My family and I have lived in the North Orange County for a little over six years, since immigrating from South Africa to join the leadership team of a church here in 2007. Now, immigration is really spelled A.D.A.P.T, and we have had a very rich 6 years of adaptation. One thing I will never adapt to though, is earthquakes. They freak me out. It’s been only two weeks since the 5.1 earthquake in La Habra, and already everyone seems to have forgotten. Not me.
It wasn’t so much the actual 5.1 that unsettled me, as much as it was the multiple aftershocks. You might have your earthquake kit, but you still feel utterly helpless. "How many more, Dad? Are they getting bigger or smaller? Are we going to be okay?”
I say, “Yes, of course we are,” but honestly I don't know.
In some ways I’d prefer a tornado. You can see it coming, prepare for it, and see it go past. Not an earthquake. I think the scientists have got it down to a 15 second prediction time for the next tremor. "Thanks very much for the 15 second heads up scientists," said nobody ever.
One tiny positive is that we live in a house built in 1900, so I guess if it’s still standing it's survived some pretty worse ones in it’s 114 year history, but it was cold comfort really.
Every time there was an aftershock my kids would run out into the yard. After one of the aftershocks, I overheard my daughter sitting on our kitchen steps outside, trying to calm her terrified 8-year brother. “You’ve got to look at the bright side of earthquakes, Levi,” to which he asked, “What is the bright side of earthquakes?” “Well," she replied,”It’s like the earth shaking it’s booty at the moon.” For an 8-year old boy, this was a genius diversion. Next thing he was giggling trying to mimic the earth shaking it’s booty.” I was grateful for her sibling wisdom, but honestly, that picture didn’t do it for me.
I honestly found myself asking, "Is there any bright side to an earthquake?”
How am I to think theologically about this, not just emotionally?
How am I to encourage my congregation and those in our community seeking answers to life and faith? Scripture has much to say about earthquakes and what they may signify, but for me it all boils down to one surprising bright side.
An earthquake is a rude and beautiful awakening to the truth that I am not in control.
Firstly, I cannot control God. There is something about us that wants to try and control God himself, and an earthquake is a tough reminder that we cannot do that. We want a 21st Century, enviro- friendly, politically correct, user-friendly God, created in our image. An earthquake reminds us that God cannot be shrink-wrapped and put in our back pocket for a rainy day.
“He lifts His voice and the earth melts,” says the Psalmist.
Now the cause of natural disaster is complex, and I do not have inclination to go into an in-depth treatise in that regard. One plausible Biblical reason is simply that creation is broken from the fall, and is groaning for redemption, like all of us. Another is the fallenness of humanity, which has not stewarded creation well out of greed, and is forcing nature into turmoil. However, Scripture says that God is ultimately in control in natural disaster. “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth.”
Now, I am not the guy that says every time there is a natural disaster God is judging sinful people.
Jesus stood opposed to this shallow moralistic approach to disaster. When the tower of Siloam fell on people and killed them in Jesus’ time, people asked him whether the catastrophe had happened because those people were worse sinners than others. Jesus reply? “No, but you repent or you will perish likewise.” In other words, lets not waste time trying to work out cause and effect in natural disaster, but rather use it as a catalyst to a humble and healthy fear of God. God is a gracious, loving God, who gave His only Son to die in our place, but He will not be subject to our attempts to mould Him in our image. He is the potter and we are the clay, not the other way around. He is the God of creation and redemption, but He does have the power to judge and to destroy. An earthquake, then, is great cause to entrust ourselves afresh to a God that we cannot control.
Secondly, an earthquake is a helpful reminder that I cannot control my environment. So much of our energy here in Orange County goes into gaining a sense of control over the unpredictable of our environments, doesn’t it? We plan, we save, we insure, and get our earthquake kit, we nail down our pictures extra secure, all in the hopes that no matter what comes our way, we and our families will be safe and secure. All these measures may be good and responsible, but they so easily mean that we begin to play God. An earthquake is a reminder, not only that God is God, but also that I am not God. All my best laid plans may go asunder. I am a limited, helpless creature in need of the help of my Creator. And I am not just talking about help in the crisis of an earthquake. I need God’s help to get through every minute of every day. I need a Savior to save me from myself.
Benjamin Franklin immortalized the saying which has now become a national motto, "God helps those who help themselves.” I respectfully beg to differ. God is not a self-help God. God helps those who realize that they cannot help themselves. Those who have reached the end of themselves. If an earthquake brings me to the end of myself and turns me back in reliant trust upon my Creator, well, I suppose it may have a bright side after all.