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Is No Place Safe Any More? (Or, Where Is God in the Midst of Tragedy?)

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Headline for the Dallas Morning News, Friday, September 17, 1999: Why? The thick black letters are an inch and a half high. They ask the question that has been haunting the country since the Wednesday before, when Larry Gene Ashbrook walked into Wedgwood Baptist Church in Forth Worth and in the space of five minutes killed seven young people, injured seven others, then turned the gun on himself and took his own life.

Comparisons with the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, in which 15 were killed (including the two gunmen) immediately come to mind. A common refrain heard on the nightly newscasts was, “First a school, then a church! Is no place safe any more?” Maybe the ‘Why?’ should have been two inches high.

Anyone with an ounce of humanity in him struggles with this question. Easy answers only come forth, it seems, from insensitive folk who prefer to distance themselves from the tragedy. Asked by my pastor, Pete Briscoe, to write up something of a theological perspective on this horrific event, I found myself procrastinating. And procrastinating. What could I possibly say that could offer any comfort?

One of the dangers of offering a theological perspective is that it can look cold and calculating, insensitive to the unspeakable pain that survivors, relatives, and friends are going through. It can look no different than so many politicians’ speeches that are simply hollow rhetoric. So I must preface my remarks with this: I weep with you. I grieve with you. And although I can’t possibly know what you’re going through, my heart aches for you.

John Piper put it well: “Pain is life’s greatest hermeneutic.” By that he meant that it is often only through pain that we can see all the pieces of the puzzle, that we have the big picture of what life is all about laid out so clearly in front of us, that we can finally understand. But pain does not automatically do this: our response to pain does—and even then, not immediately. Atheists and saints are both often ‘born’ in the aftermath of a tragedy.

When we ask, “How could God let this happen?”, we are on to something. What we do and feel next is of utmost importance. Some people decide that it is blasphemous even to raise such a question in the first place, that to ask ‘Why?’ is itself sinful. I do not share that sentiment, for this reason: it is neither human nor biblical. The books of Job and the Psalms ask this question at least sixty times—almost regardless of which translation one reads—and a very large portion of these questions are on the lips of godly men as they wonder about God’s ways. It is no sin to ask why. Indeed, I think it may well be wrong not to ask that question! When our son nearly died from cancer a few years ago, some friends consoled with this kind of attitude. They comforted us by quoting precious verses—especially Romans 8:28 (“All things work together for good for those who love God…”)—and then they walked away. Scripture became for them a way to deny the grief, to deny the pain. They loved us at an arm’s distance. To be sure, in the midst of suffering the human soul cries out for answers. But it cries out for more than that. It cries out for comfort, for love, for someone to share the burden of grief.

All of this is not to say there are no answers. But the answer that we seek is too often elusive; we never really know in this life—we cannot know in this life—the details of the answer to our question. Now, to be sure, we sometimes do get a partial answer to the ‘Why?’ As Pete preached last Sunday, a huge part of God’s purpose is to make his Son known. He gave eloquent testimony to the fact that God had done just this. The response of Christians around the country to the tragedy at Wedgwood Baptist Church was overwhelming: renewed commitments, greater boldness for Christ, and opportunity to speak of our confident hope of the resurrection because Jesus paid the price for our sins. All this in a matter of days. And if that were not enough, the cover story of this last week’s Christianity Today (dated October 4) was “’Do You Believe in God?’ How Columbine Changed America.” If we wonder about the impact that the Fort Worth shooting might have, sit down and read this CT article by Wendy Murray Zoba. She chronicles how three teenagers—Rachel Scott, Val Schnurr, and Cassie Bernall—affirmed their belief in God before getting shot. One of the kids in Cassie’s youth group later confessed, “Cassie raised the bar for me and my Christianity.” In Rachel’s journal there is an earnestness about her faith, reminiscent of Jim Elliott: “I want heads to turn in the halls when I walk by. I want them to stare at me, watching and wanting the light you put in me. I want you to overflow my cup with your Spirit…. I want you to use me to reach the unreached.” God answered her prayer! Her father relates,

Columbine was a wound to open up the hearts of the kids in this country. Tens of thousands of young people have given their hearts to the Lord [since Columbine]; we know that from phone class and letters. Organized Christianity hasn’t been able to do that in decades.”

And make no mistake about it: Columbine and Wedgwood are related: Cassie Bernall’s mother offers this insight:

Most of the kids they killed—if not all of them—were Christian kids. …

It was spiritual warfare. It’s still happening. At Cassie’s memorial there was a happy-face balloon, and our son discovered someone had drawn a bullet going into it. And there was a young man walking in the mall wearing a black trench coat with a T-shirt that said, “We’re still ahead 13 to 2.”

Whether we will ever know what was in Larry Ashbrook’s mind when he gunned down the kids at Wedgwood Baptist Church, we can be assured that behind him stood the forces of Beelzebul, of Satan himself. If six months after the Columbine slaughter America has already started to rouse from its spiritual slumber, what will happen six months from now? Maybe not only will unbelievers turn to Christ, but believers might strengthen their commitment to the Lord who bought them and jettison the shell of cultural Christianity that their faith has become.

But what if that doesn’t happen? What if this country simply goes back to sleep, as though the whole thing were simply a bad dream, a mere blip in an otherwise peaceful slumber. What if the responses are merely ethical and not spiritual? What if people clean up their lives but don’t turn to Christ—resulting in the same eternity reserved for the worst of unrepentant sinners? If such were the case, would God’s purposes be thwarted? NO. But our answers to such tragedies would continue to lack the details that we had hoped for.

