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May 19, 2011

Does God Control the Wind?

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With one exception the Bible seems pretty clear on this issue. The biblical writers believed God used wind to cause the waters of the great flood to subside (Genesis 8:1); he fed the wandering Hebrews with quail, which he brought to their camp by wind (Numbers 11:31). The Lord parted the waters of the sea by a strong east wind to facilitate the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt (Exodus 14:21), and sent wind to cause the sea to cover over and drown the pursuing Egyptian armies (Exodus 15:10). It is well attested that the biblical writers believed that God controls the winds (Psalm 135:7; 148:7-8; Isaiah 11:15; Jeremiah 10:13; 49:36; Jonah 1:4)—and everything else, as well.

     Oddly, however, the writer of the Gospel of John portrays Jesus remarking that the wind obeys no commands: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but don’t know whence it comes or whither it goes” (John 3:8). In other words the wind is a free agent, under no controls. But Matthew (8:26-27), Mark (4:39, 41) and Luke (8:24-25) in one shared story portray even Jesus controlling wind.

     The statement in John attributed to Jesus about the wind’s independence approximates the popular modern view that wind blows hither and thither at random, but neither Jesus nor the popular modern view is quite accurate. Scientific study shows that wind does have some set directions. Wind “is caused by the difference in pressure from one point on the earth's surface to another. The air moving from the area of higher pressure to the area of lower pressure is called wind. The air does not move directly from the point of highest pressure to the point of lowest pressure. The earth's rotation affects the air flow by deflecting it to the right. This effect is called the Coriolis Effect. In the Northern Hemisphere, this [effect] causes air to flow clockwise around high pressure areas and counter-clockwise around low pressure areas.” The directions are reversed for the Southern Hemisphere. Generally, the difference in pressure across the globe is caused by the uneven heating of the earth's surface from the sun.

     If one believes that God controls everything, including wind, one would have to assume on the basis of scientific observations that God has established a set pattern for winds to follow, for they do function according to the observed pattern, more or less with regularity. Apparently God only gets involved in wind movements when he wants to reward or punish. But if that is true, Then God is involved with wind movement only now and then. His established system normally directs the usual course of the winds by the heating and cooling of the earth from day to day. But this logic leads to the conclusion that God is not always “hands-on” (as it were) personally directing the movement of wind 24/7. And if this rationale be applied to everything in the universe, then God, it appears, normally runs things in the natural world by set programs that do not require continual personal oversight. In other words the wind desk of the universe is generally automatically controlled.

     Of course, it is possible that God personally “mans” (as it were) the wind desk of the universe at all times, and every gentle summer breeze or frosty “nor’easter” is under his direct control. But such logic raises the disturbing question of divine ethics. The recent devastation and death caused by strong winds and tornados across the south seem a lot more like a case of someone falling asleep on duty, or a case of disproportionate treatment, rather than anything approximating justice—Job complained, among other things, about a similar use of wind (Job1:18-19). But, then, who knows for sure what goes on in omniscient divine brains (so to speak).

     For my part, I simply cannot imagine that God is personally directing the course of every wind that blows in the cosmos, because we would then have to imagine him personally playing around with water spouts and “dust devils.” These wind-produced phenomena are smaller cousins to tornadoes, and the smaller ones are not particularly dangerous. If God is controlling everything, we would have to imagine him, perhaps amusing himself, at play with innocuous dust devils and water spouts—what with having too much time on his hands (as it were), because normally the set programs do most of the work.

     Perhaps that is what happened several weeks ago. At the end of April devastating winds and tornadoes ripped through the South causing extensive property damage and the deaths of more than 300 people. Were these winds divine “justice,” natural phenomena, or was God perhaps preoccupied with wind-play on Mars or in Arizona, while the devastating winds on earth simply escaped his notice? For people of traditional faith such disturbing questions have the character of “catch 22”—they can’t really be answered without raising other disturbing questions.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:41am

Yes, God controls the wind. He did it when the disciples were sleeping on a boat in the Sea of Galilee did he not?

