On the morning of November 1, 1755, parishioners were attending services in Lisbon’s Cathedral, the Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa. Mid-service, an 8.4 magnitude earthquake broke loose about 120 miles offshore, unleashing cataclysmic destruction on the Portuguese capital. Reports indicated that the quake lasted nearly 6 minutes. Survivors of the quake rushed to the city’s waterfront, where they were overwhelmed by a massive tsunami that arrived about 40 minutes later. Overturned lamps and cooking fires unleashed a firestorm in the ruined city, burning much of what remained after the devastation of the quake and the flood. Over 85 percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed, including the main chapel of the cathedral.

Portugal’s king, Joseph I, had attended a sunrise mass that All Saint’s Day, and was already out in the countryside when the quake hit. The shock of the event, and probably the subsequent devastation, caused the king to develop acute claustrophobia; he spent the remainder of his reign outside, holding court in an extensive complex of tents. Not that he did much ruling. Joseph was a king in the old style, where the nobility did pretty much whatever it wanted, without much thought for the needs and desires of the common people of the kingdom. Portugal had been resting on the revenue of its colonies in Brazil and India, and had become pretty apathetic to everything other than maintaining the status quo. At least until the quake.

Portugal’s Minister of State, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, had also survived the quake, and rushed to the countryside to confer with the king. Joseph, shaken and frightened, placed almost total authority in the hands of his minister, better known as the Marquis de Pombal. Pombal essentially ruled Portugal on behalf of the king for the next twenty years. Part of what Pombal accomplished was the rebuilding of Lisbon. In place of the twisted warren of streets that characterized the old city, Pombal designed straight avenues with cross-streets intersecting at angles, to aid in evacuations if another earthquake should occur. Working with designers and architects, Pombal developed a new building technique that incorporated a framework that could withstand shaking—called the Pombalina Cage. Beneath the rubble of the ruined old town, Pombal dug storm drains to channel flooding away from the city, he ordered firewalls to be constructed between neighborhoods, and drove timber piling to shore up the foundations of buildings. He collected data on the quake throughout the country, making him one of the first seismologists, and his rebuilding efforts in Lisbon are some of the first examples of engineering and urban planning in response to disasters.

Pombal, like most historical figures, was complex and somewhat contradictory. If you like the move toward modernism and the secular nation-state, Pombal might be considered heroic. If you mourn the loss of the church’s influence in European culture, then his legacy is more problematic. But we’re not going to focus on Pombal. Instead, we need to look at Lisbon. Lisbon’s rebirth is a sign of how it is sometimes necessary for the old to be destroyed before the new can be born. In Colossians 3, Paul calls the church to “put to death” the things of the old life—the patterns of behavior we embraced before we came to Christ. Paul uses the illustration of taking off the old clothes, and putting on the new behaviors that are more in keeping with Christ’s desires for us. But more than just taking off the old life, Paul wants us to “put it to death”—we need to be sure that it’s well and truly gone, not to be picked up again. We cannot return to the old way of doing things, the way we did them before Jesus.

Lisbon is a sad example of the tenacity of the old way of doing things. It wasn’t until after the quake, and all the subsequent destruction, that Pombal was able to rebuild in a manner that better protected the citizens of the city from earthquakes. The necessary things—evacuation routes, safer buildings, protection from fire—were all put in after they were really needed. How many lives would have been saved if the city had been laid out according to Pombal’s vision in the years before 1755? In the case of Lisbon, the old had to be painfully “put to death” before the new could be constructed. There’s no way for the new to come into being when the old still occupies the space. There can be no co-existence—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language cannot exist alongside compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

God is not interested in causing us unnecessary pain. But if we cannot let go of the old patterns of life—the earthly things in us, as Paul puts it—then we are setting ourselves up for disaster. As John writes in Revelation 21:5, the One on the throne is into “making all things new.” No matter how tenaciously we hold on to the old way, Jesus is going to burn it away in the end. Isn’t it better to release it willingly? Isn’t it better not to wait until after the cataclysm to start something new? The power of God’s Spirit is ready and willing to reconstruct our lives for God’s glory and our good. But we need to willingly allow the renewal—being a willing participant is far less painful than rebuilding from the ruins.