So what answer can we know? I’ll get to that in a moment.

As I said, we are on to something when we start by asking God why there is evil in the world. When evil gets a face, when it becomes personal—as it inevitably does in everyone’s life—the question becomes more earnest, more desperate. At bottom, what we are really asking is a question about the nature of God. When someone asks, “How could God let this happen?” two things are presupposed about God: he is good and he is sovereign. And therein lies the crux of the problem. If we think about it a little while, we might even articulate it this way, “If God is good, isn’t he also powerful enough not to have let this happen?” Or, put another way, “If God is in control, isn’t he good enough not to have let this happen?” Either way, the goodness of God or the sovereignty of God seems to be on trial. Perhaps you can see why atheists are born at a time like this: their image of God is shattered at the paradox of the situation. “God wasn’t there for me” becomes the mantra that leads to atheism or, in the least, to a marginalization of God in one’s thinking. The scary thing is that we are all atheists at heart when we sanitize and shrink-wrap the majesty and grandeur of God into manageable proportions.

Briefly, I wish to address the issue of two of God’s attributes, his sovereignty and his goodness, and how they relate to one another. Consider the following points.

(1) When we think of God’s will we need to nuance the discussion. The Bible speaks of God’s will in essentially two ways: what he desires and what he decrees. These two must not be confused.

(2) God desires that we should not sin: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess 4:3); “live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” (1 Pet 4:2); “understand what the will of the Lord is—namely, do not get drunk with wine but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:17-18). And yet, we do sin. If this is all there is to God’s will, then he’s not very powerful.

(3) God has decreed all that has come to pass and all that will come to pass: He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11); “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2); “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). Cf. also Isaiah 40, Romans 9-11. Yet, not all that God has decreed is good (at least not in the short run). If this is all there is to God’s will, then he must not be good himself.

(4) These two aspects of God’s will can be stated simply: God desires some things that he does not decree, and God decrees some things that he does not desire.

(5) Now, before we jump to any conclusions about the illogic of it all, we need to consider another attribute of God: simplicity. God is one (Deut 6:4); his attributes cannot be compartmentalized. There is no contradiction in him. He is eternal in his love, omniscient in his justice, good in his sovereignty, and sovereign in his goodness. He is not good one day, then sovereign the next.

Nothing catches him by surprise; not even a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge. Not even the Fort Worth tragedy caught God off-guard. We must not think of him as sitting on the throne, trying to keep track of all the activities on this old sphere, but every once in a rare while missing a catastrophe that somehow slips under his heavenly radar! God is not sitting there thinking, “I should have seen the signs! I should have known Larry Ashbrook was capable of doing this!” He knows all things that ever have happened, are happening, or will happen. He also knows all the ‘could haves’, ‘would haves’ and ‘should haves.’ All contingencies and realities are perfectly known to God and always have been. God doesn’t learn, precisely because he already knows all. And if he never has to look down the corridors of time to see what’s going to happen, this must mean that everything happens according to his purpose. Even the mass murder in Fort Worth.

And yet, his purpose is ultimately to glorify himself. He does this especially through his creation, particularly humanity. Ultimately, all that God does is good—perfectly, eternally, infinitely good. One of the reasons we can’t see it—or refuse to see it—is that our horizon is temporal. In modern America, we tend to interpret God’s blessings in dollars and cents, in quality of life, in conveniences and comfort. We think that what we have come to value must be what God values. But listen to the remarkable words of the apostle Paul as he sits imprisoned in Rome: “For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him” (Phil 1:29, NET). Paul says that suffering for Christ is a gift! In Paul’s mind, what these Christian kids in Fort Worth just went through was a privilege. If we can’t see that then perhaps our values have gotten really messed up somewhere along the road. But we also can’t see that because we tend to view this life as all there really is. But the reality is that this life—whether it lasts for two days or ninety years—is not even a speck on eternity’s time line. As one of my professors, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., used to say, “There is an ‘until’.” What all this means is that the full goodness of God cannot possibly be known in this life.

(6) That there are no contradictions in God does not mean that there are no apparent contradictions in God. That is because what the infinite God does appears to finite creatures as impossible and contradictory. Perhaps an analogy might help. It is as though we lived in a two-dimensional world, looking out at a three-dimensional world. If in our realm of existence we saw a man walk toward us, since our only frame of reference was two dimensional we would swear that the man was growing at an incredible pace! But then, just as quickly, he shrinks when he walks away. We know that that is impossible, but we have no explanation for what we just witnessed. And frankly, we don’t have the capacity to understand what we just witnessed. But if we decide never to look past our shallow plane of existence because we can’t understand what we see, our lives are thereby impoverished by our stubbornness and ignorance.

(7) All of this leads to a final point: How do we deal with the tension between the goodness of God and the sovereignty of God? And this is the real question we are asking in the midst of tragedy. Our response is to trust. And to know that there is no contradiction in God, to actually take comfort in the fact that he is infinite and we are but puny little creatures who often sin by presuming that we can tell God how to do his job. As he says in Isaiah 55:8-9, “My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” Or, as the apostle Paul put it, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has first given to God that God needs to repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen” (Rom 11:33-36, NET). This crescendo of praise from Paul’s pen was not conceived in an ivory tower setting. Paul magnified his God in response to his own profound  grief over the unresponsiveness of the Jews to their Messiah (cf. Rom 9:1-3). His words are just as relevant and just as comforting today as they were then.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Theology Proper (God)