Somewhere a preacher is preaching. He shakes his fist at the ceiling as he describes the wrath of God.
That wrath has come, he tells his attentive congregation, on the crest of a terrible storm. God has shown his power and his might by smashing a wall of wind and water into Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and other cities in the deep South.
Strangely, folks gain comfort from this. Not that God has inflicted suffering on vulnerable people. Comfort comes from the belief that God is in control. Things happen for a reason. We are not at the mercy of random forces of wind and weather. Only God can make a storm.
And so in an effort to find security and a sense of purpose in a world where nearly everything dwarfs our puny existence, we ascribe to God a terrible anger that lashes out from time to time in the form of a storm or earthquake or plague. God is angered by our sinfulness, and a price must be paid.
And isn’t there biblical precedent? The story of Noah certainly portrays an angry God all too ready to unleash the forces of weather against a recalcitrant people.
And didn’t Sodom and Gomorrah fall to a storm of fire and brimstone?
And during the time of Elijah didn’t God use drought and famine to punish his people for their idolatry and injustice?
When big bad things happen, it is hard not to believe that God is the cause. And because pain often feels like punishment, how can we help but ask what it is we have done to bring down the divine anger?
But there is another portrait of God found in the Bible. It is the image offered by Jesus.
God, according to Jesus, is like a loving parent. This parent is so attuned to the needs of creation that even the fall of a small sparrow is noticed. This same attention is also lavished on the human part of creation. For God so loved the world, Jesus said once.
This parent-God whom Jesus knows is full of grace. This God is like a farmer who hires people all day long to work in the fields. At the end of the day he pays those who have only worked one hour the same wage as those who worked all day.
This parent-God whom Jesus knows anguishes over the suffering and despair of the weak and vulnerable. Speaking for this parent-God, Jesus said that only when we have cared for the “least of these” in this world can we claim to have known him.
Writing later in the life of the church, the Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “What can separate us from the love of God?” His answer: “Nothing can separate us from God’s love.”
So how do we reconcile these two different views of God?
Traditionally, for Christians, it has been our practice to allow Jesus to have the final say.
And if that is true, then we must conclude that the storms that blow against us are not from God. They are part of the natural order, which follows a course of natural law.
But if God does not send the storm, where is God in the storm?
God is where God is always found – standing beside the weak and the broken, comforting those who have lost everything.
Somewhere a preacher is calling down the wrath of God. But God is not there.
God is in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham and Pleasant Grove and Williams, in devastated cities and crushed villages, binding up the wounds of hurting children.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.