A few years ago, an American pastor named John Piper was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As he awaited surgery, he wrote an article called ‘Don’t waste your cancer’, hoping that people in his church (and beyond) would learn to see times of suffering and trial through God’s eyes – maybe even as a blessing from God.
Stealing John Piper’s title seemed appropriate at a time like this. Yet trying to make sure we ‘don’t waste the earthquake’ may seem like a strange – or even offensive – way of thinking.
For one thing, it assumes that we should aim for more than just ‘getting over’ the earthquake and its impact on us. But it also assumes something else, something much bigger: that the quake was actually part of God’s will for Christchurch – something designed and intended by him, for our ultimate good.
This kind of thinking will be a huge leap for many people. Of course, we thank God that there was no loss of life in the quake, and that we’ve seen his goodness in so many ways over the last couple of weeks. But are we prepared to take the next step and reflect on why this happened, and what God wants us to learn from it? Could we even get to the point where we are ready to thank God for the earthquake? Should we?
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Lewis was getting at the idea that God is not absent during times of hardship. On the contrary, God sovereignly uses those times for the good of his people. This perspective matches with what the Bible itself tells us. For example, “we know that for those who love God all things [not just the enjoyable things, or some things – but specifically all things] work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)
My aim here is not to offer an exhaustive reflection on suffering and evil in this world. There are so many questions and areas of thought that we can’t even raise here, and I hope that doesn’t leave you frustrated. Remember, keep reading the Bible, keep praying, and keep talking about these issues together!
Also, while Liz and I have experienced the same feelings of fear and uncertainty as everyone else, I’m very aware of writing this as someone whose home has been almost completely unaffected. I know many of you have faced much harder times than we have over these last two weeks.
That being said, what I’m hoping to do here is simply offer a few reflections on what we can learn from the earthquake – how it might work together for good in God’s purposes, and how we can make sure we don’t waste it.
Probably the first thing we need to do is re-define ‘good’. None of us would have chosen the earthquake. But then again, none of us is God. And God’s ultimate good for us is not that we live in secure houses with running water. God’s will for our lives is much bigger: he wants us to grow in holiness and godliness (1 Thess 4:3); to love and treasure him above everything in the world (Psalm 73:25-26; Matt 22:37-38); to become more and more like Jesus (Romans 8:29).
We could go on and on, but the point is this: what matters most to God is not always what matters most to us. All too often, we focus on what is temporal, earth-focused and human-centred; God focuses on what is eternal, heaven-focused and Christ-centred.
So if we understand ‘good’ in these kinds of ways, how has the earthquake been a good thing? What should we focus on to make sure we ‘don’t waste the earthquake’? Here are some suggestions to get us started.
We will waste the earthquake if it doesn’t remind us how much we need each other. When God saves us, he doesn’t leave us on our own. As well as pouring out his Spirit, he gives us one another and calls us to belong to a local church where we are members of ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:27), using our gifts to serve one another in love. Galatians 6:10 says, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” 1 John 3:18 tells us we should “not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth.”
The earthquake is a powerful reminder of just how much we need one another, and that we are actually God’s gift to one another. It reminds us that God gives us other Christians so that, together, we can persevere as his people and run the race marked out for us. It reminds us that we should never take ‘church’ or Christian relationships for granted.
To be honest, I think this is one area where St Stephen’s as a parish is generally strong – and I thank God for that. But as we support each other through this time, remember that what’s needed is more than (though not less than) providing a meal or offering a spare room to a friend. Pray for each other! Pray with each other! Pray that God would help us to fix our eyes on what is eternal, not just on what is temporal. Weep together and share your fears, but always aim to point each other back to our great God and Saviour, our refuge and our strength and our ever-present help in times of trouble. Let’s use our conversations and our practical shows of support in ways that encourage one another to stay focused on Jesus.
We will waste the earthquake if we don’t let it show us, once and for all, that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Read through the parable in Luke 12:16-21. We should thank God that we’ve received this reminder without anyone’s life being demanded from them! But we will waste the earthquake if we don’t “seek God’s kingdom” and pursue “treasure in heaven that can never be exhausted” more zealously than ever before (Luke 12:31, 33). We will waste the earthquake if we don’t heed Jesus’ warning in Mark 8:36: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
On top of that, situations like this remind us of how to handle the anxieties of life: entrust ourselves to our loving heavenly Father, and seek first his kingdom. I wrote about Matthew 6:19-34 in last Sunday’s ‘Weekly Word’, so won’t go into any details here. But what a wonderful passage to remind us of God’s very real care for us, and the need to store up ‘treasures in heaven’ instead of ‘treasures on earth’! Every earthly treasure we have lost in the earthquake should remind us of our heavenly treasure that can never be damaged.
We will waste the earthquake if we don’t realise how small and fleeting our own plans are, and how much we depend on God to direct the course of our lives. Think back to this time three weeks ago. What plans did you have for the rest of the month? The rest of the year? What’s happened to those plans now?
In James 4, we read a warning directed at those who forge ahead with their own ambitions while forgetting God’s sovereignty over their lives. “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’.” (James 4:13-15).
Sometimes, when people ask me about my plans, I remember to add a token ‘God-willing’ at the end. It’s always been little more than a throwaway line. But in one moment, at 4.35am on September 4th, we were all shown the foolishness of trusting ourselves and our carefully organised schedules and plans. No doubt, many of our plans and priorities will slowly come back into focus as our city and our lives return to normal. But whatever plans we make, don’t forget who’s really in charge: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Prov 16:9)
There’s one final point worth making. In the face of earthquakes and other natural disasters, we can be prompted to ask questions like, ‘Is this God’s judgment on us? Was God punishing our city?’
In Luke 13, Jesus is asked about a tragedy where some Galileans had been killed as they offered their sacrifices. In answering, he referred to a ‘natural disaster’ in which 18 people had died. Here’s his response:
“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. 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? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)
We live in a creation that is subject to groaning and decay because of our sin. In a general sense, what happened on Saturday morning was part of living in such a world. But we have no reason to say that God was specifically punishing Christchurch, or anyone in Christchurch, on September 4th. We simply cannot draw a direct connection between particular sins (or sinners) and a particular natural disaster. There’s a word for that kind of thinking: karma. It’s not how God runs his world.
And yet, when we see first-hand the brokenness of our world, what a terrible waste if we fail to examine ourselves and repent of the sin in our own lives! What a waste if we fail to pray for those around us who don’t yet know Jesus, and who need to hear Jesus’ call to repent! What a waste if we fail to pray that the earthquake would serve as a ‘megaphone’ to rouse us from our spiritual slumber, or if we fail to pray that people’s eyes would be opened to what really matters in life, so that they would be prompted to consider the gospel in a fresh way. What a waste if we do not seek out opportunities to tell people of the reason for the sure and certain hope that we have.
There is still so much to be done as we pick up the pieces together and as we process all that’s happened. But let’s not forget, this earthquake is an opportunity. Don’t waste it!