Wednesday, November 03, 2004

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 2

In my first post on this topic, I said that it's natural for us to wonder why we suffer because somewhere in the recesses of our collective DNA, there is this notion that our lives are meant to be good and eternal.

But even if it's natural for us to do so, is it right for us to ask, "Why?"?

Years ago, a friend of mine attended the funeral for a young man who had been killed in an accident. My friend, a committed Christian, was appalled by what he saw among the parents and siblings of the dead young man. They were going around praising God for the death, saying that their loved one was now in heaven, and asking mourners wasn't it all just too wonderful for words? "They were in complete denial, Mark," my friend told me. I think that he was right.

It is true that followers of Jesus Christ live and die with hope. I love what Paul says in the New Testament book of First Corinthians:

"...Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ..." [First Corinthians 15:20-22]
"If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." [First Corinthians 15:19]
When I preside over funerals, I often tell the families and friends of the people who have died: "If what we say about Jesus conquering death for all who believe in Him isn't true today, it simply isn't true at all." Jesus isn't just our Lord when life is going well and we're living large. He's also our Lord when this world hands us its worst. That's because we believe that on an Easter Sunday two-thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead, certifying His power to deliver on all His promises, even beyond our deaths and our funerals.

But no matter what our hope and no matter how sure we are that "all who call on the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21; Psalm 55:16; and other places), we still experience loss when loved ones die, or when we lose our health, a job, or a marriage, or when we experience tragedies. It's normal even for Christians to experience grief.

The New Testament tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," not for all circumstances. In other words, our circumstances may be lousy or painful, but we can be thankful that even in those times, the God we know through Jesus Christ is with us.

Although my friend attended the funeral I mentioned many years ago, I still wonder why that family reacted as they did to their loss. Maybe they were taught that any other reaction would reflect faithlessness, a lack of trust in God. Maybe they thought that an angry God would punish them in some way.

If they entertained such thoughts, they obviously hadn't spent much time reading the Bible. Back when I was moving from atheism to faith in God, I spent some time exploring the Bible as I never had before. One thing that kept striking me me then was how honest the Bible is. No facts are sugar-coated. Great heroes of faith---from David to Moses and Peter and Paul---are seen warts and all.

And when people of faith mentioned in the Bible encounter mysteries about God and about life with God, they honestly own up to being confounded and confused. In the Old Testament's book of worship songs, the Psalms, for example, there are whole genres of songs called laments: community laments and individual laments. In them, believers in God express sadness and bafflement at their suffering. They complain about the seeming inactivity or insensitivity of God. In Psalm 13, for example, the psalmist talks to God:

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long? [Psalm 13:1-2]
If any believer was worthy of being zapped on the spot, it was the writer of those words, traditionally held to be David, a person the Bible describes as a "man after God's own heart." But God didn't zap David.

A man named Job didn't get zapped either. His story is told in a lengthy and eloquent book of the Bible's Old Testament. Job was such a good man that God bragged about him. But in rapid order, Job was subjected to a series of personal tragedies. He lost his vast property and land holdings, all his children were killed, and he became afflicted with a disease. At first, Job seemed to handle things well, insisting that he would keep worshiping and serving God. But, understandably, Job broke.

Three friends came to visit him and for a time, simply allowed Job to "vent," sharing his feelings of sadness and grief and mystification that a good God would allow all this to happen to him. It was then that Job's friends made a huge mistake. They tried to explain what had befallen Job. In a nutshell, they were sure that Job was guilty of some secret sin and that God was punishing him. While Job wouldn't have claimed perfection for himself, he was sure that the friends' explanations were off-base. He tells them, "If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!" (Job 13:5) (I laugh every time I read those words, remembering with embarrassment and regret all the stupid explanations I've tried to offer for the bad things that have happened in my own and in others' lives.)

Job then complains bitterly to God and about God. Given their "theology," Job's friends may have felt vindicated in their "explanations" of Job's plight. They may also have considered moving a few feet away from Job just in case a stray lightning bolt from heaven hit them.

In the end of the book of Job though, God responds to all that Job and his friends have said. But God offers no explanations. First, God upbraids the friends for pretending to know what they couldn't possibly know, for judging their friend Job as worthy of all the suffering he was enduring. Then, in a long discouse, God reminds Job of a few simple facts: God is God, Job isn't, and no matter what, God would be with Job.

In a way, that may not seem like an especially satisfying resolution. But, remember Paul's words, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." [First Corinthians 15:19] This life, consequential as it may be for eternity is just a blip on our journeys. Paul, a man who certainly had a lot of suffering in his life, said in another place:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. [Second Corinthians 4:17-18]
Ultimately, every person I have ever observed to have come to a place of peace in dealing with life's tragedies has done so because they've adopted an eternal perspective. They know that this life isn't all there is to life and choose to trust God in spite of the mysteries and unanswered questions.

Summing up this post:
1. It's normal for us to grieve.

2. It's normal for us to ask God why we suffer.

3. God won't zap us for wondering why we suffer.

4. Even when we grieve, we have an eternal hope when we trust Jesus Christ as our God and Savior.

5. God is God.

6. We're not God.

7. God is with us.
More on point 7 in my next post. [Use the Comments post below to dialog, give feedback, and tell me if this is helpful at all.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice job Mark.
"The New Testament tells us to 'give thanks in all circumstances,' not for all circumstances." Is worth reading all of it.

Tod Bolsinger.