I worked with Japanese students in Boston a few years ago, and I found them to be some of the kindest, sweetest people I’ve ever met. Further, I was in Japan briefly a few years ago, and saw a hard-working people, driven for success and achievement. They’ve really set an example for the world in pursuing excellence and innovation. That said, I am deeply affected and grieved at the disaster that has decimated their country.

I felt impressed to take a blog and try to deal with the tough topic of what’s going on in Japan in light of God’s sovereignty. It’s not tough because the Bible isn’t clear on it, but it’s tough because most people struggle with what the Bible has to say, especially western Christians. We’ve been force-fed the “God as Santa Claus” doctrine so much that it’s difficult for most Christians to see any other parts of His nature. I hope this blog will provoke the reader to faith and faithful consideration of His Word.

First of all, what is happening is horrifying and immensely sad. It’s painful to look at the images coming from Japan and to hear the reports of unthinkable suffering. I am praying for strength for the people, and that the Church (in Japan and worldwide) would be wise, compassionate, and strong in such an hour.

Second, we must all respond with compassion and share in their grief. In no way do I intend that this blog would be seen as inconsiderate, uncaring, or cold-hearted toward the very real pain that many Japanese are enduring right now. I simply want to frame this tragedy for all readers with faith, and encourage biblical thinking.

The whole ordeal raises some serious and searching questions: Did God cause the natural disasters? Why does God allow suffering? Is this God’s judgment on Japan? If God had the power to stop it, why didn’t He?

In answering these questions, we have to be careful to see what the Bible says about all this. There’s a real temptation to deal with the questions emotionally, or through carnal reasoning try to provide answers the Bible simply does not give. We also must remember that anything the Bible teaches is for our benefit, to deepen our worship, our trust, and our comfort. All this in mind, here’s what the Bible has to say.

1. God is sovereign over all the events of mankind
God indeed is sovereign over all of creation, and nothing happens outside of His will. Consider this passage of Scripture:

Job 37:6-13, ESV
6 For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’
likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.
7 He seals up the hand of every man,
that all men whom he made may know it.
8 Then the beasts go into their lairs,
and remain in their dens.
9 From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
10 By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
11 He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
12 They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
13 Whether for correction or for his land
or for love, he causes it to happen.

What happened in Japan was not a series of random chance circumstances that happened to victimize the unfortunate Japanese people. In the truest sense of the phrase, it was “an act of God.” He is the “first cause,” though it was secondary agents (shifting continental plates, earthquakes, tsunami) that brought about His will.

2. God is sovereign over the events in the lives of every individual
Eph 1:11 says, “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will.” What thing in your life or mine should not be included in the phrase “all things”? Not only is God sovereign over nature, but He is also sovereign over our lives. Though other people and circumstances may provide the “second cause” of all that happens, we must see God as the first cause. This is not to blame Him, as the secondary agents are always the ones responsible and nowhere does Scripture blame God. We are to see God as the first cause so that we can learn to trust in His sovereign reign. Further, we are wise to remember that we are not God, and that God decides what is good and what is fair. Consider these verses:

Jonah in the belly of the whale
Jonah is thrown overboard by the mariners after he refuses to go to Ninevah and the Lord sends a storm. Then Jonah is swallowed whole by a big fish. In the belly of the whale, he says to God, “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3, emphasis mine). Interesting that just a few verses before, the Bible is clear that it was the mariners that threw Jonah overboard. But now Jonah looks beyond them, and sees the hand of God. This gave him comfort.

Joseph in Egypt when his brothers arrived

It was Joseph’s brothers that were sinfully jealous of him (Genesis 37:11), hated him (Genesis 37:4,5,8), sought to kill him (Genesis 37:20), and wickedly cast him into a pit (Genesis 37:4) and then sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:28). Yet, in the end, when his brothers came and begged for forgiveness, Joseph looks beyond all their evil, and sees God when he says, “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (Genesis 45:7, emphasis mine). Later on, he says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20, emphasis mine). Joseph could see the hand of God as He looked at the worst pain in his life. We need to pray that the Japanese will look beyond all their pain and see the hand of God drawing them to Himself in the midst of the suffering.

3. God’s goal in suffering is to take our eyes off of temporal things
We are not home yet. Colossians 3:2 says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” God uses our suffering and trials to take our eyes off of things that are not valuable. This life we are in is transient. It is the mercy of God to wake us up from our soul slumber so that we cease valuing temporal things. I’m sure that as many Japanese people watched their homes washed away or their loved ones die, they began to think about what life is really about. I’ve already heard of many hearts turning to God and pondering eternal things.

4. God’s goal in suffering is to teach us to depend on Him and trust Him
The Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God uses our weakest moments and greatest pain to teach us the sufficiency of His grace. Elizabeth Elliot, whose husband Jim Elliot died a martyr’s death in 1956, once said, “The object of your greatest pain can become the object of your greatest blessing if you’re willing to offer it to God.”

The famous verse Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). This tragedy in Japan can turn into a great blessing for their nation if they will open their hearts to the gospel.

5. God’s goal in suffering is to teach compassion to the world
Whenever we see this kind of gross suffering, it’s a test for the rest of the world. God has compassion, and wants us to be like Him. Will we simply shake our heads and turn on the ballgame, or “weep with those who weep” in prayer? Will we share our goods with the poor? Will we go and bring the hope of the gospel to them?

After World War II, the Japanese knew they were defeated, and cried out for missionaries to come to teach them about Jesus. The western church failed miserably and few answered the call. As a result, Japan became one of the most godless nations in the world. The church has another opportunity now to respond with compassion, and show them the love of God and the hope of the gospel.

6. God’s goal is His own glory

Habbakkuk 2:14 says, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” The end of all things is the glory of God. But the glory of God is not merely for God’s ego, but His glory and our good soar together. As John Piper famously said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Therefore, it would be cruel of God to allow a nation to continue in ignorance of His love, His reality, and His glory.

It may be that in His sovereign plan, He will turn the events in Japan to result in His glory among the Japanese people. Let’s pray that it will be so. Further, let’s pray that the church in Japan will be strong and wise.

As for you and me, let’s rest in the sovereignty of God, and not allow our confidence to be stolen, that He was, and is, and shall be for all days, the King over His creation.

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