What shall we say as Christians about the recent devastation in New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulport, Mobile, Hattisburg and various other cities? Shall we just chalk it up to 'mother nature' gone haywire? Shall we say, with the insurance companies it was "an act of God"? If we see it as an act of God, should we see it as some kind of judgment on 'sin city'--- aka Nawlins? But if we take that tact then we are hard pressed to explain why the destruction was indescriminant, affecting the good, the bad, and the wicked. Why in the world did it destroy so many homes of seemingly undeserving persons, and why in the world were churches destroyed, even in one case by a floating casino coming in and leveling things in its path? Clearly enough pat or glib answers are no answers at all, and in any case offer cold comfort to the suffering who want a solution to their current problems far more than an answer to their questions.
Without doubting that God can sometimes use the fury of his creation to judge wicked persons, it is a precarious theology that sees the wrath of God in every major instance of the fury of nature, especially when we are talking about an indescrimant fury like hurricane Katrina. We might do better to blame ourselves for global warming, because it is human beings who have messed up the ozone, which in turn raises the temperature of the ocean, and melts the polar caps, and engenders many more hurricanes, even before hurricane season, in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere. It is humankind that has despoiled our environment, not God. And in any case, the Bible has something else to say about such things, whether we are talking about natural disasters, or the loss of life due to human accidents, or birth defects or human beings being malicious. Consider the following:
1) 1 Kngs. 19.11-13-- On the surface of things it may seem that the destruction that Elijah witnesses is directly intended by God since it is God who is passing by according to vs. 11, but then the text says "then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart...but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there as an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a conflagration, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper/light breeze/ or some render it still small voice." At the very least, this text tells us that God's will cannot be determined just by observing natural phenomena. But the text even says that God was not "in" these phenomena, which is saying more than just his will cannot be discerned in such events. It suggests that while nature reacts when its Maker comes down in theophany, God is not engendering these things in such a fashion that we could call them intelligible acts of God.
2) When Jesus is asked in Jn. 9 if the man born blind is that way because either he or his parents sinned the answer is no, but that God will use this malady to reveal his grace and glory. In other words, one cannot always correlate sickness or physical deformity and sin. Sometimes the most robust sinners are also the ones most robustly healthy. Sometimes great saints like Blaise Pascal die early deaths due to the ravages of a deformed and sickly body. There is no infallible spiritual logic to be deduced by analyzing who is sick or handicapped and who is not.
3) When Jesus is asked about a human tragedy or disaster, in this case the falling down of the tower of Siloam on unsuspecting and undeserving victims (Lk. 13.4-5), and whether the victims were worse sinners than others, his answer is a flat NO! In fact he had just said in Lk. 13.1-2 that the Galileans who were victims of deliberate human maliciousness of Pilate could not be said to be 'getting what they deserve', for Jesus insists they were not worse sinners than all the others in Galilee. In short there is no one-to-one correlation that can be drawn between sickness, natural disaster, human accident, human maliciousness on the one hand and sin on the other. And it is repeatedly said in the Bible that God judges sin.
What then should we say to those who are suffering from hurricane Katrina, or any of the other things that plague us quite unexpectedly? I would suggest that we be wise enough not to make snap judgments and glib pronouncements. Sometimes, but only sometimes, it is clear that human beings get themselves in a mess and are allowed to experience the natural consequences of their actions. Paul in Rom. 1 tells us that 'God's giving up the notorious sinners to their own wicked choices and the consequences of their actions' is indeed a form of the wrath of God against unrighteousness (see particularly Rom. 1.18-34, which even speaks of experiencing in one's own body the penalty for sexual immorality). But most of life's tragedy do not fall into this category, and hurricane Katrina certainly does not. Most events are a bit less transparent than that when it comes to connections between sin and judgment or between disasters and the Judge of all human beings.
At the end of the day we would probably do better to follow the wisdom of Korrie ten Boom. When asked by a Jewish violinist who had had her fingers smashed in the death camp called Ravensbruck "How can you believe in a God of love who would allow this to happen to me?" Corrie reflected and told the woman she did not know why that hideous thing had happened to her. But then she said "But what I do know is that no pit is so deep, that God's love is not deeper still."
Our faith in a good God is not based on what we do not understand about life, much less in our ability to make logical sense of it all. Our faith is based on grace moments that do indeed reveal God's character, and perhaps most of all we know that God can turn the worst disaster or tragedy into a triumph-- look at the cross and remember "God works all things together for the good, for those who love Him" (Rom. 8).