Of earthquakes and pandemics: lessons from a decade of disruption and trauma

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Eight months. Eight normal, peaceful months. That’s what my family enjoyed after moving from Sydney to our new home city of Christchurch. Then, in September of 2010, the first of our major earthquakes hit, and life was never the same. (That’s if you count adjusting to life in a new country with a new job, a newborn baby, and two other children under five as ‘normal’ or ‘peaceful’. I guess these things are all relative.)

Whether it’s the ongoing ordeal of the earthquakes or the sudden shock of 2019’s terrorist attack, the last decade of every Cantabrian’s life has been characterized by more than our fair share of disruption and trauma. Hopefully, somewhere amid these disasters, we’ve learned a few lessons that might help navigate the coronavirus pandemic. So here are eight brief lessons I’ve learned—one for each of those long-forgotten months before life in New Zealand was turned upside-down.

Go easy on yourself (and on others)
In a fast-paced society oriented around productivity, struggling to get things done can make us feel worthless. But these types of traumatic events have a significant effect on almost everyone’s capacity. Post-earthquake, there were days where my brain felt clouded in fog. There were days where, after pushing on for too long, I hit the wall. It happened to almost everyone.

As you process the scope and effects of this pandemic, you’ll have bad days. Even your good days might not be that good. The size of your plate will probably shrink for a good while—not to mention that new responsibilities (like home-schooling your children!) will now fill your plate.

This is not a call to neglect responsibilities or an excuse to be lazy; it’s an acknowledgement of a simple reality. Don’t judge yourself or your productivity by the standards of normal life. Ask God for the strength to face each day and be productive, do your best, then be content with whatever you’ve been able to achieve. Don’t let yourself feel guilty for what you couldn’t achieve. Get into bed at the end of each day and thank God that he alone is the sovereign Sustainer and Saviour of the world, which means you can make time for rest and renewal. Praise God that he accepts us not because we are productive, but because Jesus has died for us and been raised again.

On top of that, don’t overestimate your ability to process what’s going on around you. It’s wise to limit your intake of news. Set aside a small portion of time each day (probably in the afternoon) to catch up on the latest, then spend the morning and the evening (and most of the afternoon) in other pursuits. Commit to your community’s plan for tackling Covid-19 and let the plan play out, trust God, and get on with other things.

Get ready to see new aspects of God’s goodness
When it seems like all other sources of security or happiness are taken away and we’re left with nothing but God, we still have everything. For the last decade, Christchurch residents feel like we’ve owned Psalm 46, but now is the moment for us to gladly share it with the world: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” (Psalm 46:1-3)

It’s true. Look to God like never before. He will be your strength and refuge, and he will never let you down.

What a much-needed wake-up call, and what a blessing, to discover that God himself—not just the nice things that he gives us, but God himself—is good enough to sustain us and satisfy us. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26)

To the mind of our secular neighbours, this may look like nothing more than wishful thinking, a crutch to lean on in our moment of darkness. But, praise God, it is so much more than that. The testimony of God’s people down through the ages—including Cantabrians from the 2010s—is that God upholds his people. Look to the faithful cloud of witnesses around you, and press on. And most of all, fix your eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, and the rock-solid source of our assurance that, despite any appearances to the contrary, God has not forgotten us. God is for us. Get ready to behold his goodness, perhaps in a fresh way.

Do not miss that first time back at church
In one of our last times together as a congregation, one of our leaders reminisced with the church about the first time we gathered after the biggest earthquake (we missed meeting for a couple of weeks). She described it as one of the most memorable church gatherings of her life, and many agreed with her. Even though life was still filled with fear and uncertainty, there was a palpable joy, a real sense of celebration and thankfulness, as we gathered that day. And that was after a very short time apart, not the several weeks (or months) many of us are now facing.

Trust me, you will not want to miss that first gathering of your church family after the lockdown lifts. Crawl over broken glass to get there. You will remember it for a very long time. And, God willing, it will fuel your love for the regular gathering of God’s people once it becomes part of our weekly routines again.

Treat God’s ordinary means of grace with extra thankfulness—and extra urgency
In the years following the earthquakes, I asked several Christian leaders for advice on how they had managed difficult or traumatic times in their lives while still growing in their faith. To a man or woman, everyone gave the same advice: there is no magic bullet. You simply have to rely on the normal means that God has given to every Christian. Read your Bible; say your prayers; go to church; surround yourself with people who will support you and keep you accountable.

Obviously we’re deprived of our regular gatherings right now (at least in their usual form), and support and accountability will require more effort. While those things should not be neglected just because they’re hard, other regular means of grace—specifically, Bible reading and prayer—become even more important.

Whatever the size of your plate, it’s vital to fit in a helping of Bible and prayer as often as you can manage it. Following the news every day might leave us feeling anxious, while frittering away our time online might leave us feeling a bit empty. But the Bible is different. Turning to God’s word and meditating on its eternal, life-changing truths is exactly what will bring us through this unusual time in good mental and spiritual health.

Don’t be deceived: God is in this, even though we don’t know how
In the aftermath of our worst earthquake, the media turned to a selection of spokespeople from the church to offer a spiritual perspective on all that was happening. Sadly, the dominant perspective that came through was that “God is not in the earthquake”. Here’s one example: “We live on a dynamic, creating planet that’s doing its thing. For whatever reason, our forebears chose to build this city on this place. They didn’t know we were on this faultline. God doesn’t make bad things happen to good people. We make our own choices about what we do.”

