The Texas wildfires: What we know, what we don’t know (yet), and what to do with what we know

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The Texas wildfires: What we know, what we don’t know (yet), and what to do with what we know

March 8, 2024 -

This image taken from Greenville Fire-Rescue's facebook page on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 shows fires in the Texas Panhandle. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames. (Greenville Fire-Rescue via AP)

This image taken from Greenville Fire-Rescue's facebook page on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 shows fires in the Texas Panhandle. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames. (Greenville Fire-Rescue via AP)

This image taken from Greenville Fire-Rescue's facebook page on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 shows fires in the Texas Panhandle. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames. (Greenville Fire-Rescue via AP)

At this writing, wildfires in the Texas panhandle have destroyed over 1.3 million acres and about five hundred structures. Two deaths have been blamed on the blazes; more than 3,600 cattle have died in the fires as well.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, upon seeing the conflagration firsthand, said: “The tragedy of what has been lost has been nothing short of catastrophic. . . . what was once homes, structures, and properties have now been reduced to nothing more than ashes and can never be used again whatsoever. That amplifies the amount of devastation that families have suffered across the entire area.”

Natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods always raise the sobering and troubling question: Where is God in this? If we truly believe that he is the creator of the universe and that he still rules his creation today (cf. Psalm 67:4), we feel justified in asking some hard questions:

  • If God is perfect, why is his creation so broken?
  • Are natural disasters his judgment on our world?
  • If he is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, why doesn’t he repair what is broken? Why does he sometimes intervene but not always?
  • What does he expect us to do in response to tragedy and suffering?

I have spoken and written often on this difficult subject over the years, from books to articles to podcasts, sermons, and Bible studies. In this white paper, I have reduced that content into a succinct fact sheet in the hope that it can be helpful to pastors, other faith leaders, and anyone facing the pain of natural disasters in their lives.

Let’s explore this issue in three categories.

What we know

These facts are clear in Scripture:

  • God created everything that exists (Genesis 1:1; Colossians 1:16–17).
  • Everything God originally made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
  • God is “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8) and therefore perfect (Matthew 5:48) and incapable of making a mistake (Deuteronomy 32:4).
  • The world he created was affected by the fall of humans into sin and is now flawed and broken as a result (Romans 8:28).
  • Because he is omniscient, God knows everything that is happening, has happened, and will happen (Isaiah 46:10).
  • Because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), he can only want what is best.
  • Because he is omnipotent, he can do anything he chooses to do (Matthew 19:26).
  • He sometimes intervenes to prevent or counteract natural disasters (cf. Mark 4:39).
  • At other times, he allows or even causes natural calamities (cf. Noah’s Flood, Genesis 7–8).
  • His character does not change (Malachi 3:6).

How do these facts relate to the Texas wildfires?

One: Because he is sovereign, God at least allowed this tragedy to unfold (cf. Matthew 10:29). He is not a deistic clockmaker who created the world and stands idly by. Nothing can occur in our world without his foreknowledge and permission.

Two: He sometimes brings natural disasters as judgment on human sin, as with the Flood, the Exodus, and the plagues recorded in the book of Revelation. However, such judgments in Scripture are preceded by warnings to repent and are focused on specific sins and sinners (cf. Acts 12:20–23). I am not aware of any prophetic warnings before the Texas wildfires began or any claim that the wildfires are in response to particular sinful people or behavior.

Three: He was capable of preventing the wildfires and is capable now of ending them. When he does not act in these ways, since his perfect character requires him always to do what is right, he must have a reason, whether we can understand it or not.

Four: He redeems all he allows (Romans 8:28). Thus, we can know that he is redeeming this tragedy even if we cannot understand his ways on this side of eternity (see more below).

Five: He grieves as we grieve (Isaiah 63:9). As Jesus wept for Lazarus and his sisters (John 11:35), he feels our pain and shares our suffering.

What we don’t know (yet)

We can resolve the dilemma of innocent suffering in three logical but incorrect ways:

  1. God’s knowledge is limited: he does not know about our pain, or he would prevent or heal it.
  2. God’s power is limited, so he cannot always do what he wishes to do.
  3. God’s love is limited, so he does not always do what is best.

As we have seen, the Bible clearly teaches that God is in fact omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. These facts are on display whenever he does prevent or resolve natural disasters and diseases, as when Jesus calmed the raging Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35–39) and healed the man born blind (John 9).

