Just as the fires in California were being extinguished, a horrible tragedy took place in North Carolina. Seven college students were killed when a fire raced through the beach house they were staying in over the weekend. The loss of life is about equal to the number of people killed in California as a direct result of the fires that burned more than half a million acres, but the North Carolina devastation is much more personal. There are faces to this freak accident. These were young friends in the prime of their lives.
As I read about the North Carolina fire, I thought about the families and the unspeakable grief they must be experiencing. Then I glanced at some of the comments posted next to the article, a feature in today's social media world. Most were warmly supportive, offering prayers and condolences. But there was one that stood out, and I couldn't help but read it. I wish I had not.
An utterly thoughtless, heartless person was speculating that these were drunken college students who probably caused the fire by their outrageous behavior. While the person posting the comment didn't go so far as to say the students got what they deserved, I easily read that between the lines.
I guess such attitudes shouldn't surprise me. On a smaller scale, such comments echo a similar sentiment expressed by a leading Christian pastor in the wake of the Katrina tragedy. He concluded that God was judging the sinful ways of New Orleans by sending the flood. Now someone was doing the same thing with the beach house fire in North Carolina.
Not only are such comments insanely insensitive, but they are also woefully inaccurate. God isn't in the business of punishing sinners with floods and fires. If that were the case, we'd all perish because we're all sinners. Some followers of Jesus once asked him if a construction accident killed some workers because they were sinners. Jesus quickly answered that the accident had nothing to do with their sin. "I tell you, no!" he said. "But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5).
Jesus wasn't saying that his followers better watch it so that they don't lose their lives in an accident. He was simply stating that all of us will die in our sins if we don't turn to God.
The students in North Carolina didn't deserve to die any more or less than the rest of us deserve to die. It doesn't matter what they were doing, or whether or not their actions "caused" the fire. The tragedy is horrible, and we should grieve for the families and pray for them. And while we're at it, we should take stock of our own lives and make sure our hearts are turned in the right direction.