On June 13, 2012, a line of severe thunderstorms boiled through east Dallas, just west of Highway 75.
I know, because I was standing beside my car in the uncovered parking lot beside our apartment building at Dallas Seminary. I watched afternoon sunlight turn a weird shade of green. I smelled ozone in the air. Sand stung my face. Empty bottles and plastic Aldi bags whipped by as lightning forked from the clouds. Huge raindrops pelted the pavement.
Then the storm passed and birds sang and I saw the clouds heading east, toward the Lakewood neighborhood. A near miss. I unloaded my groceries and went about my business.
That night, Teresa and I sat on the couch after dinner. I flipped on Channel 6. Breaking news. An attractive reporter stood among piles of wreckage and clumps of ice, breathlessly exclaiming how much damage the storm had done—one of the largest hailstorms of the century. Following her script, the reporter walked sideways as the camera followed in a choreographed display of destruction.
I felt—I’m ashamed to admit it—a warm cocktail of socially-acceptable horror mixed with a smug shot of surprising self-satisfaction.
Of course. The storm had clearly veered just north of Dallas Theological Seminary. God had protected us. He was watching over his chosen ones.
If that hail storm—with stones the size of baseballs—had hit our wide-open parking lot, every car would be totaled. What a mess. Yes, God had protected his righteous people.
[As a compassionate and enlightened reader, you might naturally ask a question at this point. Something like: “But what about all of the righteous people whose homes and vehicles got totaled?” Alas, I asked no such question at the time. My self-satisfaction reigned unchallenged.]
The next day, I laced up my shoes and headed out for a run down scenic Swiss Avenue. Within eight blocks of my apartment building, blue tarps started to appear over homes. Roofing trucks cluttered the road. Piles of shattered slate tiles littered the ground. Cars parked along the wide boulevard looked like gutted vehicles from Baghdad or Ramadi.
Insurance agents estimated the storm damage at $500 million.
It wasn’t until weeks later, sometime in July, that my conscience pricked. I again ran down Swiss Avenue at the start of a training run for a marathon. I dripped sweat and stopped briefly beneath a weeping willow in front of a white Victorian mansion. Sun beat down. I looked through the heat- shimmer and saw a blue tarp stretched across half the roof. Still damaged.
What made me think that the storm spared Dallas Seminary because we were righteous? Hadn’t the storm also damaged the homes of many good people? Of course.
Why was my natural reaction to consider averted disaster a sign of God rewarding my own goodness? Did that also mean that if I experienced hardship or disaster of some sort, I felt that God was punishing me?
What a pagan worldview.
I sat stewing in my sweat on the sidewalk and realized for the first time that I had always considered God similar to the Greek pantheon of deities. Capricious. Somewhat sophomoric. A little vindictive. Able to hurl lightning bolts, hailstones, or a good-sized twister when it came time to punish the transgressions of his people. When it came time for him to punish me.
I imbibed this worldview as a child growing up in a Bible-cult church where we sought to mitigate any unforeseen disasters by living a closed, protected, insular life-style with the lowest risk possible. Many of us believed—tacitly if not overtly—that natural disasters, illnesses, and mechanical dysfunction were signs of our own sin.
But does natural disaster always entail God’s punishment?
Pat Robertson thinks so.
Jerry Falwell believed it.
Westboro Baptist Church thanks God for it.
But is that true?
After all, God sends his rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). Doesn’t that mean that he also sends tornadoes and hailstones on both alike?
If a tornado hits, or hailstones fall, it stops people in their tracks and it should cause us to acknowledge God (Job 37:1-7). But it doesn’t always mean that each person affected has done something wrong. That they are being punished for their sin.
Instead, it means that they are people living in a broken world—a cursed world (Genesis 3:14-19). You might say that hailstones are an occupational hazard of living under the world-wide curse.
Think of it this way.
Our friends, the Spragues, have a set of young twins, Benjamin and Micah. They visited our house on Sunday night, and the next day poor little Benjamin came down with strep throat. Does this mean that God is punishing Benjamin for his sin, but that Micah is rewarded for his righteousness? Does it mean that before the twins were born—or had a chance to do anything good or bad—that God hated Benjamin but loved Micah? Of course not. Strep is going around, and Benjamin’s immune system has always been weaker.
Or consider this. I used to fear breaking down while driving. It was a constant obsession—if I got a flat tire, or if my battery died, it was proof that God hated me. Or that he was justly punishing me for my sin. But that only showed that I had a big theological problem—I viewed God as a vindictive, blood-thirsty God who got his jollies by hurting his people.
We recently purchased a used 2004 Mazda 6 with 136K miles on it. In the few weeks that we’ve owned it, the vehicle has suffered two or three mechanical problems. Does this mean that we sinned by purchasing the vehicle? Is God judging us? I don’t think so. It’s just part of the occupational hazard of buying a used vehicle with high mileage in a broken world.
Let’s get this straight: hailstorms, strep throat, and faulty engines are not usually part of God’s specific judgment on his people.* God doesn’t punish us—he disciplines us (Heb 12:4-11). His judgment is not punitive, but rather restorative.
If you struggle with a view of God which believes that when something bad happens to you, God is punishing you, you have yet to realize God’s huge heart of love for his children.
Bad things do happen to good people. But this shows that we live in a broken world which is not our ultimate home. Let hailstones, strep throat, and cranky engines turn your attention to God with a love and longing for your heavenly home.
In the meantime, try parking in a garage.
*Though on occasion, the Bible says, they can be—cf. 1 Cor. 11:30; James 5:15.
In addition to God’s discipline (Heb 12:4-9), He prunes us too, so that our lives might bear even more fruit of perfect joy and glory to the Father (John 15:1-11).
Consider nature, how severe storms prune dead branches from trees. Life’s personal storms often free us of dead weight and other attachments that draw our energies away from the our real task of bearing fruit for God.
Thanks Steve, you’re always good to read.
A great point, monax. Yes, God has good, redemptive purposes through disasters or hardships. They very often “prune” us just as you say. Thanks for adding this to the discussion!