We also know that God sometimes allows or even causes disasters and other suffering for a larger purpose. Rather than removing Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” for example, he used it to teach the apostle that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So, the obvious question is: Why did he allow the Texas wildfires? What larger purpose is he serving by doing so? How is he redeeming them for a greater good than the horrific suffering they are causing?

We may have better answers in coming days, but we can know this at least: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

I am convinced that in eternity, if not before, we will understand how God redeemed for greater good all that he allowed or caused in this world. The fact that I cannot yet understand such redemption makes it no less real. I don’t understand the computer technology I am using to type these words or the internet connection enabling you to read them. I don’t understand how airplanes fly or cell phones work.

But we can trust what we do not understand, in the present and for the eternal. As the saying goes,

When you do not see God’s hand, trust his heart.

What to do with what we know

Let’s close by moving from the theoretical to the practical with these life principles:

One: Judge what we don’t know about God by what we do.

Since our minds are finite and fallen, we should not be able to understand an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent Being. The Lord testifies to this fact: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

If I could truly understand God, either he would not be God or I would be.

As a result, we can either judge what we know about God by what we don’t understand, questioning his love, power, and knowledge. Or we can judge what we don’t know about him by what we do, embracing his love, power, and knowledge. Let’s choose the latter.

Two: Believe that circumstances cannot change God’s character.

St. Anselm defined God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Said differently, the Lord is by definition the greatest that it is possible for him to be in every conceivable dimension, or he is not truly God.

This means he has no ability to improve. Nor can his perfect nature allow him to be less than he is. As a result, when he testifies, “I the Lᴏʀᴅ do not change” (Malachi 3:6), he is stating a logical fact.

This means that his holy and loving character cannot be altered by circumstances in this fallen world, however difficult they might be and however hard our questions about them. “God is love” (1 John 4:8) describes an eternal, never-changing fact, not a circumstantially based supposition.

Three: Claim the fact that he can only want your best.

St. Augustine noted that “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” Jesus made the astounding statement in John 17 that the Father loves us as much as he loves his own Son (vv. 23, 26). The fact is, God loves you right now as much as he has ever loved anyone who has ever lived. He loves you as much as he loved Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, John, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, or even Jesus himself.

Four: Admit our finitude and frailty.

One of the ways God redeems natural disasters is by using them to show us our limitations as humans. Even though ours is the most technologically and scientifically advanced society in human history, we cannot prevent or easily control wildfires. Or hurricanes, tornadoes, or other natural calamities.

As a result, it is good to remember each day that “you do not know what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:14). Living each day as if it were our last day is the best way to live each day. If you knew you would be called from this life tomorrow, is there someone you would forgive today? Someone whose forgiveness you would seek? Something you would do or stop doing?

Acting in these ways is the best way to live even if we have another century of life before us.

Thus, let’s begin each day by submitting that day to God’s Spirit, asking him to control, empower, and use us for God’s glory and our good (Ephesians 5:18). Let’s “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” in all we do (Matthew 6:33). Let’s live each day as if it were our last, knowing that one day we’ll be right.

You are one day closer to eternity than ever before.

Five: Look for practical ways to share God’s love in your compassion.

Christians are literally, not just figuratively, the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). We exist to continue Jesus’ earthly ministry through our gifts, abilities, and opportunities.

As a result, we are often the answer to our prayers. We are the means by which the Lord helps the hurting and advances his kingdom.

When we meet physical needs, we earn the right to meet spiritual needs. When we demonstrate God’s love in our compassion, we help suffering people believe that his love is indeed real and relevant.

Paul wrote that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Wherever you live, you can respond practically to the Texas wildfires in these ways:

  • Pray for those who are grieving for loved ones they have lost and property that has been destroyed.
  • Pray for God to protect firefighters and others in harm’s way.
  • Pray for him to use pastors, other faith leaders, and congregations to minister with practical wisdom and grace.
  • Pray for governmental leaders and others to provide the assistance needed by those who are suffering from this historic tragedy.
  • Look for ways to contribute financially to relief efforts. Texas Baptist Men is one of my favorite ministries of this kind; I urge you to support them or others providing on-the-ground help.
  • Seek ways to share God’s love and grace with those you influence personally. You may know people directly affected by the wildfires through family or other relational connections. You may know some for whom the disaster is deeply personal with regard to previous suffering in their lives. God will direct you to those who need the wisdom and grace you can provide.

Henri Nouwen observed:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

How fully will you be immersed in this “condition” today?

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