God is sovereign in the affairs of men. In the end, history will serve his purposes. God is a loving, faithful and compassionate God, communicating his will clearly to us so that we may know what he expects of us, and can know those things that please him and those things that will bring his censure.
In the middle of his revelation of the Ten Commandments, he says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands (of generations) of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5).
This is a telling revelation about the character of God: his love is extended infinitely, to a thousand generations, while his judgment, when it must fall, is limited, being spent after three or four generations.
So he is a God of love, compassion and patience, but he is also a God of justice. The New Testament says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7a). God is a patient God, but his patience does have limits.
When his revealed will is resisted long enough and obstinately enough, it will in time call forth his judgment. To be sure, God takes no pleasure in judgment. It is his “terrible work” as one of the prophets put it. When God judged the sin of the ancient world through the Flood, “it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).
Only when his patience has been exhausted and he has no other means of getting our attention does he intervene in discipline and judgment. He uses it only when necessary to accomplish his purposes of bringing a straying soul or a straying people back to himself. As C.S. Lewis put it, God “shouts to us in our pain.” Pain is, he said, “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
The worldwide disaster of the Great Deluge came only after hundreds of years of Noah’s faithful preaching as a “herald of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by a natural disaster only after the men of those cities stubbornly resisted for years the message of God through Lot. The natural disasters of the plagues and the destruction of his Pharaoh’s chariots in the waters of the Red Sea only came to Egypt after the Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his heart against God.
Not only disasters but war itself can represent the judging hand of God. God’s patience with the Canaanites expired after 400 years, and he brought the armies of Israel into the land as a form of his punishment.
And just as he used the armies of Israel to judge the Canaanites, so he used the pagan, brutal and savage armies of Babylon to judge his own chosen people for their obstinate and stiff-necked disobedience to the standards he had revealed in the Ten Commandments.
The Assyrians were the “rod of (his) anger” (Isaiah 10:5) to judge the rebellious nation of Israel, and the Babylonian armies were God’s “war club,” his “weapon for battle,” to “shatter nations and destroy kingdoms” (Jeremiah 51:20).
It must be added that because Assyria and Babylon in their brutality and savagery exceeded the parameters God extended to them, because they went too far, God in turn found it necessary to judge them through the armies of other nations. The Assyrian kingdom fell to the Babylonians, and the Babylonian kingdom in turn fell to the armies of Persia. It is as if God said to them, “I have used your armies to judge my own people. Now I must use other armies to judge you.”
Jesus warned the nation of Israel in his day, that if they did not repent, they and their temple would be destroyed within one generation. He spoke these words in 33 AD. When the nation refused to repent for 37 long years, the Roman armies sacked the city of Jerusalem and burned its temple to the ground in 70 AD. Israel was no more until it rose from the ashes in 1948.
Abraham Lincoln understood that the violence of the Civil War in the larger picture represented the judging hand of God on America for the sin of slavery. Observed Lincoln in his second inaugural address,
“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
Then he added,
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
The Founders, when faced either with natural disaster or crushing defeats in war, frequently called for days of fasting, humiliation, repentance and prayer. They understood that God has his own purposes in such calamities, and one of them may be to judge us for our sin and prompt us to humble ourselves as a people and a nation under his mighty hand.
The violence perpetrated by the armies of Allah on 9/11 prompted us, as a people, to turn if only briefly, back to God. Yet our turn has been shallow and short-lived. Will God find it necessary to use such violence again in our day to get our attention? Is it possible that our view of Islam’s war against the West is incomplete unless we ask whether God is using the manifest evils of jihad to get our attention and turn us from our defiance against him?
Can we know in any particular circumstance that what we see is an expression of God’s judgment, or simply the consequences of living in a fallen world? No, of course not. But do we know that God uses natural disasters and the violence of war to get our attention, and bring us to a place of repentance and humility? Yes.
So in any tragedy, part of our response must involve a larger examination of God’s revealed will and a sober reflection on the possibility that a part of what has happened is a manifestation of the judging hand of a God who will not be mocked.