(Sunday, September 16th, 2001)
On Tuesday, September 11, we were hit. We were blindsided. We never expected it. Tragedy has rained down on our country as never before. They’re calling it “Terrible Tuesday.” Others, a second “Pearl Harbor”—but the death toll appears to be more than double that of the Pearl Harbor tragedy, and these were civilian fatalities, not military personnel. Four successfully-hijacked commercial jets. Two slammed into the World Trade Center towers, one into the Pentagon, and one into an unpopulated area in Pennsylvania. Our country is hurting.
Whether tragedy strikes a person, a family, a city, or a country—it shares the same face and demands the same response. We are all in one of three places in life: We are healing from a tragedy, we are suffering a tragedy, or we are about to be broad-sided. We will all suffer personal tragedy sometime in life. Today’s principles about God and our response to tragedy hold true whether we are undergoing a national tragedy or a personal one. What do we do When Tragedy Strikes?
I haven’t chosen one central Bible passage; I’m going to be all over the Bible. And I’m going to try to answer our questions about the events of the past week. Before we look more closely at tragedy, I want to read off a list of questions I’ve compiled that I will be attempting to answer here directly or indirectly. In no particular order, they are: a) Why does tragedy occur? b) Where is God during tragedy? c) Why do I feel so angry? Why do I thirst for justice? Is this okay? d) Is God still good? e) Is God judging the United States for its sin? f) Is this the end times? g) What now?
My goal is to outline three biblical truths about tragedies, then five responses that we should have as believers.
Suffering and pain are real. The people affected by tragedies are real people, their pain is real pain, and their tears are real tears. Jesus acknowledges the reality of suffering in John 16:33:
I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but have courage--I have conquered the world.
Job, too, affirms the tragic reality that this world offers in Job 14:1:
Man, born of woman,
lives but a few days, and full of trouble.
Where did tragedy/pain/suffering originate and can it be eliminated? Sin. Tragedy is the result of sin. It exists; it is real. From Genesis chapter three and the Fall of man until today, suffering and pain are a natural part of the world in which we live. Where sin exists, its consequences are never far behind. Tragedies are a reality.
The US has unofficially declared war on terrorism—Great! But don’t expect complete victory here. Terrorism is merely a very bad manifestation of sin, and sin will not be eradicated until death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire following the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). Suffering is indeed a reality, and Christians are given no special immunity in this fallen world. Billy Graham comments:
Nowhere does the Bible teach that Christians are exempt from the tribulations and natural disasters that come upon the world. Scripture does teach that the Christian can face tribulation, crisis, calamity, and personal suffering with a supernatural power that is not available to the person outside of Christ.
One former Persian Gulf soldier echoes that sentiment, claiming, “Safety does not rest in our distance from the danger, but in our nearness to God.”
Could this be the beginning of the end times? My answer is unequivocal: I don’t know. We must guard against jumping to such conclusions. While the believer must live as though Christ will return momentarily, to identify modern events as eschatological realities is a dangerous and potentially-misleading practice. There have always been disasters, both natural and man-made; these will continue. The world is certainly getting increasingly worse as we prepare for Christ’s return, and we should live expectantly looking for Jesus; but beware of getting sidetracked with speculation. And remember—and remind your children—Christians look forward with hope to the return of Christ—we wish it! It will be good news for us! If this is the end (and that is certainly a big “if”), we could hope for nothing more.
Where was God on Terrible Tuesday? Did God change sometime between Monday night and Tuesday morning? Is God both omnipotent (all-powerful) and good? How can this be? Was God looking on that Tuesday feeling the same helplessness and hopelessness as you and I? If He is all-powerful, couldn’t He have prevented this national tragedy? If He is truly good, why didn’t He? Children and adults alike are struggling with these questions now; we wonder how God could still be considered good in light of recent events. We are wrestling with this question because we misunderstand the concept of “good.”
“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that everything comes--
both calamity and blessings?”
“But [Job] replied, “You are speaking like one of the godless women would speak! Should we receive what is good from God, and not also receive what is evil?” In all this Job did not sin by what he said.”
