing with his creation? Not usually. Has he over and over again expressed a desire to be with his people even in their darkest hour, even if it means limiting himself and/or doing rather un-God-like things? You bet.

So, where is God in the midst of Hurricane Harvey? My bet is that he was right in the midst of it. Not as a specific causal agent or as a dispassionate observer of the human tragedy. But experiencing the tragedy and the fear and the wonder of the whole thing right along side his beloved creation. Could ha have done anything to stop it? Sure. Did he? Probably (I would hate to imagine how bad things could be in a world where God wasn’t continually working on our behalf). But, God’s purpose is never the abolition of the human condition, pain, suffering and death included. Rather it is to be with us in our human condition so that we can trust Him and, at the end, accept his invitation to join the divine condition, eternal life.

Stay Dry.

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