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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

'We asked for rain, LORD, but this . . !?

The floods have lifted up their voice

A series of floods hit Australia, beginning December 2010, primarily in the state of Queensland. The floods forced the evacuation of thousands of people from towns and cities. At least 70 towns and over 200,000 people were affected. Damage initially was estimated at around A$1 billion. The estimated reduction in Australia's GDP is about A$30 billion. Three-quarters of the state of Queensland was declared a disaster zone. The 2010–2011 floods killed 35 people in Queensland. As of 26 January, an additional nine persons are missing. The Queensland floods were followed by the 2011 Victorian floods which saw more than 50 communities in western and central Victoria also grapple with significant flooding.

Now we have a new and impending disaster. Cyclone Yasi originated from a tropical low near Fiji. The system intensified to a Category 3 cyclone on 31 January 2011. Late February 1st, the cyclone strengthened to Category 4, then early today the cyclone intensified to Category 5. By the time Yasi crossed the Australian basin, preparations for the storm were under way. Media outlets referred to the storm as "what could be the state's worst cyclone in history."

The "perfect storm" - a cyclone as big as Tasmania!!

Why the name YASI?

Yasi is a video game recently developed by independent enthusiasts for a video game console. YASI means Yet Another Space Invader. Because of its great size, many fear that the tropical cyclone could cause damage more severe than Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Cyclone Tracy, which nearly destroyed Darwin, in 1974. Thousands of residents in the path of the storm were urged to evacuate by Premier Anna Bligh.

Premier Bligh at the helm
"This is the most severe, most catastrophic storm that has ever hit our coast," the Premier told the ABC. "We've seen a number of worst case scenarios come together." Yasi is expected to come in over a coastal stretch of 500 kms in the tropical far north down to Mackay. It will reach inland to Mt Isa, and may even find its way to Alice Springs. This was part of an area devastated in 2006 by Cyclone Larry. "We are facing an event that will be terrifying," the Premier said. “A very large stretch of highly populated coastline is at risk.” 30,000 people have evacuated elsewhere, knowing they would otherwise be at the mercy of storm surges, as they move inland destroying property and taking the water higher by several metres than the highest level of any normal tide. “Cyclonic winds will . . . become more extreme about 8pm or 9pm. They'll be more than 280km an hour and last to lunchtime tomorrow," she said. "Whether it's cyclonic, storm surge or torrential rain, we are facing an extreme event that won't be over in 24 hours but will take several days.”

The Premier continued, "I think all Queenslanders thought we had been tested to the limit of our ability in the last five weeks but it seems there's another test yet to go through and we will face it like we have with every other, with resolve and resilience. Electricity and mobile phone coverage is likely to go out. People do need to prepare themselves for a very tough 24 hours." Anna Bligh is urging residents to be battle ready. "Frankly, I don't think Australia has ever seen a storm of this size, this intensity in an area as popular as this stretch of our coast. . . . They need to prepare themselves mentally; this is not an event that'll be over in an hour sometime tonight."

Has someone got a grudge?

Commenting on two powerful weather systems attacking Queensland, the Premier admitted yesterday, it "would be easy to think somebody up there has got a grudge against us." She described the two weather systems (Anthony and Yasi) as "David and Goliath". She warned to take steps yet again against the havoc created by these powerful weather systems.

Where is God?

Where is God, the sovereign ruler and controller of all these natural events? If He exists (as some say), why does He send these things, or at least why does He allow them to happen? Well, when did you ever give God quality-time in your thoughts, or in your daily habits? According to the Bible, God uses natural events to gain our attention. The classic example of this is illustrated in the life of the wealthy patriarch Job, from the land of Uz. The poetry of the Old Testament book of Job aims to teach us that God allows calamitous events to get our attention, to acknowledge His existence, and to turn our hearts and minds to His will and purpose for our lives. As CS Lewis (1) said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

What’s with Job?

