A Theology of Disaster

July 15, 2008

In this season of wildfire-based disasters, it would be good to visit the biblical understanding of what place God takes during disaster and how we can survive shattering events. In order to do that, I want to remind us of one disaster that opens itself up easily as a classroom.

In 1988, the Northwest corner of the United States and the Southwest corner of Canada experienced the worst drought since the mid-1800s. By the time we came to the summer fire season, all hell broke loose in the forests of British Columbia, Montana and Wyoming. I was living in B.C. at the time and I remember distinctly four separate fires joining together to form a so-called “supercell” fire, similar in devastation to low pressure cells joining to form tornadoes. But what I was observing was pittance compared to what was going on in Yellowstone.

The park rangers had supposedly learned their lessons in Yellowstone. For decades, they brought in crews to fight every small fire before it became too large. But naturalists convinced them that this had the opposite effect. It tinkered with the eco-system that required occasional burns from lightning which got rid of dead wood and diseased trees. Since they had not allowed burns to happen, several large fires spread way too quickly in the 70s and killed campers and park workers. By 1975, they reversed their policies and allowed fires to burn unless they threatened lives.

What they didn’t take into account is the principle of Complexity. This is the theory that systems involving man or nature are too complex to really predict anything with certainty. Michael Crichton is a huge proponent of this, especially in his book “Jurassic Park”. If you’ve seen the movie, you might remember the mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum who would mumble “complexity in nature will always find a way”. You can read more about Complexity here. The rangers of Yellowstone were dealing with a devastatingly complex system in their fire policy. They were probably correct in allowing small fires to burn. But they didn’t take so many other factors into account that summer of 1988. As a result, several small fires joined together to form one very huge fire. In fact, that fire is now seen as the most devastating forest fire in American history.

Let me cut to the chase. It is now the 20th Anniversary of that fire. One ecologist commenting in Atlantic Monthly in August of 1988 said that it might take 1,000 years for the Park to recover from this conflagration. Too bad. He was only off by 980 years. Researchers went back into park this summer to see how the eco-system was handling this wipeout. All species of animals are flourishing. All trees are spreading at rates never seen before. There is a diversity of plant species that never existed in the park in recorded history. The Yellowstone Cutthroat has made a comeback, actually holding their own against the Rainbow Trout; the Rainbow once almost wiped out the Cutthroat in the Park. The only part of the Park’s structure that hasn’t been rebuilt to its former glory is the manmade part.

In the book of Joel in the Old Testament, God makes a universal promise to his people:

Joel 2:12-14

Rend Your Heart

12 ‘Even now,‘ declares the Lord,

‘return to me with all your heart,

with fasting and weeping and mourning.‘

13 Rend your heart

and not your garments.

Return to the Lord your God,

for he is gracious and compassionate,

slow to anger and abounding in love,

and he relents from sending calamity.

14 Who knows? He may turn and have pity

and leave behind a blessing—

grain offerings and drink offerings

for the Lord your God.

Joel 2:25-26

25 ‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—

the great locust and the young locust,

the other locusts and the locust swarm—

my great army that I sent among you.

26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,

and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,

who has worked wonders for you;

never again will my people be shamed.

I love that phrase “I will repay the years the locusts have eaten”. It is like God is keeping a ledger of the things that have been lost for the express purpose of giving back what was lost during a disaster. In the case of Joel, the disaster had spiritual roots to it. Complexity teaches us to keep in mind that there are very few direct lines of cause and effect in disaster. Even in spiritual terms, it could be that the actions or inactions of people several generations passed have caused problems for today’s people. Certainly Adam’s sin brought a devastation on this earth. And we reap that reward. Sometimes the disaster we want to blame on one thing has nothing to do with that. Let us be extremely careful not to claim (as many are in the habit of doing) that we know the reason for specific disasters. Only God sees the complexity of disaster.

What I take heart in is knowing that no matter what comes, we can survive and eventually flourish. If our approach is the rend our hearts and not our garments and turn to God for his help, things can change. I remember something my mentor said: “We overestimate what can change in a month and we vastly underestimate what can change in a year”. Perhaps you have lost a job, are facing financial crisis, have seen your health deteriorate or had a relationship meltdown. Maybe it’s a flood, a fire, a heartache or loss that grips your soul. It feels at this moment like it cannot change and you will never feel any better. But life is too complex. You cannot see how many ways things are already changing.

Remember: Things are never as bad as you fear or as good as you hope. You cannot see all that is going on even in the most simple moment. But God does and we can hear His voice.



  1. Beauty from ashes and renewed hope (that will not disappoint because the Love of God is being poured out and is everlasting) are also truths that follow when I continue to surrender my heart to God. I also like the quote from your mentor.

  2. Charliemygirl, those are indeed truths that will sustain us in times of disaster. Thanks for reminding me of them.

  3. Loved this. So true. God is all about rebirth and renewal, so it stands to reason ALL his creations would have the ability to renew themselves. Have seen the same in devastated Tahoe forests. God, the great redeemer of the irredeemable.

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