Friday, August 21, 2009

Did God punish the Lutherans through the tornado?

“Because sin is not just breaking the rules,
it is putting yourself in the place of God as
Savior, Lord, and Judge…” (Timothy Keller,
“The Prodigal God," page 43)

Driving to work today I heard a news report about the ELCA convention and the vote they will have this afternoon on gay clergy. That didn’t get my attention. Then I heard a newscaster say that Minneapolis pastor John Piper wrote on his blog that the tornado was sent by God as “a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction.” His point is that God sent the tornado as a sign to the Lutherans not to ordain gay clergy. The blog can be read here:

I don’t get into the habit of personally criticizing other pastors in public. To me clergy and other denominations are family. I believe in family. Let me respond by sticking to theology and asking some questions. The serious theological question is, “Does God punish or even reward us by our actions?”

A couple edgier responses than mine can be found here: and

I can’t help, but turn to Jesus in my response. In at least two different places in the Scriptures Jesus responded to the question of whether our own suffering is given to us by God because of our sins. In John 9:1-5 Jesus was asked if a man who was born blind was born in that condition because he had sinned. Jesus answered directly, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3) Jesus taught his disciples that suffering is not a punishment from God for our sins. Jesus taught his disciples that even though the man was blind, God could be at work through his life.

In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus was told about a terrible atrocity. Pilate, a political leader of the time, had taken the blood of some Galileans and mixed it with a religious sacrifice. The story infers that Pilate had the Galileans killed. Jesus asked the question, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus then answered his own question, “No.” Then he went on, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus wasn’t saying that the Galileans were killed in a horrible way so that the rest of the world would repent because they were scared to death that their eternal fate would be the same as the Galileans. Did Jesus want people to repent? Absolutely. But suffering wasn’t used by God to orchestrate repentance.

I believe that God can control the weather, but I’m always a bit skeptical of anyone who clearly sees God's actions in weather. While I was serving at my previous church in Plainview I would pray for rain when the farmers got desperate. If we got rain I would give thanks. But I would attribute rain more to weather patterns than to God.

A few years ago, southeastern Minnesota got hit by serious floods. The town of Rushford was hit by 18 inches of rain. After that happened I heard some folks in the congregation I served say (mostly in a joking way) that the people in Rushford must have done something wrong. The week after the storm a weatherman gave a very detailed explanation of what happened in that storm. The explanation satisfied my curiosity of how so much rain could fall on one place. I think the church does better when it sticks to explaining theology and weather forecasters do better when they stick to explaining weather.

Incidentally during those storms on Wednesday four tornadoes hit Minnesota. One tornado crushed the roof of the middle school in North Branch. Does this mean that those middle schoolers were being punished because of their sins? Does the fact that the elementary schools in North Branch didn’t get hit mean that those kids have been following God?

This idea that God rewards or punishes humans based on our actions is dangerous for it puts humans in control of God. Really it turns humans into God.

But I know many people believe that if something terrible happens to them then they must have done something wrong. This belief turns many people away from God and from the church; many people carry the scars of this belief.

I have an out-of-state friend who believes God has punished him for a sin he committed many years ago. He believes that his daughter has been stricken with an illness because of his sin. I agree with the man that he committed a sin, but I’ve shared with him until I’m blue in the face that God has forgiven him. No matter how many times I say this the man still believes that his daughter is sick because of his own sin. He just can’t get out of that foxhole. I pray almost every day that he can.

So, no—I don’t believe the tornado was sent by God to get the attention of the Lutherans. God is a lot smarter than that.

Like Tim Keller—who is as conservative as they come—I believe we walk on dangerous ground when we attempt to be God.

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