The New York Times is reporting that California’s recent wildfires are the deadliest in its history. At least 40 people are confirmed dead, and that number is expected to increase. Hundreds more are missing, and tens of thousands have been evacuated. Well over 100 thousand acres have been burned out, and the fire is nowhere near contained. Weather conditions continue to work unfavorably towards ceasing the fire with no rain and strong winds. The people of California are suffering.
Our nation comes together in times of tragedy, and we mourn with our Californian neighbors as we reach out to offer help. This is a beautiful gift to displaced people, and I’ve been on the receiving end of this gift. I’ve never been affected by a wildfire, but I have been affected by natural disaster.
My husband, my kids and I were living on the north shore of New Orleans the summer of 2005. In August of that year, Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast and more than 1 million people were suddenly homeless — including my family.
New Orleans is no stranger to hurricanes, and its residents are used to evacuating during the harsher storms. We evacuated to our relatives’ home 90 miles away to ride out the storm. Two days later we returned to our house to see the damage. We lost everything we owned. Our family of four, soon to be five, was now homeless and completely dependent on our family and friends for all our needs.
I’ve written about what it’s like to come back from a hurricane, and this is an amended version of my original article. Even though wildfires and hurricanes have unique challenges, there are some universal truths to remember in the wake of natural disasters.
1. Restoration takes time.
There are no quick fixes when rebuilding communities. We want things to go back to normal as quickly as possible, but the old normal doesn’t exist anymore.
The new normal involves contractors that are overworked and run late to jobs. Grocery stores run out of necessities, gas stations run out of fuel and ATM machines are depleted of cash. You may show up for worship in the same outfit for a few weeks because you haven’t been able to replace your wardrobe beyond the basics. More than one family may have to live under the same roof, or they may have to live in shelters.
Restoring a community takes time. But Christians should be familiar with this principle most of all because we know we’re being restored to glory by degrees (2 Corinthians 3:18). Restoration happens slowly, a little bit each day, but surely.
There are no quick fixes when rebuilding communities.
2. Resist the temptation to be consumed with your plight.
As the initial shock wore off, I began to feel overwhelmed by our loss. I worried about our small children and how we would help them through this transition. I was concerned about not having a home to welcome our new baby to once he arrived.
But the Lord, in his mercy, showed me a great kindness. We got a phone call from a man my husband worked with who was crammed into a hotel room with eleven other people. They all pooled what little money they had on them together to get the room. They had no food, toiletries or extra clothes. My husband and I began collecting supplies and cash for these people and went to visit them. They were evacuated at the last minute on buses and left with the clothes on their backs — and nothing else.
Visiting them in their distress blessed us so much. We were no longer worried over our own loss; these people needed our help. Helping them brought us joy and kept our loss in perspective. By visiting these distressed, displaced people, we had an opportunity to bear the image of Christ well. Christ visited his people (Luke 1:68).
The devil will try to keep you focused on your difficult situation. He will try and keep you consumed with yourself. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 5:9).
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)
3. Remember the truth.
Psalm 136:1 says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.” He never abandons us (Hebrews 13:5). He keeps us (Psalm 121:5). His word says he’s with us:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)
God is sovereign over natural disasters. He works them for our good and his glory (Romans 8:28). When we go through trials, we go to our father. God is our helper; he sustains us (Psalm 54:4).
When the enemy tries to convince you that you’ve truly lost everything, fight him by believing and proclaiming the truth. Our true home is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Everything on earth is temporary. 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us to
look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Your possessions do not define you, and they can be replaced. Focus on eternal things.
4. Embrace your humble position.
Prior to Katrina, our family was able to give to others in need. But our pride was exposed after the storm when we found it difficult to accept so much generosity from so many people.
We experienced physical need like never before. God was gracious to surround us with people willing to help us. But being on the reverse side of charity was crushing to our pride. It was easier to offer benevolence than to receive it.
Being needy before the Lord is a good thing. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we’re all needy. A natural disaster taught us how to be needy well. We learned to depend on our Father to meet all our needs in the way he deemed best. We learned to ask him for everything. We watched him provide, and we gave him glory. We waited on him. We shared our needs with those who wanted to help, giving them the blessing of serving us.
James 4:6 says, “God gives grace to the humble.” He wants us humble and needy. He loves to take care of us. His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). Like Paul, we should be
content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
5. Embrace your freedom.
As painful as it is to lose everything you own, there is an upside to it. God is giving you a fresh start. As you see all your possessions destroyed and worthless, your perspective changes. Suddenly, that lamp and dining room furniture you had to have doesn’t seem so important.
Use your clean slate to reprioritize your spending. Can you downsize your lifestyle so that you can give more towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission? You’re free from the hold your possessions can have on you. Use your freedom to align your spending and your possessions with the purposes of God.
My husband and I found joy in not owning anything for a season. It helped us focus on what was important, what was worthy of our dollars, and what was not. We didn’t feel weighed down by all our stuff. As we slowly replaced things to go into our new house a few months later, we were careful to only get what we needed so we could free up our resources for the advancement of the gospel and mercy ministry.
Yes, God Used a Natural Disaster in My Life.
When a natural disaster passes through a city, it leaves a trail of destruction behind. Loss is everywhere. But the loss creates an opportunity for God’s people to love their neighbors well.
I got to know my neighbors better as we gathered on our street to comfort one another. Strangers would drive by as were cleaning out our house and give us prepared sandwiches and lukewarm bottles of water. People were kinder and more patient with each other. Worship services became crowded as people saw the Church meeting their needs.
As difficult as recovering from a natural disaster was, I’m so grateful for how God used it in our lives.
Church, let’s take advantage of the opportunities presented by devastating natural disasters to love our neighbors well. As we work alongside our neighbors to meet their physical needs, let’s show them our Father who meets their greatest need of all. As we comfort people who’ve lost their homes, let’s tell them about the home being prepared for God’s children in heaven that can never be destroyed.