Written in January 2005 shortly after the Tsunami. Subsequently Published by RBC and many other groups. Nothing I have written has had such a wide circulation.
WHEN TRAGEDY STRIKES
Biblical Reflections on How Christians Respond to Calamities
I am writing this a few days after the tsunami waves struck Sri Lanka and resulted in the deaths of between thirty-five to sixty thousand of our people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others. I was due to leave Sri Lanka exactly a week after the tragedy on a three-month sabbatical to work on a book. We were so shocked by the events that we were not thinking very clearly at the time. I thought I could still go on my journey and for two days I was planning to do that. But soon sense prevailed, and now I am amazed that I even thought of going! This was a time for Christians to be involved in the pain of the nation. I could not leave now.
In situations like this we look to the Bible for strength and guidance, and find that it has much to say to us. What you find below is the result of my effort to reflect biblically on what Christians in Sri Lanka should be doing at this time. I have revised my original material so that this would to minister to people who face deep crises from other contexts too.
A TIME TO MOURN.
The Bible says, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:4). This is a time to weep and mourn. There are very important sections in the Bible called laments where God’s faithful people lament over what they are experiencing and ask God why he allowed such a thing to happen to them. Some of the laments are by individuals who have suffered. Others are by individuals who love their nation and mourn over the suffering of the nation. There is a whole book in the Bible, “Lamentations,” devoted to mourning for the sufferings of the nation.
Jeremiah cried, “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1). He wanted to weep because of the pain in his soul. Jeremiah’s words following that statement shows that the weeping would help bring healing to his soul. As we struggle with pain over our or family, community or nation, expressing our sorrow will help release the pressure and help us become more useful to our people.
This is what happened to Nehemiah. When he heard about the sorry state that Jerusalem was in, he wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days until the king noticed that his face showed the signs of deep sorrow. But after the period of mourning he got down to action, and he became a national hero and a leader whose leadership style is still used, almost 2500 years later, as a great example of brilliant leadership.
In the Bible we find several ways in which people express their mourning, like fasting (2 Sam. 1:12), and putting on sackcloth (Gen. 37:34; 2 Sam. 3:31) and ashes (Esth. 4:1-3; Jer. 6:26; 25:34). We need to find ways to express mourning that fit our own culture. Certainly fasting and prayer for family, church, community, or nation is most desired in times of tragedy. In Sri Lanka people hoist white flags as a sign of mourning. Every culture has their distinct expressions of sorrow which we can consider adopting.
Possibly because Protestant Christianity first came to Sri Lanka through the efforts of missionaries from Western Europe, who usually do not express their emotions very publicly, Protestant Christians do not have much of a tradition of expressions of mourning. Here we are unlike the Roman Catholics whose first missionaries came from Portugal. When Dorcas died and Peter went to her house, “All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39). This type of scene is very common in Sri Lankan funerals but not in Protestant funerals. We need to think seriously about how we can bring in to our churches culturally appropriate expressions of mourning that are in line with the biblical understanding of lament.
A TIME TO ASK, WHY?
Grappling with God’s Sovereignty. Asking why the terrible things happened is an aspect of biblical laments. The Bible encourages us to grapple with this question by giving examples of great saints like Job, Jeremiah and the psalmists who did this. Some, like Job, struggled a long time to make sense of what was happening around him. Usually at the end of this time of grappling God’s people affirmed that the sovereign God knows what is happening, and therefore the wisest thing is to keep trusting God. We see this often in the Psalms (e.g. Psa. 73). Believing in God’s sovereignty at a time of tragedy helps us to avoid hopelessness amidst this struggle. We must believe that, even out of this terrible tragedy, God will bring something good, as the Word promises (Rom. 8:28).
This perspective of God’s sovereignty may not come at once. Therefore it is necessary for us to grapple with God over this. Prayer and meditating on his Word really help at such times (Psa. 27). We may be very busy recovering from the problem or serving those who have been adversely affected by it. But we must find time for being with God and his Word. This is why God’s people must always continue worshipping God in community however serious the situation may be. When we worship we focus on those eternal realities which remind us of God’s sovereignty. The exposure to these truth helps drive away the gloom that engulfs us, and it gives us the strength to trust God to look after us. Having being comforted by God and his Word, we then have the strength to launch into sacrificial service to others who are suffering.
