More than twenty-two thousand firefighters fought “extreme fire behavior” across the West yesterday as homes burned and thousands of residents fled fast-spreading flames. The largest fire in the US is continuing to grow this morning, one of eighty-eight large wildfires crews are battling throughout the country. Six new large fires were reported Saturday.
California has seen a 257 percent increase in acres burned so far compared to 2020. A fire behavior analyst blames “the critically dry weather” for good reason: scientists say the current drought is setting a 122-year record. Almost 90 percent of the western US is now considered to be in drought. The drought currently extends from the West Coast eastward into Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Is this the judgment of God?
“Heaven is shut up and there is no rain”
There is no question that God sometimes uses drought as judgment on sin.
He sent a drought against Israel in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 17:1) and “called for a drought on the land and the hills” in the days of Haggai (Haggai 1:11). Solomon foresaw a day when “heaven is shut up and there is no rain” because of the people’s sin (1 Kings 8:35).
Jeremiah 14 depicts such judgment in stark terms: “The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought: ‘Judah mourns, and her gates languish; her people lament on the ground, and the cry of Jerusalem goes up'” (vv. 1–2). The drought affected rich as well as poor (v. 3) and was so severe that “the farmers are ashamed; they cover their heads” (v. 4) and wildlife were suffering as well (vv. 5–6).
Jeremiah responded by confessing the sins of his people and praying for divine mercy: “Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you” (v. 7).
He acknowledged that the Lord is the one true God and thus the only one who could save them: “Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Are you not he, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for you do all these things” (v. 23).
Defeating the gods of Egypt
The Bible clearly teaches that God sometimes uses natural disasters to judge sin and call sinners to repentance. In such cases, however, he warns the people first through his prophets and other representatives, as with Moses before Pharaoh (Exodus 5–12). If they will not repent, he responds directly to their sins. For example, each of the plagues against Egypt was a direct defeat of one of Egypt’s pagan gods (cf. Exodus 12:12).
It would be easy for me as a conservative Christian to blame the West Coast drought on the sins of some who live there. The immorality championed by some in Hollywood and the irreligiosity of many in Washington and Oregon are well known, for example. But the drought includes Idaho, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—states not known for immorality or irreligiosity.
Unlike the plagues of Egypt, the current drought is not the consequence of specific sins. Nor am I aware of prophetic warnings issued by the Lord before the drought began.
As a result, I do not view the current drought as God’s active judgment against the western US but as a consequence of living in a fallen and broken world (Romans 8:22). We see such tragedies daily, as with the sandstorm yesterday in Utah that caused a series of car crashes, killing at least seven people, and the heavy rains that flooded subways in New York early this month.
However, I am convinced that God wants to use the drought and wildfires to teach us a vitally important lesson.
“Night is coming, when no man can work”
Early Christians lived with urgency born out of reality. Life expectancy in the Roman world was half of rates today. Christians were especially in peril—more than a million died for Jesus in the first three centuries of the Christian era.
But their urgency was not just a product of their circumstances. They knew that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11), remembering Jesus’ admonition, “Night is coming, when no man can work” (John 9:4). Their Master warned them, “Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42).
The disasters we have discussed today should remind us that our lives are no more certain than theirs. With all our scientific advances, we cannot stop droughts or prevent wildfires. With all our medical expertise, we cannot yet end the present pandemic or forecast the next one. We may live longer on average, but none of us are guaranteed another day.
However, I do not sense true urgency among many Christians in America. We may believe theologically that Jesus could return tomorrow or we could die today, but we need to translate this belief into practice. The more urgent our faith, the more earnestly we will share the gospel, stand courageously for our Lord, and live ready to stand before him one day.
Sharing Jesus in ICU
We’ll close today with a crucial example.
Please join me in praying today for Jonathan Lotz, the son of Anne Graham Lotz and grandson of Billy Graham. Jonathan is in ICU with COVID-19; Anne asks us to pray that he will not have to go on a ventilator and that he will be fully healed. “Fifty years ago, I could hold my son in my arms,” she said in a post Saturday. “Now I have placed him in the arms of Jesus.”
Last night, she updated her Facebook page with her son’s condition, noting that he sent this text earlier Sunday: “I am physically exhausted yet spiritually overflowing!” He added, “I have had the privilege of sharing Jesus with the ER & ICU staff! What a Savior! God is so good.”
With whom will you share Jesus today?