This is not the place for an extended defence of God’s sovereignty in all things (which I addressed both here and here), but something needs to be said. The perspective offered in that quote simply does not match the Bible’s view of God. Sure, it may provide some short-term comfort by relieving us of difficult questions, but all it does it kick those questions down the road, raising many more difficult questions in the process. “You mean God was surprised by the earthquake? God is surprised by the pandemic? You mean God is powerless to change the situation?”

Compare these clear and uncompromising words: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God. … I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isa 45:5, 7) Don’t settle for the cheap, easy, but ultimately unsatisfying and unbiblical solution. I don’t know exactly what God is doing, and anyone who claims to know is either delusional or a deceiver, but I know he is doing something. He is not asleep at the wheel or clueless about how all this ends. Wait patiently, trusting the sovereignty and the goodness of God.

The worst may be a long way off, but not in the way you think
About a year after the worst of our earthquakes, I was talking to a wonderful woman from our church who has spent many years as a community worker. She knows what makes people tick, and she understands hardship. As I shared with her about the pressure of trying to help others and about the strain on my own family, she told me something that made my heart sink a little: the worst aspects of the crisis were in front of us.

In fact, she told me that PTSD typically kicks in between 18 months and four years after the traumatic event itself. Four years! (I’ve since heard that the window may even be more like seven to ten years; the mental health statistics and the anecdotal evidence around Christchurch bear that out.)

I know that’s fairly depressing news. I’m sorry. There is simply no way to sugar-coat every part of this once-in-a-generation disaster. Bad things happen, and this pandemic is a bad thing. We need to face reality and get prepared. The physical toll and the economic impact are frightening, certainly, but the long-term psychological effects will be very significant—especially, I fear, among teens and young adults, many of whom are already desperately lonely and unhappy.

In caring for yourself and others, prepare yourself to play a long game.

A return to ‘normal’ should not be the Christian’s goal
Like everyone else, I have fears and hopes around this pandemic. I fear the death toll and the strain on our health care systems. I fear the economic fallout. I fear the long-term mental health implications. I fear that a society that has gotten used to almost uninterrupted peace and prosperity, but which was already showing large-scale signs of fatigue and stagnation, may not have the resources to bounce back from this. I fear the hidden impact of so much enforced screen time (given that the existing data on excessive screen time is very ugly).

And I hope. I hope that a vaccine is found as soon as possible, and that excellent therapeutic treatments are forthcoming. I hope that governments display amazing (dare I say supernatural) wisdom to help us all recover from this. I hope that we find the best possible strategies to deal with the fallout. I hope that the best aspects of human nature win the day and overcome our weaknesses.

Yet these are not my deepest fears or my deepest hopes. My deepest fear is that we will miss the spiritual significance of this moment.

Let me be careful here. This most emphatically does not mean that we can say God is judging any particular person, city, or nation in this pandemic. As I already said, I don’t claim to know exactly what God is doing right now, and anyone who claims that they know should be treated (at best) with suspicion.

And yet…

In a very important passage in Luke 13, the Lord Jesus was asked about a particular tragedy. He emphatically denied that the tragedy meant God was judging the people involved. But he was equally emphatic in drawing a universal implication for everyone in his audience: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

When the earthquakes hit, not to mention last year’s terror attack, every Christian I know spent some time simply reeling. But once the shock wore off, we began to hope and pray that God might use these extraordinary events to arouse a spiritual yearning in some of our neighbours—to awaken people to their spiritual plight, and to bring them to repentance and faith in Jesus.

But it really never happened.

Of course, I can’t say it didn’t happen at all. For some people—praise God—it did. Lives have been changed for eternity because of those disasters, and any single life is of infinite importance. But on the whole, the desire of the average Kiwi was to return to normal as quickly as possible. Our spiritual drought runs deep; God and eternity barely rated a passing thought for most people.

My greatest fear is that my city, my nation, and my culture will see this as one more challenge to be overcome with human ingenuity. To the extent that we succeed, it will become one more notch in humanity’s belt, one more achievement we’ve chalked up, one more brick in our Tower of Babel, one more idol.

And yet my deepest hope is that the mercy of God will prevail, not only in the overcoming of this horrible disease, but in this moment bringing people from spiritual death to spiritual life. There are a few small but encouraging signs emerging. And we know that “mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13), that God “desires all people to be saved “(1 Tim 2:4), and that “his compassions never fail” (Lam 3:22).

Let’s plead with God to make this a time of spiritual renewal—even if it means the delay of our return to physical comfort.

The best is definitely yet to come
I remember two moments in my life when a specific event left me so deeply rattled that I instinctively cried out, ‘Maranatha’—come, Lord Jesus. Those moments were the early hours of September 12, 2001 as I processed the collapse of the World Trade Center, and the aftermath of the February 22nd earthquake as the scale of the tragedy hit me.

I’ve done it again in the last few weeks. I’ve cried out, “Lord, I’m ready. We’re ready. Please come back.” And that’s good. Times like this should make the Christian long for our eternal rest in the presence of our Lord and Saviour. It will be exquisite, all the more because of the hardship and suffering that we endure in this damned and broken world—the hardship and suffering that Jesus overcame for us.

A precious friend wrote to me a few days ago. To paraphrase, he said, “It feels like we’re living in a dystopian fiction. Here’s hoping there’s a utopia at the end of it.”

There is. Except that, praise God, ‘utopia’ is a sad and inadequate word for what awaits his people. One day, this will be ours: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Hold on.

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