Watching the reports of last week's tornadoes in Alabama fly through my newsfeed, I sat filled with a strange mix of horror and awe.
Horror at the death and destruction that have occurred. I can't imagine what it's like for all those who are now picking up the pieces of their lives, who have lost friends and loved ones. Watching these events unfold in real time yet being completely unable to do anything about it while it is happening just leaves me feeling utterly powerless.
Yet we spend enormous amounts of time and money seeking to submit nature to our will. Hydroelectric dams, wind farms, solar panels, and offshore oil rigs litter the earth—all intended to harness the power of creation for our benefit. And to some degree, we are successful. Until a dam breaks and its water floods the region. Until oil lines rupture and pour billions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean. Until wind turbines increase the erosion of topsoil.
And those are just the things that are under our “control.” When a natural disaster, whether last week’s tornadoes or last month’s earthquake and subsequent tsunamis in Japan, we are confronted by a terrible truth: Despite our best efforts, this idea that we have mastered creation is just an illusion.
We cannot tame the weather any more than we can make the sun shine in Seattle or make it stop snowing in Canada. And when the illusion is shattered, we are left horrified.
Then there's this awe that comes from witnessing the power of the whirlwind as I am forced to stop and consider the unfathomable power of God. And I fear that many of us, myself included, have taken for granted the Lord's might.
That we have sought to tame him.
Particularly in recent years, Christians have spent so much time focusing on God’s love, grace, and mercy (and it is right for us to do so) that we do not fear him. Is it possible he allows these disasters as irrevocable reminders of his terrible, fearful might? That he wants us to remember that he is not safe?
Not Safe But Good
In his classic fantasy tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis wrote of the Pevensie children preparing to meet Aslan. Upon discovering he was a lion, Lucy asked, “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” The Beavers' responses are telling:
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you.”
"He isn't safe," Lewis writes. How much more true is that of God than Aslan?
The final chapter of Isaiah offers us a glimpse of this. God’s people, virtually from the moment he had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, turned away from true worship to chase after idols. Ultimately, they wanted gods they could control.
They wanted gods who were safe.
In Isaiah 66:15-16, God promises that their spurning of true worship, their rejection of him, will be met with a final, future judgment:
For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many.
How can we read Isaiah 66:15-16 and not be at least a little bit terrified?
When we receive a severe tornado warning, we understand what we are to do: We are to flee! If we want to escape with our lives, we must get out of the path of danger. Yet, despite repeated warnings, some still are caught in the storm’s wrath. Some, despite their best efforts, cannot escape in time. Others simply pay it no mind.
They don’t take it seriously.
So when Isaiah warns of the wrath to come, what is he doing? He’s telling his hearers to flee! This God they have spurned is not safe, and the storm of his wrath is on the way. “The Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind.” This is not an image of a safe God; it is an image of One whose judgment will come upon the nations like a storm in all its unbridled fury.
It will be unstoppable.
He’s not cute and cuddly, gentle Jesus, meek and mild. That’s not the God we worship—and if it is, then we’re worshiping a different God than the Bible reveals.
No, he isn’t safe.
But—he is good.
Even in the midst of the promise of his certain judgment—the promise that those who have rebelled against him “shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isa 66:24)—there is something greater.
One of hope, of redemption as the Lord will gather from among the nations a people for himself, and the glory of the Lord will spread. His glory will be declared among all the nations. And in the end, “'all flesh shall come to worship before me,' declares the Lord” (v. 23).
This is a great promise.
But God feels no compulsion to separate his promise of blessing—of an age where worship of him will be pure, undefiled and unceasing—from his promise of certain judgment. In fact, it seems as though by joining the two—by joining his fearful might with his majestic love—God is leading us to rejoice that he spares us from any disaster, let alone our sin, which deserves an eternal judgment that eclipses the worst of what nature’s wrath can muster.
No, he isn’t safe. He will not be tamed.
But he is good.
Aaron Armstrong is the author of Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty (Cruciform Press, 2011). He is a writer for an international Christian ministry focused on caring for the needs of the poor, serves as an itinerate preacher throughout southern Ontario, Canada, and blogs daily at Blogging Theologically.