C. S. Lewis suggests in The Problem of Pain that, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Sometimes I spend a lot of time talking to someone about his soul, but he just can’t be bothered. I think to myself: it’s going to take a disaster to get his attention!
The disaster might be directly related to a person’s sinful behavior—a drunk driver might hit a pole and see his own blood. A pot smoker may fail a random drug test and come home to a hungry family without a paycheck. “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines” (Heb. 12:6).
The disaster might be unrelated to a person’s behavior—a freak accident, a genetic disease, a tornado-ravaged roof, the death of a loved one. Not every sinful act is instantly smitten with a bolt from the blue, and not every faithful person enjoys a charmed life (Job 12:6, Psalm 73:1-14, etc.) Still, instances of suffering can confront a person with his own mortality, and cause him to think on spiritual things.
The disaster might not be personal at all. As John Donne wrote, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” When we witness pain in the world, we have a God-given opportunity to search for a heavenly place, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt. 6:20).
What a Disaster Cannot Do
While it’s clear that God often has a purpose for pain, there is only so much a dramatic event can do toward one’s spiritual growth. It can wake him up. It can make him examine his priorities. But a disaster cannot save him. Unless a person builds his budding faith on God’s word, his new-found interest will be temporary.
In Luke 16, Jesus recounts events in the lives of a rich man and a poor man Lazarus. Both die. Lazarus’ joyful experiences begin immediately, for he is “carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” The rich man finds himself in the torments of Hades. He speaks to Abraham across the chasm, and discovers there will be no relief for his flaming agony. So the rich man makes a request,
“I beg you father, that you send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” But he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” But he said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”
If one of my deceased friends appeared at the foot of my bed and said, “Change your ways!” I would be shaken to the very core! And yet, the encounter would not be enough to truly turn my life around. I would quickly rationalize it, file it away to be dealt with later, and forget it.
The only convincing thing is God’s word. A ghost, a brush with death, a disturbing news item, can all shake my lethargy. But if I will not be persuaded by the Bible, I will not be persuaded. If I will not learn God’s ways, I will not be saved.
When Saul the persecutor was marching toward Damascus to haul off Christians to prison, a divine light blinded him for three days—an earth-shattering encounter if ever there was one—but he was not thereby saved! God got his attention with the light. But the voice from heaven said, “get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6). Paul entered Damascus and found a Christian named Ananias, who taught him the gospel and said, “Why do you delay? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).
The only force with the power to save is the gospel message (Rom. 1:16-17). Nothing but obedience to the gospel indicates a truly changed life—not hugging one’s kids for the first time in years, not promising to give to charity, not volunteering for the Army, and certainly not making the decision to start “going to church.” Those are all lovely things, but they aren’t the same as studying God’s promises and obeying the gospel. –John Guzzetta