Consider your parents’ method of child-rearing. Did your parents ever refuse to give you something you wanted or did they ever give you something you didn’t want? Why? Why would our parents tolerate such pain in our lives that could have been avoided? Did your parents ever permit pain or discomfort to enter your small, pre-adolescent existence? Mine certainly did, and somewhere there is a closet full of broken Ping-Pong paddles to prove it (ouch!). Why? And how can we still consider them “good” and their efforts at parenting honorable? Imagine a parent whose primary goal is to raise a child that always receives everything he or she wants, painlessly and comfortably; nothing but smiles and lollipops always. What sort of adult would that child grow into? A good parent will have a “greater good” in view for their children than a painless existence; rather, they will seek for them growth, maturity, and obedience, and these qualities are learned through training, pain, and discomfort. Could God prevent pain in our lives? Yes! absolutely! Then why doesn’t He? There must be a reason for tragedy to be allowed—some “greater good.” The fact is that He is more concerned about our growth than our comfort.
Is God judging the United States for her sin? Again my answer is unequivocal: I don’t know. Is our country in need of judgment? Yes. Did this look like judgment? Yes. The judgment of nations certainly falls within God’s jurisdiction, and he may be doing so today. Let’s consider a biblical example that is painfully similar to our own situation. Habakkuk walked the land of Judah bemoaning the moral deterioration he witnessed. In Habakkuk 1:2-4, he calls on God to judge his people:
How long, LORD, must I cry for help?
But you do not listen!
I call out to you, `Violence!'
But you do not intervene!
Why do you force me to experience injustice?
Why do you put up with wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence confront me;
conflict is present and one must endure strife.
For this reason the law lacks power,
and justice is never carried out.
Indeed, the wicked intimidate the innocent.
For this reason justice is perverted.
This sounds like the cry of many Christians in the United States in recent years. God’s answer to Habakkuk was swift but not desirable. He answered that judgment was on its way, in the form of the Babylonians. Habakkuk couldn’t believe his ears. Judah certainly had its problems, but the Babylonians were much worse. How could God employ a terribly wicked people as His instrument of judgment upon a relatively innocent nation? Listen to the amazement in Habakkuk’s words in 1:13:
You are too just to tolerate evil;
you are unable to condone wrongdoing.
So why do you put up with such treacherous people?
Why do you say nothing when the wicked devour those who are relatively innocent?
Our sin has blinded our eyes, hardened our hearts, and deafened our ears; God must therefore speak loudly at times to get our attention. For the Jew, he used the Babylonians; perhaps (emphasis on “perhaps”) for us he has used terrorists. What has he used in your life to get your attention in the past? What will He use to get your attention the next time you neglect Him?
C.S. Lewis said it so well in his book The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Malcolm Muggeridge seems to resonate with similar thoughts:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.
I believe that Romans 8:28 is true. It says,
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
I think, however, we have to move beyond the uni-dimensional view of a “good” God as one who is primarily out to provide for us a pain-free existence. Yes, God is good, and He is out for our good. But “good” does not mean “painlessness.”
Reasons vary as to why God allows tragedy: At times he uses it to punish individuals or nations for their sins; other times to discipline or train up the whole individual; other times to build specific character qualities into an individual or people; other times to prepare an individual to subsequently minister to others undergoing similar tragedies. But the lowest common denominator—what God always has as His reason—is that humankind should turn our eyes toward Him. He has accomplished this goal in the past and seems to be doing so now. Consider the result of the “tragedy” suffered by Judah when God used the Babylonians to judge them. Jeremiah’s response in Lamentations 3:40-41 is instructive:
Let us carefully examine our ways,
and let us return to the LORD.
Let us lift up our hearts and our hands
to God in heaven.
Habakkuk, too, has learned to turn his eyes toward heaven and trust God with abandonment. Look at Habakkuk 3:17-19:
When the fig tree does not bud,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
when the olive trees do not produce,
and the fields yield no crops;
when the sheep disappear from the pen,
and there are no cattle in the stalls,
I will rejoice because of the LORD;
I will be happy because of the God who delivers me.
The sovereign LORD is my source of strength.
He gives me the agility of a deer;
he enables me to negotiate the rugged terrain.
And in an unrelated episode of suffering, Job responds to God’s effective method in Job 13:15:
If he slays me, I will hope in him;
I will surely defend my ways to his face!
