I used to say whenever it rained, “At least it’s good for the farmers.” No matter if rainstorms were ruining my outdoor plans, there were farmers somewhere who were benefiting.
That is what I thought. These days I am a pastor whose congregations are comprised of farmers, and I no longer know what to think. I do not pray for sunshine, and I do not pray for rain. I pray for “sunshine and rain in the right proportion.” I pray for “weather that will make our crops grow.” One farmer in my parish will refer to it only as “the r-word,” lest the good Lord hear the word rain and open the faucets too far. A few summers ago, we had enough showers that people were kicking themselves for not planting rice. The next summer we had dry, cracked fields. Then, it rained. There were sighs of relief, but in some quarters relief gave way immediately to apprehension: let’s just hope we don’t get too much.
For all the things humankind has learned to tame, weather remains uncontrollable. We have messed up global climate systems through negligence, but we have not figured out how to get the weather we want when we want it. Since farming depends on weather, it is one of the few jobs whose success remains truly uncertain year after year. Will our granaries be full or empty? God knows. And he is the only one. There is no use pretending we can really control the outcome by our own machinations. By our machines, we might increase yields proportionately to labor, but in the end, God determines abundance or famine.
If modernity has diminished our religious humility, the subject of weather has been one of the last strongholds for God’s sovereignty. Natural selection may determine the idiosyncrasies of species; class struggle might be the cause of political upheaval; and social constructs might be to blame for gender roles; but weather has been one phenomenon where people still feel God’s absolute rule. Prayers increase during crisis, and my farmers are aware of the perpetual crisis that their livelihood hangs on God’s decision to send rain and sunshine in good measure.
That is why it has surprised me recently to see pastors and congregations excusing God from responsibility for natural disasters. A recent publication from church headquarters commended a church sign in Mississippi that read: “Hurricane Katrina was an act of nature. What goes on here is an act of God.” A strange contradiction. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires have made a lot of headlines the last few years. What a funny notion that in each case God arrived just a little too late. He made it in time for the rescue workers. He arrived when churches opened their doors to care for the victims. If only he had been there when the trouble started!
Deism is rearing its head, although today’s is a new mixed breed. This is a gentler deism. Gone is the cold theology suggesting that God created the world like a clock, wound it up, and then just stood back to watch. The newly arrived warm theology teaches that God wound it up, stands back during disasters, presumably cursing himself for those errors in his design, and then steps in to do clean-up.
This is a kinder deism, since God gets credit for the good stuff, and nature gets blamed for the bad. Some theologians try to squeeze a little divine sovereignty into this mix by saying that God limits himself during disasters. God could intervene to stop hurricanes, but he chooses not to, so as to preserve either the system he fashioned, with all its rules of action and consequence, or human freedom, which to be truly free, supposedly, must be allowed to stumble—although why God values these rules or human freedom so much is left a mystery.
And if a little divine sovereignty is squeezed in, why not a little divine sympathy as well? Fear not. God does not just limit himself. When tragedy hits, his is the first heart to break. I do not know if William Sloane Coffin was the first to say it, but preachers have been repeating it ever since. So, there you have it: God’s sovereignty and compassion are both left intact.
What is not left intact, however, is a biblical portrait of God. “He it is,” Psalm 135 says, “who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightning for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” This is not a clockmaker who sits back and watches his handiwork tick. This is a king who enters his own treasury—the King James captures it well—and pulls out the treasures of the wind. Of course that makes God responsible for destruction and human suffering, but Scripture thinks God is justified in inflicting it. The prophetic corpus is glorious for its promises that God will restore his people, but they need to be restored precisely because God has scattered and destroyed them. For idolatries and oppressions galore, God sends invading armies, both of the military and locust variety.
It has always been an intricate calculus, trying to figure out who is responsible for suffering—whether God, his creation, or the devil—but scripture does not view these options as mutually exclusive, and through it all God’s sovereignty is maintained. Who inflicts all that calamity on Job? Satan does but only when God allows it. God places Job in Satan’s hands, and when Job’s livestock are stolen, his servants and children are all dead, and his own body is covered in sores, Job knows that regardless of Satan’s involvement, it is God who has given and God who has taken away. Job asks, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” Remarkably, scripture pronounces a rare verdict on Job’s assessment: he did not sin with his lips.
