Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Disaters and Theology, Part 3

Monday after the Second Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2011

The Lord be with you

This past Saturday, here in Spartanburg, a miniature train derailed. Twenty Eight people, mostly children, were injured and one six-year old boy died. I expect most of the churches in our area, like Lamb of God, remembered them in their prayers Sunday morning. The boy was the son of an area Baptist minister, who was also injured in the accident. A number of the other children were members of the same Baptist church. They were on a church outing.

This story will never make the front page of USA Today. It is not a disaster on the scale of Japan. However this tragedy brings the idea of disasters to mind yet again. Disasters come in all sizes. Some effect whole countries. Some impact whole communities, like our miniature train wreck. Some impact only single families or an individual. No matter the size, they are a disaster to those impacted. As Christians we need to know what God’s word says at times like these.

This is now my third post on the topic of Disasters and Theology. To read the other posts just click on part 1 and part 2. This topic also relates to the flawed theology of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, as I wrote about in an earlier blog post.

As I indicated in those earlier posts, God is indeed involved in the events of our world, even those events we deem disasters. God has not abdicated his roll, nor is he too weak to prevent things that we do not like. God is also not punishing us for our sin. Punishment for our sins was met out on Jesus on the cross. It may seem odd to say but God works through these events for our good. That we do not see the gracious hand of God is our fault. In this post I hope to expand of what God is, or might, be doing through disasters both large and small.

As said earlier, one of the purposes we can always see in a disaster is a general call to repentance. This is a call to all of us, not just to those directly impacted by the disaster. Luther caught this need for a general attitude of repentance in the first of his famous 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

I have also already written about how disasters are a call for the Church, the Body of Christ, to reach out with the love of God. We are God’s main avenue to spread his mercy. This includes sharing the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, but it is certainly not limited to that. James reminds us forcefully that faith in Jesus compels us to acts of mercy (James 1:22, 27; 2: 14-17).

Finally, in my former posts, I brought up Romans 8:28: “For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It is this that I wish to expand on here by drawing the distinction between punishment and discipline.

In America the words discipline and punishment can almost seem like synonymies. We might speak of a parent disciplining his child or punishing his child, and mean the same thing. This is really a sloppy use of the English language. Discipline is interested in changing the one disciplined. Punishment is interested in justice, or retribution. Thus we speak of Capital Punishment, not Capital Discipline. When the state executes a person, there is no effort to modify his behavior or attitudes. We also might speak of a person leading a disciplined life, but we would never say he is leading a punished life; at least not with the same meaning.

God does discipline us. Just a couple of passages that speak of this are:
    Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:1-4)

    But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (Colossians 11:32)

    Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

    “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
    For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”

    It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:3-11)

    Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. (Revelation 3:19)
Discipline may be to correct bad behavior or it may be to improve behavior that is already okay. Two stories can demonstrate this. When I was a child I was an atrocious speller. (I’m still not great, but I am better.) In elementary school I turned in a paper with the word “combustion” spelled half a dozen different ways. I don’t think I spelled it correctly once. My grandmother made me write that word over and over again, testing and retesting me, until I could spell it correctly. This discipline was to improve my bad spelling, at least with this one word. The second story also comes from my childhood. There were, on occasions, times when what I said was not appreciated by my parents. Once I said something, I don’t remember what, but apparently it was quite inappropriate. My mother washed my mouth out with soap. This was designed to get me to stop talking in a specific way. In both stories someone was seeking to reform my behavior for the better. Neither of these stories are what you would call a tragedy or a disaster. Both, though, demonstrate in a small way the purpose of discipline.

God often uses tragedies and disasters to discipline us. Behind a Christian’s tragedies God is hiding. Through them he disciplines us, seeking to transform us into the image of Christ. The Theologians of the Lutheran Church call this the “Theology of the Cross.” It is through suffering that we are shaped. It is in our weakness that God’s strength is seen (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Just some of the possible goals/results of God’s discipline include:
    1. leading us to a greater reliance on Christ and diminishing our trust in ourselves;
    2. strengthening our prayer life;
    3. breaking our pride;
    4. increasing in us compassion for others;
    5. increasing in us appreciation for the gifts God has given us;
    6. strengthening in us a realization that earth is not the place of our Christian hope but heaven is;
    7. leading us in a new direction;
    8. turning us away from false doctrine;
    9. increasing in us an understanding/appreciation of a true doctrine;
    10. increasing in us appreciation for the family of God, the Church.
There are certainly many other things God’s discipline may work in us. These are just a sampling. That God is working through our trials, our disasters, is a statement of faith. We may, or we may not, be able to deduce what he is doing. We may think we know what he is doing, and be wrong (Isaiah 45:15; 55:8). Whether we have some idea or not, our Faith agrees with the hymn writer:

    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    Faith sees a smiling face.
    (God Moves in a Mysterious Way, LSB 765:2)
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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