In recent days, severe floods have devastated several communities in the hills and mountains of Southeastern Kentucky—where I was born, raised, and lived for 19 years.
Several of the towns and communities where I once played sports, attended school, went to church, hung out with friends, and traveled—places where I still have close family, friends, and former neighbors—are now experiencing incomprehensible suffering.
Not only have precious lives been lost, but schools are flooded, homes destroyed, livelihoods ruined, businesses upended, and local church structures broken or demolished. With the death toll on the rise, numerous residents still missing, and even more rain expected in the days to come, the floods have worsened an already tenuous social and economic situation for many.
On the one hand, I’m trying to heed Paul’s exhortation to “pray continually” for the residents in my native land. On the other hand, as Paul says in Romans 8:26, I “do not know what [I] ought to pray for” because the suffering is so immense.
My heart is broken and filled with grief knowing that so many residents have lost everything. Nevertheless, I cry out to God to shine his mercy and grace and meet all their needs out of his abundance, through the kindness and generosity of his image bearers.
My home church in Hindman, Kentucky—one of the towns significantly impacted by the recent floods—taught me the gospel of Jesus Christ many years ago when I was a young Christian, modeling the importance of trusting God and honoring Christ in all circumstances in life.
The faithful saints in our congregation taught me rich truths that impacted me early in my young Christian faith and continue to sustain my and my family’s faith today. One such truth is found in that famous Baptist hymn: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way / To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
As a Christian New Testament scholar and a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I know the Bible teaches that God cares deeply about the well-being of his creation and about those whom he created in his image (Gen. 1–2). I also know that creation currently groans in agony, eagerly awaiting its redemption, and that this redemption will come when Jesus returns (Rom. 8:19–23).
I know that when Jesus comes a second time, God promises to renew this creation in Christ—to bring a new creation down from heaven and restore everything Adam and Eve lost in the Garden of Eden when they sinned (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 65:17–25). I firmly believe these biblical truths, and I have committed my life to them.
In times like these, however, I cannot help but ask the unresolved question that I and so many ask or think whenever bad things happen to good people: “Why, God?” Why would a good and loving God allow two natural disasters to plague Kentucky in a matter of months?
Last December, deadly tornadoes swept through the western part of the state, and now hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky are losing life and property to record flooding. The cries for help, increase in death toll, and multitude of uncertainties that many from my native land now face have stirred feelings of anger, fear, sadness, and grief, as well as unanswerable questions—a sense of deep lament analogous to the ones we read in Ecclesiastes and the Psalms.
I am currently preparing to travel from Louisville, where I’ve lived for the past 23 years, to serve residents impacted by the floods in Eastern Kentucky. In the meantime, I’ve heard of numerous efforts in my city and across the country to help our neighbors there. Not only that, but many fellow residents in Eastern Kentucky—along with people all over the world—are taking the opportunity to help those impacted by the disaster as they can.
These efforts add needed joy to my sorrow and remind me of an important lesson we often forget in times of grief—a truth I learned from my church in Eastern Kentucky many years ago: that believers are called to love God and love our neighbors, our fellow image bearers, as ourselves.
In Luke 10:25–37, Jesus teaches a powerful message about loving one’s neighbor as oneself in response to a theological test regarding eternal life from an expert in the law of Moses. In response to “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25), Jesus confirms that one must love God and love neighbor as oneself (vv. 27–28).
Jesus’ point isn’t that loving one’s neighbor grants one eternal life, as the Gospel of John clearly states that eternal life comes only to those who put their faith in Jesus. Rather, his point is that those who love God will also love their neighbors.
Paul makes the same case to the churches of Galatia. He emphatically says we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone (Gal. 2:16). Yet he also strongly states those who have been justified by faith alone in Christ alone must love their neighbors as themselves and manifest the fruit of the Spirit, one of which is love (5:13–14, 22).
But Jesus’ answer does not satisfy the expert in the Mosaic law, and so he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan who sacrificially helped a wounded man on the road traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.
This is a powerful parable for many reasons, particularly given the hostile history between Jews and Samaritans and their social estrangement. It tells us that Christ’s followers are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and that every human being is our neighbor—not just those who live in our neighborhoods or with whom we might have much in common.
Likewise, many Eastern Kentuckians—who themselves have lost much or everything—are loving their neighbors well and beautifully illustrating the essence of the Good Samaritan story. Such men and women, many of them devout Christians, are demonstrating a resilient commitment to their faith and their homeland in the face of great loss and devastation.
I have heard heartbreaking yet inspiring stories of love, personal sacrifice, heroism, and renewed trust in Christ amid profound loss and pain. These beautiful stories of faith, family, friendships, and neighborly love emerge daily in the face of unbearable grief, tragedy, and trauma.
There were many economic challenges in Eastern Kentucky prior to these floods, and there will be even more in the days ahead. Resources are few in many places throughout the area, yet generosity, compassion, kindness, and love are in abundance there. Such a contrast shows the world that the good people of Eastern Kentucky know how to love their neighbors as themselves, even in times of great loss.
These image bearers in Eastern Kentucky represent the very best of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. However, they will continue to need the love of their neighbors from all over the nation in the many days, months, and years to come.
Eastern Kentucky needs our prayers, but it also needs significant financial, material, and structural support. The economic obstacles now facing many of its residents will be impossible for them to bear by themselves, especially those who have lost absolutely everything.
I humbly ask on behalf of my homeland for people across the country to think of ways they can support and love our neighbors in Eastern Kentucky as they try to rebuild their lives in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. As one of my family members—a resident in one of the hardest-hit counties in the area—recently said to me, “Every little bit helps.”
Jarvis J. Williams, PhD, is an associate professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.