When John writes of the Wind blowing where it blows, no one knows where it goes. He isn't talking about the weather, he is talking about the Holy Spirit.

The reason you don't know that is because you don't have "Hears to hear." Or eyes to see, you are in darkness friend, blind in the darkness.
Jeremie Orth
Posted by Jeremie Orth on 9/14/2012 at 12:45pm

Mr. Orth,
I gather from your comment that you read the first part of the dialogue sermon. Did you read the others as well? One correction to your response:when the storm was stilled,Jesus did the stopping of the wind, if I am not mistaken.
I have a question about God controlling the wind: what possible reason would God have for destroying New Orleans and causing the suffering at Joplin? Remember he took out seminaries, hospitals, childrens' homes, churches, and homeless shelters, which we normally think of as the Lord's work? How can God be Good if he causes such evil?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 9/16/2012 at 11:53am

I would imagine that dust devils are, indeed, particularly dangerous to all the little bugs and microscopic organisms. And, I would imagine that from a distant vantage point (heaven, perhaps? Or at least outer space…), humans are equally microscopic. Sometimes I wonder if there is really any difference between me stomping on a cockroach – nothing personal or punitive; I just don’t like cockroaches in my apartment – to human lives being snuffed out.

Which is more frightening: a punishing god, an apathetic god, or an absent-minded god? Or even a god who chooses one person/community over another person/community?

Or the person who believes in such a partial god?

Take care,
Posted by Jane Terry on 5/26/2011 at 9:54am

Good questions! And eventually everyone must, and will, answer them for themselves. For my part I prefer an apathetic God who leaves us alone to make our way in the world. I might prefer a punishing God if s/he were keen of eye and could make good judgments. As it stands now, the God of traditional faith, who is believed to control the winds, is apparently unable to tell the difference between a hospital and a bawdyhouse, or between a church and a meth lab. An apathetic God may, at bottom, be the best explanation to explain God’s current relationship to the universe: some things s/he gets right but misses others.

I am not sure what a “partial God” is. But I think you are pointing to the discrepancy between the God of traditional faith who always acts in our best interests and what we actually experience from his/her management style of our world. If so, I would not find such a person frightening, but would think of them as honest people who are struggling to hold on to faith in the face of the absurdity of our human condition.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 5/27/2011 at 10:05am

Perhaps I was unintentionally vague in my last paragraph. I wrote, "But I don't say "meaningful" lightly. I would not personally discount the possibility of unseen, unknown, and indescribable forces being at work in how one person recovers from cancer when another does not. I do, however, object to any mortal attempt at either quantifying or harnessing said "forces."

By that, I mean that I would not, as a mere mortal, discount entirely the possibility that the Divine is at work in either human history or natural events but talking about it as if we could explain, influence or document the activity of the Divine is akin to asking my dog to balance my checkbook. Religious people often like to say, "the Lord did this" or "God healed me" but those are truth claims, comforting to those who make the statements but not persuasive to any critical thinker.

The larger question which I believe underlies our exchanges is this: Is there a cognitive, self aware deity who has both power and will who affects the course of history or are our religious expressions simply the collection of our conscious attempts at articulating the good by ascribing our ethical speculations onto the blank screen of the heavens?

Because your initial question seems to taunt those who have a traditional monotheistic view of an omnipotent, omniscient God who controls everything, let me clearly say that I do not believe in that tired old orthodoxy. However, are those of us who are inclined to love the tradition of marrying our ethical deliberation to a sense of spiritual connection to the Author of the universe left to accept that we are really post-theists who still have rituals and meetings?