Groaning with Creation. We must remember that, after the fall of humans—to whom God had assigned the task of superintending creation—sinned against God and sin entered the world, the universe lost its equilibrium. The Bible pictures creation as being under a curse (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:20). Therefore natural disasters will happen until God brings into being a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). Paul says that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22). He then says that those who know Christ also join in this groaning (Rom. 8:23). During periods like the present, dominated by the tsunami, we have very clearly seen the groaning of both creation and God’s people.
Christians must learn how to groan. If we don’t learn this lesson, when there are problems in the place where God has called us to serve, we could run away from God’s will and go to a safer place. Groaning helps us to cope with difficult circumstances. The groaning which Romans 8 talks about is described as “the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22). One who endures the excruciating labor pains is able to handle it because she is looking forward to the glorious moment when she gives birth to a child. Similarly our groans remind us of the glorious end that is surely coming (see 2 Cor. 5:2-4). We don’t run away from tough situations in which God has put us. We endure suffering knowing that permanent deliverance which lasts for eternity will surely come.
Groaning also takes away the bitterness we have over the pain we have experienced. We must learn to groan in the presence of God and his people without bottling it all inside. When we do that we give expression to our pain and we release the pressure that has built up over our painful experience. Then it will be difficult for bitterness to grow. Our groaning also gives God and our friends a chance to comfort us. When we are truly comforted we can’t be bitter because we have experienced a love which drives away the anger that is at the heart of bitterness.
So as our nation groans over the tsunami, we also groan. Part of our groaning would be asking God why such a thing happened, even though deep down we have the confidence that God is in control of history.
A God Who Groans. One of the most amazing things about the biblical teaching about God is that when we groan, he groans with us (Rom. 8:26). God is not so distant from us as to not feel our pain. The Bible says he laments and mourns for people who do not even acknowledge him (Isa. 16:11; Jer. 48:31). How different to the common idea of God is the affirmation in the Bible that when Israel is distressed God is also distressed (Isa. 63:9).
God’s groaning should not surprise us, for we find that when Jesus, who is God, lived on earth he also groaned over the pain of this world. He wept over Jerusalem because of their stubbornness and the punishment that would come for it (Luke 19:41-44). He also wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus as he joined with the others who were weeping there (John 11:33-35). We can therefore conclude that God is weeping at this time with the weeping people of Sri Lanka.
God’s weeping gives us a strong reason for not being reluctant to weep. But more importantly, it would be very difficult for us to be angry with God over what has happened to us when we know that he groans with us. This also makes it so much easier for us to go to him for comfort when we are perplexed (see below).
Is this a Judgment? One question that is often asked is whether this terrible calamity is a judgment from God. Some are even saying that this is a judgment against those who have persecuted Christians. Serious doubt would be placed on the reliability of such a claim when we realize that thousands of wonderful Christians were killed along with the others in our nation. Churches in Sri Lanka usually have their best attendance on Christmas day.
The tsunami hit the day after Christmas when church services were going on. The attendance at most churches was low because of the festivities of the day before and because people had gone to church the day before. I know of a situation where those who were in church were saved because of where the church was and those who stayed at home died. But I also know of a church where all but three of the faithful who attended the service (mostly women and children) were killed whereas the men who did not go to church were saved.
When Jesus came to the world he suffered just like other humans do. That was a key aspect of his identification with humanity. In the same way those who follow Jesus also need to suffer with the people with whom they identify. This is one of those times. Therefore it is our privilege to count Christians among those who have suffered in our nation because of the tsunami. We are united with our people in their grief.
Jesus’ comments on two disasters that took place during his time are very helpful here. He had just been speaking about judgment, and some people reminded him of an incident where some Galileans were killed by Pilate when they were in the act of making their sacrifice. Perhaps they were giving this tragedy as an example of God’s judgment. Jesus does not go along with their reasoning. Instead he says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-3). Then Jesus goes on to cite another tragedy where a tower fell and eighteen people were killed. Again he says that unless they repent they “will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5). The repetition of the same warning in verses 3 and 5 adds to the urgency of the warning.
