I was listening to news radio in my car the other day and two contrasting stories caught my attention. The obvious one had to do with several reports surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the dire consequences being experienced by so many around the world. The other pertained to our recent bonanza of rainfall here in Southern California. The reporter noted that only five weeks ago, we stood at a significant deficit in our annual rainfall amounts. But after the series of showers we have recently enjoyed, we have now exceeded that average, even shattering numerous long- standing records for amounts falling on specific days.
How do these two stories – generally transpiring at the same time – relate to each other?
Recently, a government official in Northern Ireland denounced the legalization of abortion in that country and warned of God’s imminent judgment for its apostasy from God’s ethical standards. When the pandemic hit, he implied that this was God’s just response. He has since apologized for the hurt his comment caused, but his confident ascription of a natural disaster to God’s enactment of justice typifies what many in the church have done for generations. You might remember similar things being said about God’s judgment of the sin of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina unleashed her fury on that beleaguered city and its citizens. But can we be so confident of our “theological” interpretation of such things?
Though God does reserve the right to judge the earth through the forces of nature – as in the temporary droughts in Israel’s history, or the various plagues on Egypt, or the catastrophes on an unrepentant humanity in the last days – he also does not permit us to interpret every disaster or tragedy as falling into that category. Jesus himself warned us not to make those connections (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3). Consequently, apart from a supernatural prophetic insight, there is no way any of us can confidently declare that the pandemic that is currently ravaging the lives of thousands of people is God’s focused judgment. We may, from some future high hill, be able to look back and trace the faint outlines of God’s intentions in permitting or inflicting this malady on the earth. But that day is not today. Nor may it ever come – at least, this side of eternity.
What then can we be confident about in this uncertain time?
I am a transplant to this area, having been reared in the extreme climate variations native to west-central Minnesota. Whether it was the drenching of summer thunderstorms or the smothering of winter blizzards, the regularity of seasonal precipitation was not usually something to which I paid much attention. But then I moved to Orange County, whose arid climate simply amazed me. I recall talking to my dad on the phone one October day, shortly after we had received our first measurable precipitation in several months. In my exuberance over the rain shower, I mentioned that it was the first I could remember since the previous May. Not surprisingly, it took my dad a couple of minutes before he could wrap his mind around such infrequent rainfall. But such is not surprising to native Californians, who are well aware of the vulnerability of their state. Anyone who lived here just a few years ago will recall how dire the situation became, as a several-year-drought threatened to exhaust the ingeniously-designed reservoirs that service our population. Remarkably, however, the past two years witnessed a dramatic climatic change, bringing so much rain that those same reservoirs were refilled to capacity. And though moderate drought conditions had recurred this winter, our recent rainy weather has once again revised that analysis.
How does this help us interpret the times in which we find ourselves?
Most Christians today give very little attention to the covenant God made with Noah after he and his family had survived the flood in their divinely-designed, gopher wood vessel. In thankful response to God’s deliverance, Noah made an altar and sacrificed several of the clean animals to the Lord. God then established a new covenant, not merely with Noah, but with all of those who would eventually inhabit the post-flood earth. In that covenant, not only did God promise never again to destroy the earth’s terrestrial life forms by means of a flood (Gen. 9:11, 15), he also committed himself to sustaining the earth’s seasonal rhythm: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22). Though the provision of rain was eventually incorporated into the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 28:12), its perception by the Israelites as evidence of God’s blessing (Deut. 11:13-15; Jer. 5:24; Hos. 6:3; Zech. 10:1) merely perpetuated the significance bequeathed to it after the flood. And even though there were times when God withheld rain in response to Israel’s apostasy (1 Kgs. 17:1), such covenantal episodes did not invalidate the more encompassing covenant that God had made with the people of the earth – and this is the key point – “even though the inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21b).
This means, I would suggest, that every shower should be an occasion of perceiving in it God’s faithfulness to his creation in response to the Noahic Covenant that he established so long ago. As such, our present experience of an abundance of rainwater is a graphic reminder of God’s sustaining care for his creation. But does this mean we Californians have all repented? Hardly! But that is just the point – God promised to preserve the earth’s seasonal rhythms, even though the inclination of our hearts is persistently evil.
So how should we interpret our present situation? Is it the curse of pandemic or the grace of rain? Are we experiencing God’s judgment or his blessing?
Well, I would suggest that our greater confidence should be that we are experiencing his blessing, even though unbelief and rebellion persist. Similarly, when the sun finally peaks its head through this thick marine layer, we should rejoice in its role of bringing warmth and growth to our crops and orchards. Covenantally, I should always interpret the sustenance of the earth’s seasonal rhythms as tangible expressions of God’s grace, gently wooing his prodigal image bearers to return to him.
But when it comes to interpreting natural disasters, we are on much less secure footing. Jesus does exhort his listeners to respond to disasters with repentance (Luke 13:3, 5), perceiving in them their role as harbingers of God’s final, summary judgment. But we must be careful not to claim divine insight into the immediate reason for every crisis – including this one.
Rather, even today as I sit holed up in my house, listening to the intermittent fall of raindrops on the awning outside my window, I can rest in the truth that God is graciously upholding a weary humanity in this fight with the brokenness of their world, offering hope for a new season.
He has not abandoned us, even though so many continue to resist him. Nor will he, as long as the earth remains and awaits the return of his Son.
And so, I too will wait for his redemption, softly announced with each drop that falls.