My heart has been breaking over the scenes that have come out of Houston and the surrounding areas in Southeast Texas from Hurricane Harvey. I’ve kept up with friends there on social media and have prayed as flood waters have risen around their neighborhoods. I praise God for the thousands of rescuers, volunteers, and regular citizens who are helping their neighbors. And, I am incredibly grateful for those who responded quickly to people in need and didn’t pontificate over whether or not Hurricane Harvey was God’s judgment on Texas.
I remember standing in front of a crowd of tired, hot, utterly discouraged people in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti in late January, 2010. The massive earthquake hit two weeks before leaving hundreds of thousands dead, wounded, and displaced. I watched with horror on television as bodies were pulled out of the rubble, and through tears, felt that I needed to go. An opportunity arose for me to go with a medical relief team, and after making the journey across the mountains from the Dominican Republic, we made our way to the main part of the Port-Au-Prince where approximately 600,000 people lived in a tent city under bed sheets and hastily stretched tarps to protect themselves from the sun. The whole nation was afraid to go back into buildings until they were proven structurally sound again. Too many had died.
The crowd surrounding us that day was several hundred strong. We were giving away medical supplies and water in the midst of the rubble and I was walking the lines and praying for people. We began talking to the people about Jesus and the gospel with an interpreter in Creole and from the crowd, a man shouts out, “Did God do this to us because of our sins? Did God destroy our country because of the sins of Haiti?” The crowd grew silent and I looked at hundreds of eyes staring at me waiting for the answer.
My mind could have gone to some of the remarks I’d heard in America about this earthquake being God’s judgment because of the sins of the people. But, instead I thought of a story from the gospels where Jesus faced a similar question in Luke 13:
Luke 13:1-5 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
When I thought of Jesus, I told them that we are all sinners and that we all need to repent. I told them that when these things happen because creation groans because of sin (Romans 8:18-25), we are to wait upon the Lord for salvation. I told them that the message from God through these things is that life is very short, that death waits for all of us, that we are all guilty of sin, and that unless we repent and turn to Christ, we too will all perish. I told them that the message for America through this earthquake was the same as the message for Haiti. Repent and turn to Christ alone for salvation! The crowd was very serious, asked me many questions, and they were very somber. We explained the gospel and called upon the crowd to turn to Jesus. A large number from that crowd did. Altogether, we saw over 300 people cry out to Jesus for salvation that week.
I had to work through these things several years before as a young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I am from New Orleans and grew up near the Gulf Coast and my hometown was devastated. I was reeling emotionally and knew I had to help people. My family and friends were there. While many Christians were supportive, I immediately began to hear Christians in Alabama and other parts of the country that were unaffected say that Katrina flooded New Orleans because it was such a sinful city. Lots of pronouncements were made that this hurricane was God’s judgment on sin. I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just told people that I didn’t know the mind of God on these things and yes, He can do what He deems just, but as for me, I was going to help people because God commands us to do that. The people pronouncing sure judgment on the sins of others tended to get quiet at that point.
The massive response from Southern Baptists in Alabama and across America as well as from other Christians during Katrina demonstrated that no matter what anyone thought about the cause of the disaster (if they thought about that at all), they were motivated by love to help those in need. The response was incredible. That is how it should be. Many of those being critical of New Orleans during and after Katrina, who blamed the people stranded on the roofs and overpasses for not evacuating, who turned their nose up against those suffering, who blasted the opposing political party, who sat around complaining about what they saw – those people often did little to help and ended up having hard hearts. The ones proclaiming God’s judgment on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for its sins, seemed to feel justified in doing little to help, as though they didn’t want to get in the way of God. I didn’t have much time for that perspective, nor did the thousands of volunteers who flooded down to that area to help. I think we chose the better way.
One of the best things about Southern Baptists are that, organizationally, we respond to people in need in amazing ways as an expression of love from God. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief through NAMB and through state conventions like Southern Baptists of Texas are some of the best things we do. Right now, yellow hats and feeding teams are on site in disaster areas working with the Red Cross and helping those in need because of Hurricane Harvey. Christians and other people of good will from all over are assisting, neighbor is helping neighbor, and the love of God is being shown. Mercy is triumphing in the midst of disaster. And, that is how it should be as hope, help, and order are being restored out of the chaos.
I don’t claim to know the mind of God and I am beyond reluctant to pronounce judgment on a city or region because nature groaned in their path. As I’ve volunteered in disaster after disaster, I’ve seen the pain and the loss, heard the cries, and helped wipe the tears. I’ve cried a lot of tears myself. When people are in great need and have suffered much, the response should be mercy to them, sacrificial love and service, prayer, and the call of repentance to all of us – that we would ALL turn to Christ in repentance and entrust ourselves to Him because time is short and our need is great. The judgment from these disasters is revealed more through the hardness of heart of those who refuse to help, who sit back in scorn, or who go on in indifference as though nothing happened. If judgment is poured out, it is perhaps poured out not through loss of material possessions, but on those who sit in comfort and plenty and ignore those in need right before them and do nothing to help when they can. Indifference and hardness of heart is what we should fear more than a flood, earthquake, tornado, or fire.
We should do far more suffering WITH people before we pronounce judgment on anyone, especially from afar. Thankfully, I’m not hearing much of that this time, but ignoring suffering is a form of passing judgment as well. Let’s be sure not to pass to the other side of the road when our neighbors are in a ditch crying out for help.
As so many Southern Baptists and other people of good will respond to those affected by Hurricane Harvey, let’s not just sit back and watch. Let’s not make sport of it all and criticize others for not doing what we think they should. Let’s not stare into the face of great human need and let our hearts be hardened by indifference, thus incurring God’s judgment upon ourselves resulting in a hardened heart and bitterness. Rather, let’s see this as an opportunity to receive from God, to give of our own resources, to love, and to join with others in their suffering by serving them so that Christ is exalted and people are blessed in their time of need. We’ll be blessed to.
Judgment always begins with the House of God. This is our test. How will we respond? In mercy or indifference?