Jesus’ point is that tragedies should be warnings to us that unless we repent we will face more serious consequences. In the same way events like the tsunami give us an urgent warning. They should sober us and remind us how vulnerable we are. Are we ready for death and the judgment that follows? These events should lead us to bow in humble submission to the God who is over all, even over nature.
We must remember that most of the statements about judgment in the Bible are directed to the people of God and only a very few to those outside God’s covenant community. We know that people will be judged for their rebellion against God. And we must do all we can to save them from that judgment. But it may be dangerous for us to say that this particular event is a judgment upon our enemies.
It would be much safer for us to concentrate on following the clear biblical commands to pray for (Matt. 5:22) and to bless (Rom. 12:14) those who persecute us. After the tsunami a group of Christians who had been persecuted by the leader of a certain institution went to the grounds of that institution and helped clear the debris that was there. The leader was so touched by the action that he apologized to the Christians for what he had done to them.
I have heard some Christians express with some sense of triumph that God has hit those nations that hit him. To them I would say that in the Bible God even suffers over the people whom he punishes (Isa. 16:9; Jer. 48:32-36; Hos. 11:8-9). So even if this is a punishment from God, we should be mourning for our people, and not talking as if a victory was won.
Jeremiah prophesied that the Jews would be punished for their rebellion against God. And they persecuted him for that. But when they were punished, he did not gleefully say, “I told you so!” He mourned for his people (Jer. 9:1). Actually even before the judgment he knew that he would be overwhelmed by sorrow if they did not repent. He said, “But if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (Jer. 13:17).
So one way we will bless those who hurt us is, like Jeremiah, to do all we can to prepare them and all people to stand before their maker at the coming judgment. Today people are asking why we were not warned if some people knew that the tsunami was coming. When an expert fails to warn people of some terrible catastrophe which he knows will come, and they die as a result; he would be rightly accused of criminal negligence. May we not be guilty of not warning people of the coming judgment.
God’s People Help Alleviate Suffering. When a disaster like the tsunami hits us, it is not a time for us to be pointing accusatory fingers at others. In fact we may not even be able to give a fully clear answer as to why this happened. But we can work to alleviate the suffering. In the Bible a key aspect of the answer to the problem of suffering is that God’s people become active in alleviating suffering (Ezek. 18:7-8; Matt. 10:42; Matt. 25:35-46; Jas. 1:27). Every disaster is a call to action to Christians. And, because we are strengthened by God’s love (2 Cor. 5:14) and empowered by the Spirit (Acts 1:8) we are uniquely equipped to have a huge impact upon suffering people. This should be our primary focus in times of calamity.
A TIME TO WORK
So when there is a calamity Christians immediately get to work. When the first Christians knew of needs within their community, they immediately got busy meeting those needs (Acts 4:34-37). When the young church in Antioch heard about a famine in Jerusalem, again they immediately went about seeking some way to help (11:28-30). In keeping with this practice Christians have been in the forefront of relief operations right through history.
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy about his usual Christian service is very appropriate for the extreme situation of need we may find ourselves in. Paul first gives the basic principle on which he elaborates in the following verses. He says, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3). Paul was describing Timothy’s service as suffering. This, of course, is very normal for Paul for whom suffering for the gospel was a normal part of everyday life (see 1 Cor. 15:30-31; Col. 1:24-29). This is the call for every Christian living in the midst of suffering—a call to suffer by serving their nation.
Faithful Christians suffer in different ways as they seek to serve God and nation. Sometimes the suffering is less overt. For example, a wife may need to release her husband to work extra hard at relief operations. This is usually difficult on the marriage, and it may also result in extra strain for her. A man may have to miss her regular meetings with his fiancée because she has to work long hours with correspondence relating to the relief effort. And even when she is free, she will be very tired and somewhat irritable. But realizing that this is something that is being done for God will help reduce the pain and take away resentment over the suffering. Other ways of suffering are more overt like tiredness, lack of sleep, and facing criticism about our motives and about the way we do our service.
