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Would God do that?

During the 1930’s a series of massive dust storms took place over approximately a million acres of land primarily in the states of Oklahoma and Texas. Overgrazing of livestock and deep plowing of the soil made possible by the introduction of mechanized farm equipment, combined with a severe drought to destroy the grass that anchored the soil.  The result was numerous “black blizzards” of destructive clouds of dust as tons of topsoil was blown off the land. These storms were so dense that they brought traffic to a halt, caused respiratory-related illnesses, resulted in livestock going blind or suffocating, and brought farming in the area to a standstill. Over half of the people who lived in the affected area moved away. Steinbeck’s powerful novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is set in these circumstances.

The book of Joel has to do with a disaster of similar proportions that has occurred in Judah. Rather than storms of dust, the land of Judah has been ravaged by locusts (1:4). According to the National Geographic website, locusts indigenous to the Middle East (the Desert locust) are capable of flying in swarms covering almost 500 square miles with densities of up to 80 million per half a square mile. Joel speaks of them as “a mighty army without number” (v. 6 NIV). These locusts can reproduce several times within a year and are able to consume their own weight each day so a swarm could easily eat hundreds of millions of pounds of vegetation every day.  The initial crop devastation would have a domino effect on the ecosystem resulting in soil erosion, fire, famine, loss of livestock, etc. (v. 7, 10-12, 16-19). Locusts were bad news in many ways!

The prophet Joel informs the nation that God has sent the locusts (2:25). If we hear something like this suggested today, we’re immediately filled with indignation and outrage (both believers and unbelievers). The unbelieving want to know what kind of a deity would punish children and other innocents. The believing go into full damage control mode and try to smooth things over by fashioning a picture of God more compatible with our sophisticated and evolved sensibilities.

Jim McGuiggan has noted: 

          If the prophets weren’t so blunt it wouldn’t be so bad! If they hemmed and hawed                 about natural disasters and wars and the like the way we do, we could duck and dive             our way through them and make their teaching more palatable. But they don’t do that!           They say without varnish or disguise that God is the One who is responsible for these             things. And since we know that the righteous and innocent suffer as much and more               than the wicked, we’re often bitter against God. Apparently He is perfectly willing to               put up with that bitterness. But he will not slink away apologizing and He will not                   permit the prophets to engage in double talk.

There are two points that need to be made here. The first is that we must distinguish between suffering and punishment—they are not the same thing! Some talented football players repeatedly violate the rules and are kicked off the team. They are being punished for the choices they made. Is the team being punished? Of course not—they didn’t do anything wrong. Do they “suffer” in the sense that their former teammates made important contributions to the team that they must now do without? The answer is clearly yes. But the coach's intent isn't to punish them--they simply bear the consequences of their teammates' behavior.

It can be no other way! Because the wrong-doers are not isolated individuals independent of everyone else, their punishment will send ripples of suffering through the people they are connected with. An employee steals from their employer and they are fired despite the fact that their job helps them support others, provides money that is re-invested in the community, etc. A father or mother commits a serious crime and they are sent to prison despite the fact that it will bring suffering to their children. This is the way that sin effects community and we can ignore it if we wish, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

We do these things for the same reason God does--we recognize that the consequences of allowing wrong to go unchecked will ultimately be worse than the suffering the community endures. (This ought to give us pause about ever trivializing sin). We recognize that moral anarchy is bad and the rule of law if good. We are still willing to suffer (and even cause others to suffer) for the sake of what is right. This is redemptive suffering: suffering done by "innocent" people for the good of others.

Granting all of this, some would object that sending locusts constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. After all, it's one thing to fire someone from their job or even to send them to prison--but subjecting an entire nation to years of locusts seems extreme (2:25), doesn't it? What's really be said in this objection is that we don't always view sin the same way that God does and that's an insightful observation. We're left then with trusting our view or our Father's. Choosing to accept God's view is right. It won't make all of our problems or our pain go away, but it will help us to have a better understanding of why they're there.

The second point to remember is that it's a real mistake to think that God is nothing more than a detached judge in all of this.  Sin is dealt with ultimately (and intimately) by His Son’s suffering on the cross so that Barth’s compelling observation that "He does not will to be God for Himself nor as God to be alone with Himself. He wills as God to be for us and with us who are not God," is realized. Whatever else is true, the transcendent, all-powerful God of Judah is no stranger to suffering or to those who are suffering! 

We'll do well to remember that when we come across His judgments.

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