Be Still and Know
I have had two communications from friends in China this week. Both of them came in response to the devastating earthquake that so far has taken at least 32,000 lives, perhaps as many as 40,000. Everyone agrees that the final total will be much higher. One friend wrote to say that for the first time the government is concerned about the “heart recovery” of the people. Another friend wrote to ask a very difficult question. This question actually comes from a someone he describes as a “sister I know in Beijing.”
She asked me why God has sent so much pain to those people in Sichuan. And that question made me silent for several minutes.
Why has God sent so much pain to those people in Sichuan? It is the great, eternal question—the one we all ask sooner or later. Some will object to the form of the question. They will say that God did not “send” the earthquake. If you prefer to say that God “allowed” it, I think it comes out pretty much in the same place.
I want to go on to the rest of my friend’s message.
Later I told her my opinion - it’s mostly us who mistreated nature so we are now suffering from its consequences.
I am not exactly sure what that means because it is hard to see how the earthquake itself is the consequence of human misbehavior, given that earthquakes occur along fault lines far below the earth’s surface. However, it may be that my friend is referring to the fact that many Chinese buildings were built using shoddy construction practices. No one really disputes that fact, and no doubt poor construction practices led to many deaths when the earthquake struck a week ago.
Then there was the cyclone in Myanmar (formerly called Burma) earlier this month. So far there are at least 74,000 dead. If we add the cyclone and earthquake deaths together, that’s 106,000 people who died in two terrible natural disasters within a few days of each other, in the same region of the world (the final toll will be much higher). Let’s just take the current figure for a few moments.
What If Norwalk Disappeared?
It’s hard to get a grip on that abstract number so I found a list of U.S. cities ranked by population. The one closest to 106,000 happened to be Norwalk, California with 105,240 people. Other cities in the same range included South Bend, Indiana, Midland, Texas, Clearwater, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina. Norwalk caught my attention because for five years in the late 70s and early 80s we lived in Norwalk, California in the parsonage of Redeemer Covenant Church in Downey. Although the house was only a few blocks from the church, you crossed into Norwalk to get there. And I can still remember that the only real earthquake I’ve ever felt happened one day when I was driving home from church. While waiting at a red light a block and a half from home, an earthquake caused the car to start swaying up and down. For a few brief seconds, the earth moved beneath me and I could do nothing about it. An earthquake is terrifying because we never think about the ground giving way beneath us. If a hurricane comes, we look for shelter, but what do you do when the ground itself begin to fall away? There is no place to hide.
An earthquake is terrifying because we never think about the ground giving way beneath us.
And so I thought about it this way. What if in one sudden moment Norwalk disappeared? What if I drove home from the church expecting to see Marlene and Josh and Mark (Nick was born later, in Texas), only to find they were gone, perished in some catastrophe that destroyed the entire city? What if a city that had been there in the morning was now gone, the buildings collapsed, and the entire population dead? What if that happened to South Bend or Charleston or Clearwater or Midland?
Think about that. A city of more than 100,000 people suddenly dead and gone. That’s what happened in Myanmar and China in the last few days. No wonder the woman from Beijing wants to know what God was doing. It’s an honest question.
I have been thinking about it myself. A number of answers might be given.
1) The disasters might be a sign of the Second Coming of Christ.
A pastor in Nigeria wrote as much in an email to me last week. And a medical school student said the same thing to his parents: “People get ready. Jesus is coming.” There certainly is biblical warrant for thinking that way. In Matthew 24:7 Jesus predicted there will be “earthquakes in various places.” These natural disasters are the beginning of birth pains (v. 8). If that is so, then we should expect even greater catastrophes as we approach the coming of Christ. At this moment we really can’t say anything more than that. It is only after Christ returns that we will be able to clearly see the signs that led up to his return. In any case I do agree with what the medical student said, “People get ready. Jesus is coming.”
It is only after Christ returns that we will be able to clearly see the signs that led up to his return.
2) The disasters might be God’s judgment for particular sins.
Note that I said “particular sins.” The problem here is in explaining why the cyclone struck the Irrawaddy Delta and not the Bay of Bengal, or why the earthquake struck the Sichuan Province and not some other part of China. Are we to suppose that the cyclone and earthquake came because the people of Myanmar or the Sichuan Province were worse sinners than others? Jesus seemed to repudiate this sort of moral calculus in Luke 13:1-4 when he discusses the Galileans who were murdered by Pilate and the 18 men who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Does their death prove they were worse sinners? The answer is no. Or as the NIV has it, “I tell you, no!” That they were sinners is proved by the fact of their death since death is always the result of sin. But the circumstances of their death do not prove they were worse sinners—only that they were sinners.