In the verses that follow Paul explains how Timothy should take on his share of suffering. He says, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits” (2:4). We may have to give up what others view as normal needs in order to serve our people at this time. Extreme situations call for extreme solutions. Our families must be told that we all will have to pay a price if we are going to serve our people at this time.
Of course, family life is important and nurturing our families is something that can never be taken off the front burner. But the crisis may cause us to change the way in which we do things. Our wedding anniversary was a few days after the tsunami hit. My children were exhausted but still working daily till late at night on relief operations. My wife was reluctant to spend too much money on a celebration at a time when so many in the country were in so much need. We managed to get the whole family together for an evening meal (at about 9.30 p.m.!), and we went to a restaurant I used to frequent as a youth where the food is very tasty, but where the prices are very low because it does not have the environment of a luxurious place. The four of us had a very tasty meal which cost a total of about US$ 5.50. It was an emergency situation, so we felt it would be wrong for us to go to an expensive restaurant, but family life is so basic that we needed to get together to celebrate.
According to Paul another aspect of suffering is hard work like a “hard-working farmer” (2:6). Elsewhere Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29). Considering the urgency of our call to share Christ with a dying world, Christians need always to be working hard at serving God while they live on earth. We can have a grand rest when we get to heaven (Rev. 14:13). This is the time to work. Amy Carmichael, the great missionary to abandoned children in India, said, “We have all eternity to celebrate our victories, but only a few hours before sunset to win them.” During these days immediately after the tsunami there are many Christians in Sri Lanka who are very tired. This is inevitable because our nation is faced with such a serious emergency.
So, this is a time for us to suffer for our people, to work hard, and to give up some things we are used to having so that those who have nothing would be helped. Not to work at this time could be a serious error. Amos pronounces woe to those who are living at ease and having fun while their nation is in a crisis (Amos 6:1-6). David fell into sin at a time that the kings went out to war but he was at home (2 Sam 11:1).
Next Paul tells Timothy about the blessings that will come if he suffers in the service of God (2 Tim. 2:8-13). Verses 11 and 12 are powerful: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” But there is a warning here too: “…if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:12b-13). These verses remind us that the coming judgment is an awesome reality. There is reward for service and punishment for disobedience. That truth is part of the Christian approach to life which influences everything we do.
One day we will see that all the personal sacrifices we made were worthwhile; that the last have become first, as the Bible promised (Luke 13:30). This is why we are not too upset when others get the credit for what we do. This is why we are willing to do things that don’t seem to bring us any earthly reward. No work is too small for us, for God gives us the strength to be servants. It may be cleaning filthy toilets or dressing festered wounds; or it may be clearing garbage. We not only have the strength to do these things, we regard doing them to be a great privilege.
It is with a great deal of joy that I can report that during the tsunami response many Christians did some things which were considered menial by others. Some of our volunteers were surprised to find that people spoke condescendingly to them because that is the way those who accept sinful class distinctions speak to people who do such work. They were hurt, and I was very angry, but I praise God that they continued working. The love of Christ in us, combined with our identity as princess and princess of the kingdom and the prospect of honor at the judgment gives us the strength to be servants; to do things which others don’t want to do. Disasters are times for Christian servanthood!
A TIME TO PRAY
The most powerful work that a Christian can do is to pray. In Paul’s thinking effective intercessory prayer was hard work (Col. 4:12-13). In Old Testament times when the nation faced a crisis, godly leaders called the nation to prayer, often with fasting. Fasting took place in times of national calamities (2 Sam. 1:12). When a great multitude of foreign invaders came against King Jehoshaphat, we are told that he “was afraid.” But his immediate response was to “set his face to seek the Lord, and [proclaim] a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chron. 20:3). We would have expected him to rally his army and prepare them for war. Instead he proclaimed a fast and gathered the nation to pray. The result was that God intervened and gave him a resounding victory.
However busy we are, prayer alone and in community should be an important aspect of our relief operations. And the beauty of prayer is that this is something that every Christian—young and old; physically active and those confined to bed because of ill-health-can do. When there are national or local crises Christian leaders should call their people to special seasons of prayer and fasting.
