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FIRST-PERSON: Finding God amid Charley & Frances

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Not again. It’s almost as if our state has been marked with a huge X.

Only three weeks after a large swath of the Sunshine State was battered by Hurricane Charley, another –- and even larger -– hurricane, Frances, has pounded our state, wreaking a path of destruction almost exactly opposite Charley’s track.

There’s little doubt that millions of Floridians have been impacted by one -– or both — hurricanes. Yet another hurricane, Ivan, looms.

I would be the last person to attempt to explain why such great tragedies occur. Some of life’s mysteries cannot be explained on this side of eternity, but that doesn’t stop some well-meaning Christians. Unfortunately, sometimes they do a great disservice to the Gospel and our Lord in their reckless attempts to ascribe meaning and confidently explain God’s purpose in such catastrophes.

While traveling back to Jacksonville following my coverage of the early disaster relief response to Charley, I heard a verbal exchange on a secular radio station in Tampa that caused me to be embarrassed and angry at the same time. A Christian woman called in to say that Charley was God’s judgment on America for “gay marriage” and pornography. The incredulous host hammered the woman relentlessly, seemingly getting great pleasure out of her foolishness.

She considered herself a friend of God; she reminded me of Job’s friends.

Ironically, a few weeks before Charley came to Florida, I began to teach a Bible study at my home church, Moultrie Baptist Church in St. Augustine, on the Book of Job. Providentially, Charley and Frances have given our class real-life object lessons on finding God in the midst of suffering.

The biblical account of the tremendous tragedy suffered by Job -– a righteous man of great familial and material prosperity who lost virtually everything -– is, in part, the story of well-meaning friends who, after being provoked by Job’s complaint against God, took it upon themselves to assert with certainty the reason for Job’s suffering. Like the woman on the radio talk show, Job’s friends were confident that his affliction was God’s judgment for some great sin in his life. But the Bible makes clear that Job’s calamity was not the result of sin (Job 1:22).

After God enters the dialogue, presenting one of the clearest depictions of His sovereignty in all of Scripture (chapters 38-41), Job repents. Later, God restores Job’s prosperity and doubles his possessions.

While there is a happy ending to the story of Job, the account never really explains the reason for the affliction. But, Job’s story does explain a result of the suffering.

Job concludes: “I had heard rumors about You, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). What an astounding and revealing statement. It was only through his affliction that Job was truly able to see God. In this way, it could be said that God was blessing Job in his affliction so that he could really know God.

Even in the midst of suffering when we cannot explain the purpose of tragedies, it’s incredible to see God’s grace demonstrated in the lives of Christians who serve people in need. In this way, God is being made known in our state.

Time and time again, we have heard –- and have repeatedly reported –- the stories of selfless believers in Florida and those who have sacrificed much to come to our state to assist total strangers. And that’s the thing –- to these faithful Christians, every person is a neighbor deserving of lovingkindness, recognizing that we have been recipients of God’s lovingkindness to us.

In the midst of the affliction of Florida, the disaster relief response of faithful Southern Baptists and other Christians has provided an opportunity for the Gospel to be heard in hearts that may not have been willing by any other means.

Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, told me in an e-mail Sept. 3 that the waves of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams “have opened wonderful evangelistic doors” in his community, one of the areas hardest hit by Charley.

Noting that he has “really been impressed with our Southern Baptists folks,” Ascol listed several illustrations of how God is being made known in the wake of tragedy:

“I was in a group helping a Jewish woman and agnostic man in Punta Gorda (neighbors to some of our members) last Saturday to try to move out what they could salvage from their home. As lunch time neared, they told us not to worry about getting our sandwiches out because ‘the Baptists’ are providing hot meals to the whole mobile home park. That opened a great door of evangelistic conversation.

“Another elderly man the week before, upon learning that we were Baptists while we were helping one of our members whose home was badly damaged, said, ‘I never really knew much about Southern Baptists before, but they are everywhere! I am going to check them out.’ He is from a Lutheran background, and did not really understand the Gospel, but listened to me share it, because I am ‘one of those Baptists’….

“I could go on and on with such stories of how ministry efforts of serving others have opened wonderful evangelistic doors -– from the windshield glass repairman who has promised to have his family in our church this Sunday, to the Jewish mother of teenagers who professed faith in Christ last Tuesday. The larger work of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief has helped create a wonderful culture of openness to the Gospel by many people.”

Whatever God’s purpose in Florida’s afflictions in Charley and Frances, one thing has become abundantly clear during these weeks of suffering: God is being made known. Those of us like Job who already serve God know Him better; and many have come to know Him for the first time.

No sane person would wish for his state to be pounded by two major hurricanes in the span of three weeks. But I thank God He is using Southern Baptists and other followers of Christ to make Himself known so that many can say with Job: “I had heard rumors about You, but now my eyes have seen You.”
James A. Smith Sr. is the executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.
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  • James A. Smith Sr.