For the last couple weeks, my life has been lived in the smoky shadows of “the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.” And while the media has inflamed the story of this inferno (our whole town did not burn), it truly has been a horrifying experience.
It was just two weeks ago that my family and I walked out of Chipotle after lunch to witness the horizon split in two by a ribbon of smoke trailing skyward. Our hearts sank. Another wildfire, and a close one at that. Half an hour later, the smoke was billowing, darkening the sky above our heads. With record temperatures predicted for the next week and no rain in sight, I felt sick. I could only pray, God, have mercy.
Within 72 hours, 350 homes burned to the ground, two people died and tens of thousands were forced to evacuate their neighborhoods. Many, many friends were among those who fled homes amidst thick billowing smoke as fire raced down the mountainside into our city. Their stories describe apocalyptic scenes of blood red skies choked with ash, burning embers raining down on rooftops, and panic stricken neighbors packing cars with hurriedly gathered keepsakes.
The ordeal is nearly over now. As I write, the fire is 100% contained. Tiny wisps of smoke can be seen by only the most observant eye. The vast majority have returned home, with surprisingly few facing anything but the need to open windows and air out the campfire smells. Some indeed lost everything, and we all carry the anxiety of just how fragile life can be.
Not much beauty remains after a wildfire. The “beauty from ashes” kind of transformation prophesied by Jeremiah does not happen for many decades in a burned out forest. Imagine Tolkien’s Mordor and you won’t be far from the truth. The scorched earth and black skeletal trees that remain look more evil and more dark than I care to admit. I now understand why people of old poured ash on their heads in times of grief. Black is the color of loss and death.
The Psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The angels in the throne room echo, “The whole earth is full of His glory.” And without effort my imagination can recall a thousand beautiful examples of this truth at play. The delicate design of a columbine flower. A songbird in morning anthem. The pink and orange hues of a sunset over the mountains. I am sure you have your own. All of these tell us how beautiful and pleasurable and truly awesome is our God.
Yet, what of these wildfires and the ravaged scenery they leave behind? And other natural disasters like the decimated landscape and limbless trees from the tornado in Joplin, MO? Or the tsunami’s Christmas Day death toll? What of God’s glory is in these?
Many turn to a simple answer: these are the judgment of God. It’s an enticing response I’ll admit, mostly due to its simplicity and finality. This is the theology of Job’s friends. It helps sidestep any crisis of faith spawned by the loss and tragedy inherent in a natural disaster. And God has indeed used forces of nature to bring judgment. Floods, droughts, fire, earthquakes.
God will speak for himself one day. But “judgment” is not the only explanation given in scripture for the chaos at play in the natural world—not by a long shot.
Paul tells us, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Paul assumes we all know this—that the earth is in pain, that nature along with humanity bears the effects of sin, that its chaos is not purely the judgment of God but an expression of the fall of man and all creation with him. The created order groans as God groans. Paul hints that God intentionally made it groan, maybe even that we could hear his sorrow within its pain.
If we are to read the whole of the text of nature—the beautiful and the chaotic, the awe inspiring and the tragic—we must keep God’s glory and the groaning in tension. The created world declares that God exists, that an Artist truly made this earth, and that he deserves worship. And yet, the chaos and the natural disasters that follow tell us that things are not as they should be. Nature tells our story: creation, fall, and the longing for final redemption.
Yesterday we drove along the edge of town with a view of the wildfire burn area. My wife and I sat in silence mostly, pausing only to gasp at the blackened hillside. It will be decades before a forest returns to these hills and never in our lifetime like it was. The gravity of this realization pushed my heart to cry out, “Come Lord Jesus”. And I realized I had been given a chance to groan with God. This too was worship.
What setting makes God’s glory in nature most obvious to you?
And where do you most strongly hear His groaning?