Here are some things that we should be praying about:
- for God’s grace to go to those who have suffered loss of loved ones and property; that those who are deeply traumatized would be ministered to and that those who are displaced from their homes would find a solution to their housing problems;
- that those who are in camps would be adequately provided for, and that those who are vulnerable to attack from wicked people, like women and children, would be protected;
- that Christians will arise and be sacrificially involved in effective service at this time;
- that the church would be revived to truly bring glory to God through our actions and our witness to Christ;
- that God would guide each one of us individually about how we are going to be involved in the process of the healing of our land;
- for the process of relief and rehabilitation; for groups involved in this, especially Christian organizations and churches, and for the government authorities who are responsible for administering the affected areas;
- that corruption, waste and a lack of planning that can hamper relief operations would be minimized;
- for our political leaders who make policies that affect the healing process;
- that there would be adequate supplies and funding for the huge task of restoring the nation;
- that through this tragedy peace would be restored to our nation; and
- that God’s glory would shine through to the nation as it has never been before resulting in people seeking God and finding his salvation.
A TIME TO GIVE
When Agabus prophesied to the church in Antioch that a famine was coming to Jerusalem, this young church immediately took an offering and sent it to Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Later Paul organized a fund which raised money from several churches outside Palestine to help meet the needs of the church in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9). Giving to the needy is a very important aspect of Christianity (Deut. 15:7-11; Matt. 5:42; 19:21; Luke 12:33; Gal. 2:10; 1 Tim. 6:18; Heb. 13:16).
This is the time for the people of God to give of their possessions to help those who have suffered. Paul says that we have a special responsibility towards those of “the household of faith” that is, towards the members of our spiritual family (Gal. 6:10). So our first responsibility is to our brothers and sisters in Christ. But our giving must go beyond that to others who are needy too. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, a command which appears seven times in the New Testament (Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:21; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).
As large sums of money and supplies are coming from abroad we may conclude that we ourselves do not need to give because our gifts will be minute in comparison to what comes from abroad. But we must remember that in the Bible the power of a gift does not depend on the amount of money given. Though the widow gave only a very small amount of money to the temple offering, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box” (Mark 12:43).
We need to encourage our people to give and show them how even their small gifts could have great power when God works through them. We need to give specific instructions on how people can give, where the gifts should be brought to and when. Paul did this when motivating the Corinthians to give for the Jerusalem fund. He spent a considerable space in 2 Corinthians to appeal to them to get involved in this fund (2 Cor. 8-9). He also presented some clear plans about how the offerings could be made and how this fund was going to be administered (1 Cor. 16:1-4).
A TIME TO PLAN
The last reference to Paul’s plans for the fund shows that the taking in and the disbursement of gifts should not be haphazard. This principle would apply to the relief and rehabilitation process too. Proverbs says that wars need to be waged with proper plans and advice so that the wisest strategies are adopted (Prov. 20:18, 24:6). This would apply to the war on the need of our people that we are now engaged in. So much time, energy and resources are wasted due to lack of planning. So many needy people miss the aid they should get and some get more than they need because of poor planning.
Planning is especially needed as we move out of the stage where we meet emergency needs and start the reconstruction process. It would be wise for smaller groups to partner with others. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to demonstrate the unity we share in Christ by joining with other churches and groups. Churches are particularly gifted with willing and able people, and that could be an important resource to give to specialist groups who have the funds and the expertise for relief and rehabilitation but not enough people. This is one of those situations where the principle of Ecclesiastes 4:9 is true: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Most of us are not equipped or knowledgeable enough to do the best job here. So it would be wise for us to partner with others.
This may be also a time for us to show our commitment to our nation as we join with other groups, not connected with the church, to help in their programs. We are citizens of two worlds. And all we do in both worlds we do for God and for his glory (1 Cor. 10:31). So even the jobs we do in so-called “secular” institutions we do primarily for God. We consider that job important because it goes to serve the community where God has placed us as his witnesses. The same principle applies when we serve the community through relief and rehabilitation projects organized by neighborhood groups or the government. We should look for opportunities to join with our neighbors so that we could represent Christ through our involvement in their projects.