It is always tempting to look for a connection between our sins and terrible disasters. That happened after 9/11 and it happened after Hurricane Katrina. One prominent minister alleged that Katrina hit New Orleans because there was a Gay Pride parade planned for the Monday after the hurricane hit. I write as one who believes in a moral cause and effect in the universe so I am willing to go so far as to say that any tragic event may be part of God’s judgment on human sin. But there is an important qualification. When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he declared his judgment and then carried it out (Genesis 19). We have no way of being that certain today. Absent the voice of God, we are on shaky ground when we claim the ability to explain why bad things happen when they do, where they do, and why they don’t happen all the time or in every circumstance.
Why did this child survive and another one die?
And that really comes to the heart of the problem. Why here and not there? Why did this child survive and another one die? Why was this man’s home destroyed while his neighbor’s was spared? Why did the tornado hit this town and not the one five miles away? Or on a different level, why do two men get the same cancer—one lives, the other dies? Does anyone claim the ability to explain these things?
3) The disasters prove that we live in a fallen world.
This answer rests on solid theological truth. When asked why God allows disasters, most Christians revert to some version of the freewill argument. I’ve often heard evangelical leaders on Larry King Live use this argument. It goes something like this. When asked why God created a world filled with hurricanes, pain, suffering and death, the freewill argument answers that God didn’t create the world that way. When God created the world, he made it perfect in every way. There were no earthquakes in Eden. And no suffering people waiting for days for help to arrive. No one died there either. The pain and suffering we see around us didn’t come from God. So how did things get so messed up?
The answer goes back to Adam and Eve. God gave them the choice (the freedom) to obey him and be blessed or to disobey and be punished. Unfortunately, they made the wrong choice. As a result, sin and its attendant suffering entered the spiritual DNA of the human race. Genesis 3:17-18 also notes that creation itself was put under a curse by God because of Adam’s sin. Death entered for the first time. Pain and suffering became man’s constant companion. Paradise gained became paradise lost. Nature became red in tooth and claw. Instead of the lion and the lamb lying down together, the lion became the lamb’s mortal enemy. That’s why Romans 8:22 says that all creation groans in the present age, waiting for the day of redemption. Adam’s sin didn’t just impact him. It touched all of us. “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). What does all this have to do with you and me? In some mysterious way, you and I were there. When Adam sinned, you sinned with him and so did I. This is the doctrine of original sin in its plainest form. It means that when Adam sinned, you sinned. When Adam disobeyed, you disobeyed. When Adam fell, you fell. When he died, you died. To say it another way, although you and I were not historically there in the Garden, because we are descendents of Adam—part of his family tree—we suffer the consequences of what he did.
When Adam sinned, you sinned. When Adam disobeyed, you disobeyed. When Adam fell, you fell.
Imagine a school bus with enough seats for every man, woman, boy and girl on planet earth. Such a bus would be thousands of miles long. And let’s suppose that Adam is the driver of the bus of humanity. When he drove the bus over the cliff of disobedience, we all went down with him. And we all ended up crushed and broken on the jagged rocks of God’s judgment.
The world is the way it is because we humans messed it up. The cyclones and the deadly earthquakes would not exist were it not for human sin. Human sin accounts for the violence and mayhem we see all around us, our tendency toward hatred, unkindness, lust, a critical spirit, selfishness, greed, indolence, and our willingness to point the finger and blame others for our own problems.
If Adam had not sinned, we would not have cyclones in Myanmar and earthquakes in China.
But this is not the total or even the final answer. Something else must be added to it.
4) The disasters call us to be quiet before the Lord.
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” After affirming that God can be trusted even when the mountains give way, the psalmist calls all of us to cease our striving. “Be still” means literally to stop, to cease our frantic going to and fro and simply to rest. It can even mean to be at leisure. As long as we are busy, we cannot hear the voice of God speaking to us. But in the silence that comes after a tragedy, we may know that God is present. That is why my friend’s answer to his friend in Beijing seems profoundly Christian to me.
She asked me why God has sent so much pain to those people in Sichuan. And that question made me silent for several minutes.
It is the silence that is so profound. We are not supposed to have easy answers for questions like this. When Job’s three friends came to see him, they were so shocked that they sat in silence for seven days (Job 2:13). It was only when they started talking that they got into trouble.
It is the silence that is so profound. We are not supposed to have easy answers for questions like this.