Job’s sufferings were caused by the worst of disasters. He lost his cattle-wealth and many servants, through the incursion of marauding Sabaeans. (Job 1:15). Then he lost his camel-wealth, taken away by Chaldean invasions, as well as all his servants. (1:17) Next, a great wind struck his house and buried his ten children under the rubble, 1:19. This was not punishment for being a bad character, for the writer emphasises Job lived a “perfect and upright” life, 1:1. Job refused to curse his Maker for His allowing such bad events, but instead acknowledged that God was good in giving him life and property in the first place. They came directly from Him, so He had a right also to take them away, 1:21. However, this didn’t resolve Job’s problem: “Why did God allow this evil to overtake his life?” (Job 2:10). Job’s three friends tried to help find a way through, but in the process accused him of living an evil life (thus receiving his ‘deserts’ through the calamities that struck him). Job knew this accusation was rubbish (Job 15:4-5; 16:1-4; 17:10), but gradually realised that through all his sufferings God was refining his character, teaching him humility before the mystery, and showing him that it was still wise to trust an all powerful Creator (Job 42:1-5).

Justifying the ways of God

‘Theodicy’ is the attempt to justify the ways of God to fit in with a human sense of what it is reasonable. There is some pain that seems totally unreasonable. There is no perceived good, as to its possible outcome. In Job 2:7 we read Job was struck with leprosy or elephantiasis – or maybe, just one of numerous skin diseases. Whichever, Francis Anderson (2) shows how the symptoms mount up as the book proceeds:

Some kind of acute dermatitis spreading everywhere and developing infections with darkened (30:28) and peeling (30:30) skin and constantly erupting pustules (7:5) would manifest the pruritus and purulence highlighted in 2:7. . . . Anorexia, emaciation (19:20), fever (30:30) fits of depression (7:16; 30:15) weeping (16:16), sleeplessness (7:4), nightmares (7:14). These and other general sufferings, such as putrid breath (19:17) failing vision (16:16), rotting teeth (19:20) and haggard looks (2:12) . . . add up to a hideous picture of a man tortured by degrading disfigurement (Is 52:14) and unendurable pain, a bleak reminder that a man is flesh, made out of the soil of the ground.”

So, where is God in all of that? Job’s answer seems to be, ‘I don’t know. But I’ll trust Him anyway, because my sufferings have given me a new understanding of two facts: God’s greatness and power, and my own unworthiness.’ (Job 42:3, 6) The book goes deeper and explains Job’s sufferings as a result of malevolent spiritual beings in the heavenly places seeking to discredit Job’s reputation as a godly person. (1:11) These evil angels once fell in pride, and exist still to lead humans astray, any way they can. Their captain and controller is called ”the Adversary” (Satanas) and “the Accuser” (diabolos) , who will one day be destroyed (Rev. 20:10). Job, it seems, was never let in on this secret, which helps to explains the mystery of suffering. The marauding terrorists, the whirlwind, and the destructive bacterium – all these natural causes are part of the weaponry used, in the fight between God and His purpose on the one hand, and Man and his moral responsibility on the other. True, we're not really satisfied with the explanation – we would like to know much more! But, it’s worth taking seriously, and giving it some deep thought! CS Lewis gave us an interesting entree into this, when writing The Screwtape Letters.

Whom should we blame?

It is tempting to make God directly responsible for the bad events that sometimes oppress us. When Isaiah the prophet said,

Isa 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things
It seems that John Calvin, in emphasising that God is sovereign, taught that in some sense God causes bad things to happen. He creates calamity and darkness, says Isaiah!? This is a problem for many. The way through the difficulty is to realise that in the Bible, there are two forces at work. For example, when King David took a census of his nation, he was motivated by pride, to exalt himself. A humanist would say, ‘There, that’s simple, isn’t it? ’ But the Bible shows it is actually complicated. Read KJV 2 Samuel 24:1
And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them [Israel] to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

The Hebrew text omits the subject "he" in the phrase "he moved David." This deliberate ellipsis by the writer invites us to consciously consider who or what moved David. The verse says it was the anger of the LORD moved him. We have to read 1 Chron. 21:1 to understand how that anger was expressed.

Compare the verse with KJV 1 Chronicles 21:1

And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel
. So, we see there were three forces at work in all this: There was David himself, motivated by pride. Then there was God directly allowing Satan to provoke David with prideful thoughts (2 Sam 24:1). Satan was working directly upon David, to produce the desired outcome (1 Chron. 21:1). We should infer from these parallel accounts that the prime mover in all this is Satan, whilst he gets permission (as a penalty for Israel's faithlessness to God) to stir up David. The motivating forces in Job's case were more subtle than that.

Where do I look for help?