The common result of tragedy is that the suffering parties turn their eyes toward heaven, and it has been so this time. Our attention will be gotten. Did God get the attention of United States citizens? Emphatically. Was he clear? Crystal. He is a wise God who knows what it takes to get our attention—anything more would have been unnecessary, but anything less than Terrible Tuesday would have been ineffective. People are turning to him by the thousands! He has brought people together, and he has brought people to Himself.
How should we respond? Our response to tragedy must be immediate, although our understanding of it may be slow in coming or it may never come at all.
I want to affirm the legitimate feelings in our country of anger and a thirst for justice. That longing to see justice accomplished is merely an indication that we were made in the image of a just God. Habakkuk, too, sensed a desire to see justice accomplished. Consider Habakkuk 3:16:
I listened and my stomach churned;
the sound made my lips quiver.
My frame went limp, as if my bones were decaying,
and I shook as I tried to walk.
I long for the day of distress
to come upon the people who attack us.
However, longing to see justice accomplished is very different from trying to bring about justice ourselves. The carrying out of punishment is the responsibility of God and those to whom he delegates it, such as recognized governmental establishments. Romans 13:1-4 tells us the role of government institutions in carrying out justice as God’s servant:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God's servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.
Be broken; lay aside your pride in his presence. Be humble. Have you wept? Have you humbled yourself before God in response to recent events? Consider the words of Peter in 1 Peter 5:6:
And God will exalt you in due time, if you humble yourselves under his mighty hand.
Jeremiah felt that mighty hand, and likewise exhibited brokenness before God, when he surveyed Jerusalem as it lay in ruins. He writes in Lamentations 1:1-2:
The city once full of people
now sits all alone!
She who was once prominent among the nations
has become a widow!
The princess who once ruled over the provinces
has become a forced laborer!
She weeps bitterly at night;
tears stream down her cheeks.
There is no one to comfort her
among all her former lovers.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.
And again in Lamentations 3:47-49:
Panic and pitfall have come upon us,
devastation and destruction.
Streams of tears flow from my eyes
because my people are destroyed.
Tears flow from my eyes unceasingly;
they will not stop.
Be grateful that you live and worship in a free country. We have taken for granted the peace we enjoy as a nation, haven’t we? Be also grateful for those around you, particularly your family. You are surrounded by loved ones. We’ve held them tighter in light of recent events, haven’t we? We’ve been taking them for granted. I find it noteworthy that at Judah’s darkest hour, tucked away in the center of the most sorrowful book in the Bible, we find a ray of hope shining through brightly. In fact, it is from these verses, Lamentations 3:22-23, that one of our most cherished hymns emerges (“Great is Thy Faithfulness”):
The LORD’s many kindnesses never cease,
for his great compassion never comes to an end.
They are renewed every morning;
your faithfulness is abundant!
We must pray for the families of those who perished. We must pray for the healing of our country and direction for its leadership. But we must, as painful and difficult as it may be, pray for the salvation of our enemies—other would-be terrorists scattered throughout the world. They have been blinded by a lie, and they desperately need the grace of our Savior.
While we are always provided with opportunities to share the Gospel, right now we are surrounded by unbelievers who are especially hurting and searching for answers. People are willing to openly discuss spiritual things. Share the love of Christ with them—seize those opportunities. Peter instructs us in 1 Peter 3:15:
But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess.
Tragedies enter our lives unexpectedly and we are never the same afterward. Our nation has suffered a terrible tragedy—thousands are dead, and millions will be changed forever. “Terrible Tuesday” was tragic, but there was once a greater tragedy. How do you measure the terribleness or the severity of tragedy? On that day years ago, thousands weren’t killed or even hundreds; one man was executed. Yet that one man was the eternal Son of God Himself. And once again, the tragedy occurred because of sin, and once again God used the tragedy to eradicate sin. What do we call that day two-thousand years ago—we call it, ironically, “Good Friday!” But how can we label it “good?” Because God is in the Business of taking tragedies and working them out for our good. He has done so in the past, and rest assured that He is doing so this time.
“Our Father, because of Good Friday we can enjoy peace in a world that knows no peace. Because of Good Friday we can offer comfort to a world that doesn’t know you. Because of Good Friday, we can rest secure in the arms of a loving heavenly Father, even while we live as aliens in a hostile land. On Good Friday, you suffered the ultimate tragedy (you gave up your only Son)—because you love us. Thank you, Lord, for suffering tragedy for us. We pray these things in Christ’s victorious name.”