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Spring 2005 | Volume 28, Number 1 | Features

Between Earth and Heaven

Understanding God, Global Suffering, and Christian Responsibility

On December 26, 2004, a tremendous earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a tsunami of epic proportions, impacting every country in the region and a few beyond. In the wake of the deadly sea surge, 281,000 persons are reported missing or dead, and once-vibrant communities remain encased in a putrefying mixture of sand, debris, and human decomposition. Aftershocks in March 2005 resulted in even more destruction and death. This much no one disputes.

A former pastor, youth minister, and relief worker in Thailand, Steven Haas joined World Vision in 2001. As vice president of church relations for one of the largest Christian relief and development organizations in the world, he encourages and empowers American churches to become engaged in serving the poor internationally. Haas is pictured here by a mural at the World Vision headquarters in Federal Way, Washington.

What is less clear are the reasons behind and beyond the disaster. Within the first hours of the crisis, some Muslims in Indonesia triumphed publicly in a supreme being that preserved their mosques yet decimated all other structures. Others pointed to an object lesson in spiritual zeal, blaming lack of fundamentalist
Islamic fervor for divine retribution. Asian Christians, clearly a minority in the region, largely remained silent while Western Christians attached to the tsunami everything from a punishment for wrong belief to an opportunity to build the credibility of the gospel message. Many in the Christian relief community decried those for whom charity equates to proselytism. Others in the secular community criticized those of faith for cluttering the issue with “God-talk.”

As Christians grounded in Scripture, what are we to say in light of this and other human tragedies? Where was God as the waves pummeled the vulnerable beachfront villages? Where is God now in the midst of redistributed landscapes, evaporated property boundaries, and only faint traces of hundreds of thousands of people? For that matter, where is God as millions of the world’s children are orphaned by AIDS or die of starvation? What are we — the living and caretakers of those left bereft of family, health, and livelihoods — supposed to do in response? Without answers to these questions, Christians miss a critical opportunity to raise the beacon of real hope.

This we know: The Scriptures speak loudly of a Christian worldview never blind to global tragedy and pain, but instead acknowledging the reality of earthquakes, mass dislocations, disease, and tsunamis.

Because our understanding is finite and prone to bias and misunderstanding, we’re unsure why God, the “Lord of the land and the sea,” would allow such disasters to occur. But postulations as to what God is out to prove or punish — the fodder for early press headlines — do little more than grant a temporary sense of personal control and too readily absolve us from personal responsibility.

The disciples in the opening verses of John 9 were attempting to do roughly the same thing when confronted with what they deemed a textbook case of sin-related deformity. “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered their question by drawing them to a higher plan: “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Then Jesus gave the man sight.

This we know: Far from avoiding global predicaments or advocating human or divine resignation as some major faiths do, God through his prophets and son Jesus actively promotes life.

The Creator’s presence in the turmoil of human existence speaks to his great love for his creation. He did not leave the world in its state of brokenness, but responded through the birth, death, and resurrection of his son, Jesus. There is nothing passive in the way in which God sought to provide a solution for sin. God in Christ entered into our difficult world, absorbed our pain, and continues to transform it for our benefit.

This we know: In the opening pages of Genesis, the story of humankind begins with the sin of Adam, sin that not only fragments man’s relationship with God and his neighbor but also dissolves man’s relationship with the created order.

As a result, each one of us lives between earth and heaven, between the first stain on God’s original design and a promised final fulfillment of that design at a time known only to God himself. The Bible reveals all creation expectantly awaiting “the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.”

Natural disasters then, are a natural component of this time between times. Modern Christians can find the tsunami and other disasters in the words of the Apostle Paul, who describes creation “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

So what are we to do in the interim? Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tagged “indifference” as the world’s obsession. Without an understanding of our world or our place in it, we naturally find ourselves wavering between apathy and despair. While waiting for God’s restoration of all things, knowing that our personal and global house will take a beating, is there anything we can do?