St. Paul tells us in his letter to Rome:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.KJV Romans 8:28

The words in bold represent the traditional Greek Text of Rom 8:28. This Text was accepted as inspired and accurate through eighteen hundred years of church history. It focuses on our trying to understand the meaning of bad events, as well as good ones. The apostle Paul says we don’t know how to pray as we ought (8:26), but we do know that everything has a positive meaning and purpose. So, we can pray for patience and wisdom in trying to cope with adversity and suffering. The thought is not that God is working directly in a tsunami or in Cyclone Yasi, or in the series of recent floods. God is behind it, and controls it, but it does not help us to think like that, that is, to hold God accountable for human suffering. That was the mistake made by Job’s three “comforters.” On the other hand, it is not wrong to have a sense of some malevolence at work, in causing human suffering. That is certainly the message of the book of Job (1:12; 2:6), like it or not. That’s true in human relationships too. Government politicians in times of acute international crisis are very aware (and some have said so) that they are not in control of events. These events at such times seem to be happening around them as if they are mere spectators, not participants. Neither are the military in control, even if their muscle makes them feel they call the shots ! So the KJV rendering of Rom. 8:28 asks us to back off from holding God directly responsible for bad events.

Which Bible is more accurate here?

The modern critical Text of this verse has a different focus. It invites us to make God directly and immediately responsible for everything that happens to us. As represented in the NIV it says:

NIV Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Nothing wrong with the truth, that God is at work in everything that happens to us. But, to me, in the way it’s put, it seems to show an indifference to human suffering! It’s too easy to slap someone on the back and quote the verse, as if it is an obvious truth, saying, “Come on! Don’t worry! Be happy!!” But, it is not obvious that a loving God is at work, when you are actually going through incredible suffering. Then, to be told it is God making you suffer, that He’s the one working it, so he can bring good outcomes! How does this help? It seems insulting to the sufferer. He needs a gentler message, like, “If you keep loving God anyway, hang in there, and eventually you will see something positive will come out of all this.”

NIV lovers may be totally unconvinced by my reasoning. No worries! My rationale for the traditional rendering is not the main reason why I believe the KJV is accurate ‘Scripture’ here, whilst the NIV’s wording is inaccurate - that’s to say, why I believe St. Paul wrote the first rendering, but didn’t write the second. The main reason is the manuscript evidence itself, which weighs very heavily in favour of the traditional Text:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. KJV Romans 8:28

Even the UBS (4) editors of the Greek Text agree with this, (their advice is followed by the NRS):

Although the reading God works (P46 A B 81 cop(eth) Origen-pt) is both ancient and noteworthy, a majority of the Committee deemed it too narrowly supported to be admitted into the text, particularly in view of the diversified support for the shorter reading [i.e. leaving out “God” in “God works”]

The editors then go on to list manuscript support for the shorter reading, which includes several Uncial MSS. 99% of the 700+ preserved manuscripts (MSS) of the letter to Rome write it as we find it in the KJV! The evidence also includes almost the entire body of cursive MSS, a large number of Versions, that is, the Old Latin MSS, the Vulgate, the Syriac, the Coptic (part), the Armenian, the Georgian, and the Slavic,. Then fifteen (15) ‘church fathers’ are listed who all quote it in the traditional way, and all of the several hundred Lectionaries. In contrast, evidence in support of the NIV rendering is very thin. Only four MSS and two Versions are listed in the UBS Greek Text footnotes (4). No early Christian writers bear witness to “God works” in Rom. 8:28. This is a phenomenon which speaks for itself, unless we are deaf to the message.

Going back to Cyclone YASI - that ‘space invader.’ If you happen to be in the path of it, may you and yours be kept safe. You may feel able to send up a prayer, “What are you trying to teach me from this, LORD God?” Also, I hope this blog entry encourages you to read the book of Job, and look for Biblical answers to your questions.

(1) Lewis C.S. (1940) The problem of pain
(2) Andersen, F.I. (1976) Job, An introduction and commentary Lon: IVP. pp. 91-92
(3) Metzger, B.M. A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament Lon: UBS. The ref. has omitted Greek lettering, for the sake of clarity.
(4) UBS Greek New Testament. (1983/1994)4th Rev. Ed. UBS = United Bible Societies Editors: Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland,Carlo Mantini, Bruce Metzger, Johannes Karavidopoulos. Rom 8:28