Every time a tragedy like that being experienced in Oklahoma occurs, people in my line of work start speaking for God. Many express love, concern, and solidarity. Others, however, say things that make me want to cringe.
Speaking for God is an audacious act. One should never do so glibly. In instances in which people are hurting, grieving, and doubting the beneficence of God (such as they are now in Oklahoma), one should think twice about doing so at all. If you can't help yourself, however, and you feel you must insert a word from God into such an emotionally volatile situation, then please try to avoid a few common mistakes that others have made while doing so:
- Avoid the temptation to apply your theology of divine sovereignty to the tragedy. Many believe all events (the good, the bad, and the ugly) are all part of God's master plan. "All things happen for a reason," someone might say. Others believe that such tragedies are emblematic of the fallen state of creation and are indeed the opposite of God's will for our world. These are discussions that need to be had. They push us all to more robust understandings of the nature of God and the problem of evil (even the evil created by chaos). But the aftermath of these events are lousy contexts for such discussions. Regardless of whether or how God is involved in these tragedies, believers of every stripe do best when they respond to the tragedy in Christlike, selfless, and servant-hearted ways together; they do worst when they immediately enter the theological fray in an attempt to score points or to defend their beliefs.
- Avoid saying or doing anything that might cause greater pain, suffering, or grief to those who are hurting most. The aftermath of a tragedy is not the time to speak a word of judgment on the victims of a tragedy. The pre-exilic prophets of the Bible warned of great disasters that would befall the people if they did not adhere to God's warnings against idolatry and the economic oppression of the poor and disenfranchised. Yet, when disaster did befall Israel and Judah as a result of God's judgment, the prophets wept with their people. They didn't gloat. They didn't wag their fingers and say, "I told you so." They went with them into exile. They helped give voice to the pain, the shock, and the doubt that their people were experiencing. And, most importantly, when they spoke for God, they spoke words of comfort and hope.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-2).
- Avoid using the need of others as an opportunity for good public relations. This is a sticky one. To some extent, all help in a situation like this is good help. Those accepting help are not concerned with the motivation of the helper. They just need help. But if we desire for the help and hope that we offer in the name of God to be legitimately Christ-like, then we should have no need to publicize the help we are offering. Again, let me tread lightly. I am not suggesting that we should stop broadcasting that our churches and non-profits are poised and available to help in the aftermath of community tragedies like the tornadoes in Oklahoma or the explosion in West, but I would (humbly) suggest that there is no need for pastors to be doing interviews on national news stations. Those who are in need of help may need to know you are available to help. The rest of the world does not. A pertinent word on this topic from Jesus himself:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:2-4).