Extreme weather in Texas for about a week in February saw snow in places where the existence of the white stuff had hitherto been only rumor. It also saw extremely cold temperatures, single-digit Fahrenheit numbers, some with negative signs attached. The demand for electricity rose while its availability fell. The result: rolling power outages. Yours truly experienced them, if only in a minor way. I awoke and found the lights would not go on. I wrapped myself in a blanket and said morning prayers. I ate a cold breakfast. Then power came on at, oh, half past nine. I boiled water and made coffee; I recharged my phone; I enjoyed wi-fi. The power went off a couple of hours later. I read books by natural light, which was filtered through clouds but bounced up nonetheless from the snow. Power came on towards evening. It went off a couple of hours later. I went to bed early, like a monk.
It wasn’t too bad. Others had it worse, some much worse, especially when pipes froze, and frigid water came out like an arctic geyser. Nonetheless, from a certain point of view, one could see it was Adventure.
A couple of days in—as it turned out, towards the end—I turned on my local public radio station and heard a lot of angry people. They were all asking: Who had allowed this to happen?
Some were blaming the people who deny we are going through anthropogenic climate change.
Some were blaming reliance on “green energy” especially windmills—Texas has a lot of windfarms sending power into the grid, but a significant proportion were frozen.
Some were blaming the deregulated electricity market in Texas; others said it was government’s fault in not giving enough freedom to the market.
And there were roughly nine hundred ninety-five other things or persons being blamed for it. Angry people, unhappy people, throwing blame on whatever target made sense to them.
Don’t misunderstand me. If people made wrong decisions, they should be held to account. And beyond blame, it is important to learn from extreme events to see what might be done to forestall them in the future, or to handle them so as to reduce the harm. Still, I found all this blame-casting rather odd.
No one was blaming God.
In the Scriptures it is clear that God rules over the weather just as he rules over everything in the cosmos. In the Apocrypha’s song of the three youths, all the features of extreme weather are urged to offer their due praise unto the Lord: “O all ye winds, bless ye the Lord: . . . O ye ice and cold . . . O ye frost and snow . . . O ye lightnings and clouds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever” (vv. 43, 49-51). They are to praise God who is responsible for them. Move to the New Testament, we see Jesus walking on water, commanding the storms to cease. Jesus has power over weather, because he is the Word through whom weather was created.
When God wants his people to know whom they are dealing with, he says “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil” (Isa. 45:7). That’s the King James Version; modern translations, presumably uncomfortable with saying God creates evil, replace it with something like “woe” or “calamity” or “disaster,” but the substitutions do not get God off the hook. God is responsible for the things that can confound human life and even bring it to an end.
Traditional insurance policies excluded “acts of God.” These were understood as rare and disastrous natural occurrences that would be covered only with explicit riders (e.g., flood insurance). This old language is theologically faulty in its limitation of “acts of God” to disastrous events. After all, a sunset is also an act of God. At the same time the old language preserves a theological courage for which many today lack the stomach. It refuses to foreclose divine blame from such things as earthquake, ice, and snow.
There is deep theological wisdom in the book of Job. The first point of the book is that if you are afflicted with bad things, you should want to talk to God. Job wants just that, while his friends do not think there is anything to say. And the end of the book tells us that Job’s perspective on this matter is the correct one. God says to one of the friends, “ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath” (Job 42:7). There was not one slightest bit of wrong in Job’s anguished and oft-expressed desire to speak with God.
The second point of wisdom in Job, however, is that there is a true perspective from which human beings are cosmically small and intrinsically vulnerable. This is what Job sees in chapters 38–41: a vast and awesome universe, filled with creatures who flourish without human intervention, and who are completely indifferent to any one of us. God has provided for Job, as for all of us, a cozy space in which we can be with one another, strengthen each other, and help each other without denying God’s responsibility for making the big universe the way it is. At the end of the book, everyone who knows Job gathers round in a community that strengthens him “over all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11).
We are angry when the power is out and the pipes freeze because we want to be in control of the universe. When the bottom falls out of the temperature, our deep fears are exposed, particularly the fear that despite everything we do, we cannot control the universe.
And the truth is, we do not control it, we cannot, and we will not.