I have been doing some preparation for a sermon on Sunday on the question/s ‘Did God cause the earthquake, and if so, why?’. Among the things I have been reading, I thought it might be helpful to draw your attention to two and invite comments. The first is an opinion piece which appeared in the Christchurch Press and about which I have heard many comments. It is written by Chris Trotter who is regarded by some as one of New Zealand’s finest left wing political commentators. I’d be interested to hear what people think of his piece.
The other is taken from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is worth putting in the hard yards to overcome the difficulties of reading the older style of prose. If you can grasp what Calvin is saying it is both profound and comforting, and shows how pastorally astute Calvin was. It made me realise that issues which I have only been forced to think through as a result of the quakes Mr Calvin clearly had thought through many times for many life-threatening reasons which was clearly more common in his experience than mine. Again, I’d be interested in your comments.
The full excerpt from Calvin’s institutes is below (Institutes I.xvii.10-11).
10. Without certainty about God’s providence life would be unbearable
“Hence appears the immeasurable felicity of the godly mind. Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases—a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?
You will say: these events rarely happen, or at least not all the time, nor to all men, and never all at once. I agree; but since we are warned by the examples of others that these can also happen to ourselves, and that our life ought not to be excepted any more than theirs, we cannot but be frightened and terrified as if such events were about to happen to us. What, therefore, more calamitous can you imagine than such trepidation? Besides that, if we say that God has exposed man, the noblest of creatures, to all sorts of blind and heedless blows of fortune, we are not guiltless of reproaching God. But here I propose to speak only of that misery which man will feel if he is brought under the sway of fortune.
11. Certainty about God’s providence puts joyous trust toward God in our hearts
“Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion. Thus indeed the psalm sings: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. Under his wings will he protect you, and in his pinions you will have assurance; his truth will be your shield. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the flying arrow by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at midday” [Ps. 91:3-6; cf. Ps. 90:3-6, Vg.; cf. Comm.].
From this, also, arises in the saints the assurance that they may glory. “The Lord is my helper” [Ps. 118:6; 117:6, Vg.]; “I will not fear what flesh can do against me” [Ps. 56:4; 55:5, Vg.]. “The Lord is my protector; what shall I fear?” [Ps. 27:1; cf. Ps. 26:1, Vg.] “If armies should stand together against me” [Ps. 27:3; cf. Ps. 26:3, Vg.], “if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death” [Ps. 22:4, Vg.; 23:4, EV], “I will not cease to have good hope” [Ps. 56:5; 55:4, Vg.; 71:14; 70:14, Vg.]. Whence, I pray you, do they have this never-failing assurance but from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work, and from trusting that his work will be for their welfare? Now if their welfare is assailed either by the devil or by wicked men, then indeed, unless strengthened through remembering and meditating upon providence, they must needs quickly faint away. But let them recall that the devil and the whole cohort of the wicked are completely restrained by God’s hand as by a bridle, so that they are unable either to hatch any plot against us or, having hatched it, to make preparations or, if they have fully planned it, to stir a finger toward carrying it out, except so far as he has permitted, indeed commanded. eLet them, also, recall that the devil and his crew are not only fettered, but also curbed and compelled to do service. “Such thoughts will provide them abundant comfort. For as it belongs to the Lord to arouse their fury and turn and direct it whither he pleases; so, also, is it his to set a measure and limit, lest they licentiously exult in their own lust.
Paul, supported by this conviction, after saying in one passage that his journey had been hindered by Satan [I Thess. 2:18], states elsewhere that with God’s permission he determined to set out [I Cor. 16:7]. If he had said only that the obstacle was from Satan, he would have seemed to give too much power to him, as if it were in his power to overthrow even the very plans of God; but now when he declares God the Ruler upon whose permission all his journeys depend, he at the same time shows that Satan cannot carry out anything that he may contrive except with God’s assent. For the same reason, David, on account of the various changes by which the life of men is continually turned, and as it were, whirled about, betakes himself to this refuge: that his “times are in God’s hand” [Ps. 31:15]. He could have put here either “course of life” or “time” in the singular, but he chose to express by using the plural “times” that however unstable the condition of men may be, whatever changes take place from time to time, they are governed by God. “For this reason, although Rezin and the King of Israel, having joined forces to destroy Judah, seemed firebrands kindled to destroy and consume the land, they are called by the prophet “smoking firebrands,” that can do nothing but breathe out a little smoke [Isa. 7:4]. cThus Pharaoh, although to all he was fearsome both on account of his riches and strength, and the size of his armies, is himself compared to a sea monster, and his troops to fish [Ezek. 29:4]. God therefore announces that he is going to seize the leader and the army with his hook and drag them where He pleases. bIn short, not to tarry any longer over this, if you pay attention, you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.