What causes weather?
Ancients believed fertility gods such as the Baals brought weather, rain for the crops and lightning and thunder when they were angry. They apparently also believed their actions might have some effect on how the gods did or did not provide rain. In a famous duel between Elijah the prophet of Yahweh and the prophets of Baal, Elijah makes fun of the prophets for their raindance. Their fertility religion had been tarnished by three and a half years of drought, and people were coming to believe this Elijah–named after his God–had something to do with it.
Some American Indians and traditional African peoples use objects or dances to prompt the skies open up and send forth rain. Rainsticks that simulate the sound of rain are shaken or dances on the dusty ground are intended to show the spirits that the earth and crops are in great need of rain.
I have a friend in Tulsa who is also a friend to thousands, particularly in tornado or snow season. In the dog days of summer my friend, Meteorologist Dan Threlkeld, does what he can to give a glimmer of hope for those burning up in the blazing heat. The summer of 2011 in Oklahoma was the hottest of any state in more than 100 years of record keeping. Some people joke that “the weather man brought” rain and sometimes I wonder if people start to believe meteorologists have something to do with actually causing weather, not just predicting it.
Meteorologists base their predictions on sciences that include math calculations, earth science, physics and technology. Science believes that weather is caused by conditions in the atmosphere of earth that bring rain, snow, sleet, heat, the seasons, and extreme weather such as hurricanes and tornadoes. Science has gone farther to believe that certain things can be done to change weather, that clouds can be produced that make rain. Science also has developed the idea that humans have caused certain weather conditions including global warming or climate change.
Somewhere along the line people started using the phrase, “Mother Nature” to refer to weather. I remember a commercial for some kind of margarine with a woman dressed to be, I suppose, Mother Nature. The joke of the commercial was that this margarine tasted like butter and Mother Nature was fooled into thinking it actually was butter. She waves her arms, lightning strikes and thunder cracks, and she says the punchline.
Recently we’ve had a group meeting at our church who are praying for healing of the world in specific places from New Orleans to Cyprus. Prayer teams pray for this groaning and corrupting earth to be redeemed and creation renewed. One team has been praying for rain in Tulsa during the hottest month on record for any state in the United States in history of record keeping. One day when we were outside during an event called the Tatur Mud Run a storm came up that was unpredicted by many weather services and soaked the end of the event and cooled everyone down. A concert featuring the Flaming Lips was cancelled downtown.
Does prayer cause rain? Does prayer make a difference to God and cause him to act in certain ways based on those prayers?
The psalmists believe God sends rain. Psalm 147:8 says “He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills.”
Solomon, when dedicating the temple showed that he believed God could shut the heavens or open them depending on the behavior, good or evil, of the nation of Israel. Solomon says, “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray toward this place and give praise to your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the right way to live, and send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance (2 Chronicles 6:26-27).
Prophet Elijah declared to the evil King Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). An unbelievable amount of time–three years passed–with no rain before a drenching storm was brought by the word of Elijah.
James reminds us of this story with this summary: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17-18)
Prophet Amos said God used rain to trigger a response in his people: “I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up (Amos 4:7).
Prophets from Jeremiah and Zechariah believed God controlled the heavens. Zechariah called Israel to “Ask the LORD for rain in the springtime . . . ” Why should they ask? Because “it is the LORD who sends the thunderstorms. He gives showers of rain to all people, and plants of the field to everyone” (Zechariah 10:1).
When Apostles Barnabas and Paul were trying to convince the people of Iconium from sacrificing animals to the two men, who the crowds said were “gods come down in human form,” part of what they said was this: “He (God) has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Luke notes that “Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.”
John speaks of prophet witnesses who will have the power to “shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying,” (Revelation 11:6).
Centuries of science and technology and attempting to make sense out of the natural world has led us to believe that the atmosphere and weather is random. What if we went a step further and believed God sets weather in motion but allowed human conditions to change weather? The idea of Christ that God sends rain on the evil and the good–perhaps randomly–is even necessary in order to make sense of why good and bad people would be wiped out in a mile wide swath of a E-4 tornado in Joplin, Missouri Spring 2011.
Is it possible that something we humans are doing could cause these droughts or famines? Our responsibility may be to do more than pray but also scientifically and socially and morally understand how what we do affects others in the world around us.
Do humans impact weather? We need to keep that as an open question and research and be open to truth from all sides. Does God cause weather or react to our prayers?
There is no way to come to clear conclusions about this. We can only look at all this evidence and consider these texts and how our culture has developed our ideas about weather and then look to the heavens and call on God to give us wisdom regarding this.
In the meantime, I’m still going to pray when tornadoes come that they will lift and return where they came from. I will still attempt to pray for a hurricane to change directions. May God bless those who fervently pray for those in drought and famine around the world.