The devastating flood that hit my city in June raised some familiar questions among Calgarians – Christians and non-Christians alike: Why would God do this? What’s he trying to say to us? What did we do wrong? What could we have done differently to avoid this disaster?
Western Christians often think if we do the right things, God will automatically take care of us. If we do the wrong things, God won’t bless us. If our lives are in chaos due to health reasons, financial misfortune, or natural disasters, we believe we must be doing something wrong. As a pastor, I have often been asked what a person must do to secure God’s blessing or avoid his punishment.
But is that how God works?
The biblical story of Stephen paints a picture of a devout Christ follower – a man “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) and “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). Besides the disciples, Stephen is the first person recorded as performing signs and wonders. In Acts 6–7, Stephen passionately explains the gospel and calls for repentance before the Sanhedrin, displaying a Spirit-filled sense of peace and purpose.
It seems that he did everything right. But, in the end, Stephen – likely a father, husband, sibling, and son – was murdered.
Today, we probably wouldn’t view Stephen’s story as a victory. We might even call it a tragedy, with shouts of “God, where are you? I thought you cared about us? We’ve given up everything to follow you, what are you doing?”
When confronted with tragedy, some Christians have an underlying expectation that God answers prayer only through relief or rescue. In other words, if a loved one isn’t healed, if our disease isn’t taken away, if a new job isn’t found, if our house isn’t spared, God doesn’t love or care for us.
It’s easy to overlook God’s presence and blessing if we assume God should “show up” in a certain way. God may not reveal himself through healing a loved one, but he may make himself known through our loved one’s courage and devotion, or through a caring community.
I don’t know what Stephen was expecting God to do in his crisis. Did he expect to be rescued? Did he expect his opposition to fade when he explained to them that Jesus was the Messiah? Did he expect the Jewish leaders to repent?
God responds in love
As the Sanhedrin became increasingly enraged at Stephen, the heavens opened and gave him exactly what he needed… reassurance (Acts 7:54–56). Stephen received reassurance that God’s love reigned, the Lord still cared, and the Holy Spirit was with him.
When life closes in around us, the heavens may not open as we want them to. But when our faith draws us close to God, we can experience the same reassurance Stephen did. Stephen’s circumstances didn’t change, but his faith stayed firm: “As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ He fell to his knees, shouting, ‘Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!’ And with that, he died” (Acts 7:59–60, NLT).
To his dying breath, Stephen remained focused on Christ, drew strength from him, and continued to express concern for his fellow Jews. He probably had no idea his martyrdom would serve as a catalyst for greater persecution, thereby launching the spread of Jesus’ message throughout the known world.
Through a glass darkly
In an attempt to give meaning to our circumstances, we often look for an explanation or purpose to our pain. But, friends, let us not demand to see the great good God will bring out of tragedy or darkness. No one said to Stephen or his family, “Here’s the plan: your death will be the event that takes the gospel across the globe.”
Stephen simply kept his focus on Jesus, without any knowledge or apparent interest in how God would use his pain. He simply followed the leading and promptings of the Holy Spirit.
The flood of 2013 was not punishment for the individualism or consumerism of Calgary. Destruction of property or loss of life didn’t happen as the result of individual behaviour. We live in a river valley which floods from time to time. When we build in the path of nature, nature will win.
As flood-ravaged communities rebuild, we have the opportunity and obligation to extend the hope of Christ through compassion, service, generosity, encouragement – to be, do, and tell the good news. This is the time for the body of Christ to extend the hope of Christ in every way possible.
—Willy Reimer is CCMBC executive director and lives in Calgary with his family.
For more stories of how Calgary MBs are responding to the flood, go to mennonitebrethren.ca