A TIME TO BE CAREFUL
In the passage where Paul urges Timothy to suffer and work hard, he also urges him to be like “an athlete” who “competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). When one is running hard it is easy to stumble and fall. It is sadly true that many who have worked hard at relief have made some big mistakes by breaking some basic rules that must not be broken. So, when doing relief, we must ensure that we follow the basic rules of Christianity and of Christian service. For example, in exceptional times like this we may miss our time alone with God or with our spouses once or twice. But such omissions must not be permitted to go on for too long.
If we neglect our time with God for too long, we will lose our spiritual health. If we neglect our time with our spouses and family members for too long we will end up with unhealthy families. If we keep on losing sleep and working without a rest, our bodies and our emotions will be seriously affected leaving us weak and erratic in our behavior.
Immediately after an emergency we may have to push ourselves to the limit without much rest. But soon we need to get into a routine of finding time for rest and devotion amidst the busy activity. This would include taking a Sabbath rest, that is, one day off in a week. This applies to all people involved in alleviating suffering. For example, those who care full-time for ailing loved ones must make sure that they take some time off to rest and to be with the Lord. If they do not do this they will become irritable and even lose their effectiveness as care-givers.
Working non-stop without rest and spiritual nourishment will result in a loss of joy, in irritability and even depression. In his book The New Testament Image of the Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974, p. 133) W. T. Purkiser quotes someone involved in counseling who said that he has never known a case of depression that did not begin with fatigue. Given that joy is one of the most basic qualities of a Christian (Gal. 5:22), we can say that when people lose their joy they cease to behave like Christians. This joy is what gives us the strength (Neh. 8:10) to keep serving God enthusiastically however tough things get. Sometimes we may be weeping for the sorrow of what has happened, but deep down we have the joy of the Lord in our lives. This is because amidst the sorrow we are enjoying fellowship with the one who loves us and whom we deeply love.
One of the sad facts of the history of relief work is that many sexual and other sins have been committed by relief workers and also that many families have been seriously damaged as a consequence of a member being a relief worker. Many workers have got burned out and could never do such work again. Some couples divorce after they have come to the end of a huge and prolonged crisis with a child who was seriously ill. They had been so involved with the tough work of caring for the child that they did not give time to nurture their marriage relationship. They were working hard together over the child’s illness but once the child died they discovered that they had moved apart immensely.
So an emergency situation is a time for us to “keep a close watch on [ourselves]” (1 Tim. 4:16). People tend to get careless when they are tired. They can be taken off guard at such times. So we need to be particularly careful about our personal lives when we are tired.
We also need to be careful about our professional behavior at this time. Paul warns us that if we work in ways displeasing to God our work will be considered useless by God and will be burned away and destroyed at the final judgment (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Here are some professional errors we need to be careful about.
- We must take care that we do not exaggerate about what we are doing, or use our reporting to bring glory to ourselves. The glory from what we do belongs to God alone (Psa. 115:1; Isa. 48:11). We need to be constantly alert to the possibility of straying into actions that are aimed primarily at bringing glory to ourselves and our organizations.
- We must also be careful about the way we use the funds we receive. Even though there is a lot of work to do urgently we must not break the principles of accounting considered acceptable in our nation. Sadly, many frauds have been committed during relief operations and some of these began as errors in procedures by well-meaning individuals.
- We are living at a time of great need, and large funds have come in to meet those needs. We would be greatly tempted to spend some of those funds for luxury items and expenditure for ourselves. The extravagant lifestyles of some relief workers today are a scandal, and Christians must have nothing to do with things that look like that. That is the only way to truly identify with the suffering masses in our nation.
A TIME FOR COMFORT AND FOR THE GOD OF COMFORT
Paul describes God as the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). With so many people traumatized, sad and needing someone to listen to them, those who have received God’s comfort can do much to be agents of healing.