On the recent two-hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, a National Public Radio host commented that Darwin’s theories had liberated God from responsibility for suffering. It’s not God, after all, who kills things; it’s just the system he created, a system which results in salutary adaptations through survival of the fittest. Here we see the devil’s mischief. When we think that God is in need of liberation and that we are his liberators, theology has gotten itself backwards. We do not liberate God; nor is it our place to question or judge him. He liberates, questions, and judges us. His opinion is ultimately what counts.
This is a hard position to maintain when American Christians view their churches with the same consumeristic mentality they wield on their grocery stores. Give me a palatable portrayal of God, one pleasant to my way of thinking, or I’ll shop elsewhere. Suggesting that God’s opinion is what counts, and that his wrath means death for us, does not attract customers. After September 11, 2001, preachers rushed to defend God: he was surely not responsible for all that suffering. But when considering the Galilean victims of Pilate’s cruelty and the Tower of Siloam that killed eighteen people, Jesus did not liberate God from responsibility. In fact, he made God more unattractive still. A nervous, modern preacher would have denied both that God was responsible for the tragedies and that they were punishments from God against sin. But in Luke 13, Jesus rules out neither possibility. He says, rather, that the victims of these tragedies were no worse sinners than anyone else. Repent, he told his listeners, or you will all perish as they did.
It is a harsh judgment against us and certainly a harsh way for God to reveal himself, but through it all God is already bearing in on us with his grace. What is there for a sinner to do when God really is sovereign and when he really does find me wanting in righteousness? What is there to do if God’s wrath against my sins really means the death of me? What is there to do but cry for mercy?
It is no accident that one of the church’s most penitential moments arrives according to the agricultural calendar. Rogation Days are always the days leading up to Ascension, not because of any connection to Easter but because the Easter season is the time of tilling and planting in the Northern Hemisphere. Rogation is a time of asking for God’s mercy, and it is largely an agricultural custom. Where God’s sovereignty is felt—as it is by farmers so dependent on weather systems beyond their control—there people must pray for mercy. During processional litanies, the faithful send up their cries of kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy. You, O God, rule over the sun and rain, so mercifully bless us with a good growing season. Bless us with abundant crops that we may feed our families and care for others in need.
I have to wonder whether Rogation processions will catch on again—and not only in farming towns—as our economy collapses, our ecosystems falter, and our country labors on in multiple wars. A person could analyze any of these disasters and seek their causes simply in terms of human error: our greed, our lack of government regulation, our militarism, our disregard for future generations. But a Christian cannot look at such things and see only human agency. A Christian must look at these things and see also the hand of God, punishing us, demanding repentance. The difference between the two perspectives may seem slight—indeed, in either case, we find human culpability—but the difference is significant. If we alone have gotten ourselves into this mess, then we alone might get ourselves out of it. If, however, God is working against us, driving us to repentance, and if it is his power we are up against, then we would be wise to ask him for merciful assistance.
Indeed, not only does God drive us to repentance, but he drives us to cling to him where he actually offers mercy, in his Son. Jesus did not come for the righteous but for sinners. He came for people like us who have come up against God’s sovereignty and been crushed by it. He came announcing forgiveness and told sinners to start talking to God not only as the Sovereign Lord but as their merciful Father. Where preachers show up (with their beautiful feet, as Isaiah and Paul say), not diminishing God’s sovereignty but actually preaching Christ, there people find a merciful God. There we can stop our delusions about liberating God and start knowing what it means to be liberated.
A few years ago on Ash Wednesday, I watched with disappointment as the snow piled up outside. Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite services as a pastor, and it seemed a shame to cancel it because of the weather. I planned to go ahead with the service. Whoever could make it would make it. Then I got a call from one of my parishioners who drives a school bus, the same fellow who will only refer to rain as “the r-word.” He had put his bus in the ditch. He was serving as council president that year and so he made the executive decision to cancel services that night. He made the right call. I was sad not to be able to draw the ash crosses on my parishioners’ foreheads that year, but God was busy drawing that cross on my own forehead with snowdrifts. The cross of our mortality is not just a symbol. I really am dust. I am not able to leap over snowdrifts, and neither are my parishioners. I am bound by such earthly considerations as weather conditions. There is one who is unbound by such matters, the same one who binds us by bringing wind and snow out of his treasury. He still rules, and I thank him that the cross is not just a symbol of my mortality but, more importantly, of his own Son’s death and resurrection, the place where his sovereignty poured itself into mercy.
Pray for sun or pray for rain? I don’t know, but prayers for mercy are always in season.
Paul Koch is pastor of the Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.