Roger L. Ray, D.Min.
Community Christian Church
Springfield, Missouri
Posted by Roger L. Ray on 5/24/2011 at 2:22pm

Ah, you ended with a question! I have just a few comments about your response. You “do not discount,” you say, the existence of “unseen, unknown, and indescribable forces” at work in the world. But “not discounting” is not the same as “believing in.” And your way of putting the issue seems unnecessarily ambiguous. So let me smoke you out: do you believe in such forces? If so, are they from the spirit world, or are they natural forces? Perhaps, what you refer to as “forces” may only be conceptual attempts to describe phenomena one does not understand. Why elevate them to the status of “forces”? Why not simply say that we don’t understand such things yet? The third paragraph is the question that ended my response to you, but you say it much more elegantly than I. Your fourth paragraph: you use the word “taunt” to describe my essays. I gather that is your inference but it does not accord with the intent of the author. The questions are all genuine questions for persons who think religiously within the context of a traditional confession, and I think of the essays as benignly provoking thought on issues that some people think are irrevocably resolved. Your last question is a good one. But I think it lies in your backyard, not mine. And I agree it is likely something the church needs to ponder honestly.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 5/25/2011 at 2:48pm

I'll ignore the reference to wind per se (in spite of the use of the words "wind" and "breath" being synonymous in the Hebrew Bible which does lead to an interesting discussion about creation out of chaos). The real issue here, which you bring up regularly under different guises is: Is there a sentient divine being who enters the course of human and natural history?

For strict monotheists, for whom a singular sentient God who is both creator and judge, this question is clearly answered, even if the particulars are shrouded in mystery (Which is what I take the Jesus interlocular to have been saying to the Nicodemus character in John anyway). We are asked to be satisfied with an "I'm in charge, who are you to question my outcomes?" response to Job from the whirlwind (but I'm still not going to talk about wind).

For many others of us, neither the sentient single omnipotent being of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity and Islam, nor the more amorphous "force" of either Star Wars or Buddhism is always an acceptable way to describe our experience of life.

Rather, it would seem that we use God or "the divine" or even a more general thought of "spirituality" as a collective way of thinking of the "good" impulses of humans whose reactions to tornadoes, tsunamis and hurricanes constitutes either good or evil (indifference or exploitation) in how we show compassion. The only meaningful way in which God (as I understand God) enters the course of human events is by our willingness to be the hands and feet of the compassionate God of our understanding.

But I don't say "meaningful" lightly. I would not personally discount the possibility of unseen, unknown, and indescribable forces being at work in how one person recovers from cancer when another does not. I do, however, object to any mortal attempt at either quantifying or harnessing said forces.

Roger L. Ray, D.Min.
Community Christian Church
Springfield, Missouri
Posted by Roger L. Ray on 5/19/2011 at 1:21pm

I don’t usually respond to blogs unless I am asked a pointed question. Off blog, however, you did ask me for a response. Your response to my essay was essentially that God as we understand that concept only enters human history by the willingness of human beings “to be the hands and feet of the compassionate God of our understanding.” That makes sense to me. I wrote about a generation ago the following words about a type of radical theology in Matthew: “The kind of encounter in which Jesus lives is a love response to the genuine needs of the neighbor for whose sake I have freely given up my rights, and in whose behalf I gladly inconvenience myself. . . . It is in the context of responding in love to another’s need, or reaching out in need and being met by your neighbor’s response of love that Jesus lives. . . Jesus lives, but not in the empty tombs of traditional religious forms and symbols. One must instead look for his appearing across the tracks, in the gutter, in the ghetto with the outsider. One encounters his presence in the outstretched hand and in the cry for help. In short every human encounter possesses the potential of the first Easter . . . .” (“Resurrection. Radical Theology in the Gospel of Matthew,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 14.3 (July, 1979), 44-45. I would say the same thing about God. But you say nothing about God manifested in the natural world, which is the problem I posed in the essay. Has the God of traditional faith abandoned the world, or to put the question differently: how is the concept God evidenced in the natural world—a germane question wouldn’t you say in the light of what has just happened to Joplin, Missouri? And our entire exchange begs the question: is God no more than a concept or an attitude?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 5/23/2011 at 10:58am