I think society has learned the importance of ministering to people who are emotionally and mentally affected by calamities. Therefore these days, professional counselors are rushed to places where disasters have taken place. While this may be needed, the experts have also come to realize the great value of friendship that comes from lay people who are known to affected persons. These are those who can minister to others long term and in more natural settings.
What is most urgent is to give back to affected people as much as possible of what they regarded as a normal life before the tragedy struck. One of the most important jobs that the expert can do is to get the people to come back to their “normal” relationships (like families, friends, colleagues, neighbors and school) and find strength through those.
Our role may often be simply being with and listening to hurting people. But the urgency of getting them to a normal life soon may often necessitate directing them to that through talking. So listening alone will not be enough. Experts have found that some things quite normal in ordinary counselling should not be done with people who have gone through severe trauma. For example, it is standard practice in counselling to ask hurting people to talk about their pain and what caused it. With trauma counselling this should be done only when the person is ready, and that may be much later. Premature retelling of trauma may trigger emotions that they cannot handle.
Some fairly extreme reactions like great fear, depression, withdrawal and silence, anger, sleeplessness, shock, nightmares, and crying are normal human responses to tragedies of this sort. In most cases these symptoms will pass with time. Therefore we should try to be understanding and reluctant to come to quick judgments about their behavior. All this is part of ministry that is patterned after the model of Christ who left heaven, came alongside us, and understood our lives better than we ourselves do.
My friend Dr. Arul Anketell, who is a medical doctor now ministering full-time with people in the medical field, encountered an old man in a refugee camp with typical symptoms of a severe heart attack. Arul called another doctor and, upon examination, they concluded that he was not suffering from a heart attack. This man had lost several family members in the tsunami. They talked with him and prayed with him and soon found that he was not only cleared of his symptoms but was also deeply interested in getting to know about the God to whom the doctors had prayed.
I know of children who are afraid to touch water after what happened. I went to a school where a teacher told me that they would like to reopen soon. But, she said, the parents do not want to send their children to school because it is fairly close to the sea and because they do not want to be separated from those who survived even for the duration of their school time. Such situations require much understanding and some skill.
Even relief workers are in need of comfort today. What they have experienced is emotionally very draining. When I first went to a seriously affected place, I wanted to weep because of the strong impact what I saw had on me. A colleague went to a similar site almost immediately after the tsunami hit and was confronted with dead bodies and incredible devastation. He had to leave the scene after a time and go into his van and weep.
The affect that such exposure to devastation has on our minds and emotions is profound. This calls for sensitivity to the needs of care givers. Opportunities must be given for them to share their pain with others and to be exposed to the comfort of the Christian community and more importantly to the comfort of God.
I think one of the greatest truths there is for Christians ministering to wounded people is that, when God became a human being, he suffered many of the things that those who face tragedies suffer. As a child he narrowly escaped a violent death, and his family had to flee their motherland and be refugees in a strange land. He was rejected by the people he came to help. His father probably died when he was young and, with at least four younger brothers and an unknown number of sisters to be supported (Mark 6:3), he couldn’t have a higher education. So the religious authorities regarded him as uneducated (John 7:15). This is a handicap that many children of families encountering tragedies today have. He was finally unjustly tried and died by one of the cruelest ways invented by humankind for the execution of criminals.
When I was less than ten years old something very embarrassing happened to me. In my desperate state the first words that came to my mind were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Much later it struck me that I know these words because they were spoken by God incarnate, Jesus, himself (Matt. 27:46). He went through the pain we go through. This truly is a God with whom suffering humanity can identify.
The greatest need of people is to have a relationship with this “God of all comfort.” With our busyness with the relief effort we must not lose sight of the need of people to receive God’s salvation. However, we must remember that God never manipulates people into accepting his message. He reasons with people about his way of salvation (Isa. 1:18). We must therefore be careful to ensure that people do not accept God simply because they received aid from Christians. They should accept God because they believe in their hearts and minds that, through Jesus, God has provided the answer to their deepest needs.
Times of disaster provide us with unique opportunities to practice many of the key features of Christianity. When a disaster happens Christians need to immediately ask, “What should I be thinking at this time? And how should I respond to this crisis in a Christian way?”