Our charge in God’s original design was nothing short of stewardship of the created order. Genesis states, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”

Although it may seem to the contrary, our stewardship commission
has never been mothballed. Jesus proved the reliability of this calling as he lived among us. The Apostle Paul would later give it a title, describing us as “ambassadors of reconciliation,” ambassadors whose driving aim is God’s reconciling work “on earth as it is in heaven.” In keeping with God’s design, we are to be in right relationship with God and each other, with the earth serving as a beneficiary. And when this reconciliation takes place, everyone will experience shalom, an uncommon peace.

A cursory glance at the front page of any newspaper, however, demonstrates that a “reconciled earth” doesn’t jibe well with the present age as we know it. It’s
easy to write off “the kingdom of heaven” as a quaint apocalyptic vision — except for the fact that Jesus mentioned this kingdom more than 90 times in Scripture, and he often describes it as infused with his power in the present tense.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was the heart of his “Good News,” the message that he tirelessly proclaimed, particularly among the disenfranchised or dislocated. If the kingdom experience percolated down, in the here and now, to the lowest levels of society, a watching world would know proof-positive that the promised kingdom was for real.

Poverty and the environment that breeds it are incongruent with the kingdom ideal that God established. Jesus so much as stated this fact during his “coming out party” in a Nazareth synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This wasn’t about making poverty into something special. I have been in far too many disheveled hovels, literal hellholes of the disenfranchised, all over the globe. In not one place have I ever found poverty to be innately special or God-intended. The opposite is true: Human privation is a desecration of God’s original kingdom design.

So we’ve got work to do. God has called each of his children into a partnership with himself, creating through our lives, in his power, the very proof that the kingdom is here, that the vulnerable of our world are touched, loved, safe — and saved. Each one of us must partner with God in allowing all to experience the Good News. That is as true about our connection with the Asian tsunami survivors as it is with those in the blighted neighborhoods
of our own inner cities.

I’ve watched Seattle Pacific University graduates take the Good News into the city of Seattle and around the globe — some of them in association with World Vision. Although our roles may be different, SPU and World Vision share a similar desire to be ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. At World Vision, for clarity’s sake, we spell out our witness to kingdom reality through these four dimensions:

Life (the expression of the Good News by who we are and what we believe). As God did not hesitate in offering up his son, we do not hesitate in offering up ourselves for victims of any crisis. More than 3,700 World Vision indigenous staff members were already present when the floodwaters rose in Southeast Asia. Rather than escape or care for their own losses, many turned into the disaster and went to work.

Deed (what we do before others). We serve all people in need, regardless of religious differences, as an expression of our love for Christ. Our compassionate donors and staff have borne witness to the Good News by providing tsunami survivors with homes, latrines, counseling, clinics, schools, child-friendly spaces, clean water systems, clothing, food, vehicle transports, and income-generating opportunities.

Word (the message we proclaim verbally). We are neither apologetic nor condescending regarding the truthfulness of the gospel; at the same time we understand that verbal witness may have its limitations. Our staff members use care and discernment when responding to the questions of those we serve.

Sign (what God does through us). We have learned to leave room for God to do more than our relief and development plans envision. Being a follower of Christ is about being the manifestation of the kingdom in all its fullness. It’s about you and me allowing God to work through us.

The Asian tsunami crisis is only the most recent invitation for Christ followers to give witness to a call that has been with us since creation. Not everyone has been tapped for duty on this specific disaster, but all of us are under orders to live out loud through reconciled relationships with others and with the earth. In this way, each of us can make a difference in this time between times.

The Lausanne Covenant describes the Christian gospel as “Good News of liberation, of restoration, of wholeness, and of salvation that is personal, social, global, and cosmic.” Where is God when tragedy occurs? He is reaching out, through us, to bring hope and healing to all who suffer. He is working and speaking through Christians who are called, as the Lausanne Covenant says, to “embody his reign of shalom here and now” and to “make his Good News seen and known.”



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