When God says “Be still,” this is not the stillness of inactivity, much less the stillness of despair. One writer explains it this way:
When God says, “Be still,” He enforces the stillness of waiting — of watching the
unfolding of ways and the development of thoughts which are as much higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth. (E. E. Jenkins)
Very often we will simply not understand why God does what he does, or our knowledge will be incomplete. But in saying that, we also confess our trust that the purposes of God are working themselves out even in the worst things that happen in the world.
Note carefully what Psalm 46:10 says. We are to be still and know. The stillness leads to the knowing. It is precisely when we admit that we don’t know that we are most likely to learn something. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can say is “I don’t know” because the confession of your weakness becomes the ground for a new revelation of God’s strength. Sometimes we talk too much when hard times come, as if by talking we will explain the ways of the Almighty. We are much more likely to know the ways of the Lord if we are first still before him. It is like going to the Louvre Museum in Paris and rushing past thirty paintings in five minutes, as if speed improves comprehension. It would be better to spend thirty minutes studying one masterpiece. Even so you may ponder the Mona Lisa for a lifetime and be drawn back again and again by her enigmatic smile.
We are much more likely to know the ways of the Lord if we are first still before him.
“Be still and know,” says the Lord. Never is this more needed than when we face a tragedy beyond our comprehension.
In silence we learn.
In silence we begin to understand.
In silence we know.
And what is it that we will know? “Be still and know that I am God.” Not “be still and know the details” or “be still and know the reasons.” As important as those things are, they pale before the knowledge of God himself. It is not in the noise of our own effort that we grow spiritually, but when we are finally quiet before the Lord, then we receive the greatest knowledge of which mankind is capable—the knowledge that he is God.
Often I have had a conversation with the Lord about the heartaches of life. It usually goes something like this. The Lord says to me, “So you don’t like what I just did?” “No, I don’t.” “You think I made a mistake?” “As a matter of fact, yes I do.” The Lord never seems bothered by that. He already knows how I feel about things. “Do you think I should have asked you for your advice?” “Yes, and if you had, I would have told you to do something different.” “Ray, that’s why I didn’t ask you in advance. I already knew how you felt. Just keep this in mind. I did what I did for my own reasons. But I did it without consulting you so you would know that I take full responsibility for what happened.” That conversation, often repeated, has been a great comfort to my soul. I prefer to worship a God who can suddenly and without warning do things that make no sense to me. Only an Almighty God gives and takes life, rides upon the storms, sends prosperity and also trouble, answers my prayers, and sometimes leaves me speechless and confused, all without feeling any need to explain himself to me. The mystery of it all ends up building my faith. Why would I want to worship a God I could fully understand? “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
I prefer to worship a God who can suddenly and without warning do things that make no sense to me.
Where does all this leave us? The answer is, we’re all still hurting. We are a death-sentenced generation living in a sin-cursed world. We all hurt every day. No one is immune from the sufferings of humanity. We live with pain and sadness every day. There is no escape from that reality.
When we hurt, we have two choices:
We can hurt with God,
Or we can hurt without God.
If you are hurting as you read these words, you may feel as if you have come to the end of your endurance. I pray that you will hang on to the Lord. If you turn away from him, things can only get worse. Pioneer missionary J. Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission to reach the multitudes of Chinese people who had never heard the gospel. During the terrible days of the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901), when missionaries were being captured and killed, he went through such an agony of soul that he could not pray. Writing in his journal, he summarized his spiritual condition this way: “I can’t read. I can’t think. I can’t pray. But I can trust.” There will be times when we can’t read the Bible. Sometimes we won’t be able to focus our thoughts on God at all. Often we will not even be able to pray. But in those moments when we can’t do anything else, we can still trust in the loving purposes of our heavenly Father.
He Joined Us
We find God’s final answer to the problem of human suffering hanging on a Roman cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem. There Jesus is dying for the sins of the world. That man on the cross is God’s final answer to all our deepest questions about the suffering we see all around us.
When we hurt, we have two choices: We can hurt with God, Or we can hurt without God.
He didn’t simply die with us.
He died for us.
The cross sends a message from God to a rebel world: “I will never stop loving you.” The suffering of the world is great, but the love of Christ is greater still. We cannot escape suffering. It comes to all of us again and again, but we must not stop there. The road continues on from our pain into the arms of Jesus.
When God says, “Be still and know,” he invites us to linger at the foot of the cross. God’s answer to your pain is not a sermon or a theory or a book you need to read. God’s answer to your pain is a Person. God’s answer is Jesus. Run to the cross and lay hold of the Son of God. Fix your gaze on him whose death has set you free. Embrace him in the midst of your pain. Be still and know that he is God. Amen.
- Listen to this sermon (34:24)
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