Does God cause bad things to happen? Amos thought so.
I read the lesson from Amos this morning (3:1-11), and I was astounded. Not only is it clear that God is responsible for disasters—“Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?”—but Amos suggests that such a horrific-in-the-21st-century conclusion should be obvious. He writes, “Does a bird fall into a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it? Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing?” In other words, he says, “It’s obvious, folks. God is behind everything that happens. Can’t you see that?”
But I’m not sure that’s where we are as contemporary Christians. In fact, whether Christian or not, I’m not sure that’s where many contemporary humans are. It’s hard for us to figure out how God can be both all-loving and the source of things like earthquakes, famine, floods, and tsunami. Why was that so much easier back then?
Do you think it’s because Amos and his compatriots didn’t believe that God was all-loving? That might be the easy answer—just to assume that ancient Israel thought of God as an angry, mean-spirited torturer. But that’s not the case. Look at the first few verses in today’s reading: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” God identifies Israel as his own family. He’s not out to get them because he doesn’t love them. God’s love must be more complicated than that.
And that’s where I think the real gap exists through the centuries. We have grown and matured as a people. We understand that earthquakes are the result of tectonic plates shifting, submerging, and abutting. We don’t automatically assume that an earthquake is God’s punishment for his people. But that doesn’t mean the two concepts are completely divorced from each other. And that’s what I think the role of the prophet is.
Did God cause the nations around Israel to rise up and attack his chosen people, sending them into exile? Well, sort of. But it was mostly the natural result of geopolitical developments in the 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries BCE. The real question, however, isn’t whether God caused it to happen but what are we supposed to make of it. Prophets aren’t about telling the future—though sometimes they can see good or bad things on the horizon. Prophets are about making sense of the world around them and calling God’s people to make those connections.
Did God cause Hurricane Katrina to flood New Orleans and kill so many people? That’s a repugnant question—and I don’t seek to answer it here. But an appropriate question for us is this: How can such tragedy point us to God’s presence and will for the world? Is it fair to ask where God was in that devastation? Absolutely. Is it ok if the answer is nowhere? Sure. Should our ultimate conclusion be that God abandoned the people of the lower 9th ward? No. Our history throughout all those centuries—as exemplified by Amos’ task—has shown that God repeatedly reaches out to his people in good and bad times. It’s easy to find God when things are great. It’s hard to figure out where God is when things go wrong. And that’s why we have prophets.