The nineteen 9-year-olds and 2 teachers shot in Uvalde Texas is yet another murder spree perpetrated by bigots and the unstable of every variety. Although the USA has more than its share of these mass killings, descriptions of similar horrific scenes have come out of Australia, Germany, the UK, France, Ireland, and South Korea to name a few. The Bible gives us plenty of guidance on how to prevent these heart-breaking occurrences, if only we are capable of following it. Also contained within its pages is help in how to respond.
Many Christians quote the verse Romans 8:28, “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” with the implication that somehow everything will turn out for the best. The Greek original text is more properly translated, “in everything that happens, God works for good with those who love him.” That promise, I have found to hold true in all the disasters and hardships I have known personally. Things happen, some of them good, some of them bad, many of them beyond our control. In all these things, I have felt the reliable constant of a God willing to work with me and through me to produce something good. Faith in such a process will, I am convinced, always be rewarded, even though the “why?” questions go unanswered.
A story from John 9 illustrates the difference in approach. The story starts where many sick people start, with the question of cause. Encountering a man blind from birth, the disciples look backward to find out why. Who sinned to bring on this punishment, the blind man or his parents? Jesus answers unequivocally: “neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in his life.” Redirecting their attention forward in time, Jesus poses a different question, “to what end?”
Jesus’ response, I believe, offers a concise summary of the Bible’s approach to the problem of pain. Thornton Wilder wrote the Bridge of San Luis Rey to investigate why five particular people died in a bridge collapse. When asked about a similar tragedy, “why did 18 people die in a construction accident,” Jesus refused to answer. Instead, he turned the question back to the askers: would you be ready for death if a tower fell on you? In Jesus view, even tragedy could be used to push a person toward God. Rather than looking backward for explanations, he looked forward for redemptive results.
To backward looking questions of cause, to the “why?” question, the Bible gives no definitive answer. But it does hold out hope for the future, that even suffering can be transformed so that it produces good results. Sometimes, as with the blind man, the work of God is manifest through a dramatic miracle. Sometimes, as with Joni Erickson and so many others who pray for healing that never comes, God’s work appears to be absent.
In every case, suffering offers an opportunity for us to display the work of God, whether in weakness or in strength. The “miracle” of Joni Erickson (a teenager devastated by paralysis who becomes a prophetess for the disabled in the rest of the church) demonstrates that abundantly. The transformation worked in her is even more impressive than if she had suddenly regained her ability to walk. “Storms are the triumph of His [God’s] art,” said the poet, George Herbert.
Pilip Yancey writes these words just after the tragedy in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, not far from his home:
Every day, newspapers and television programs here dissect the events in excruciating detail. The funerals of 12 students and one teacher have been broadcast live. Ministers, parents, school administrators, and everyone touched by the tragedy ask “why?” and no one has an answer. The element of evil—hate-filled, racist teenagers sprayed their classmates with automatic weapons—looms so large in this particular tragedy that no one publicly links God to the event. Some ask why God does not intervene at such a time, but no one suggests God caused that outbreak of violence.
You would have to live in Colorado to appreciate fully the answer to the other question posed by the tragedy: can any good come out of such horror? Can it be redeemed? A week after the killings I visited the hill in Clement Park on which 15 crosses stood. I sifted through the pile of flower bouquets, athletic jackets, stuffed animals, and other mementos, and read some of the handwritten notes of love and support that poured in from all over the world. I also read the notes written to the two killers, personal notes from other misfits and outcasts lamenting that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had not found friends to confide in who could ease their pain.
I attended churches that spontaneously filled with hundreds of grieving worshippers the days and weeks following the event. I watched the Today Show as broadcaster Craig Scott, brother of one of the victims, put his hand on the shoulder of the father of the one African American student killed and comforted him, even as journalist Katie Couric broke down on the air. I heard friends of students describe their classmate’s bravery as a gunman pointed his weapon at their heads and demanded, “Do you believe in God?”
I heard of youth groups swelling all over the city. Teachers apologized to their classes for not having identified themselves as Christians and invited students to meet them after school for grief counseling. The father of one victim becoming an evangelist and the father of another leads a gun control crusade. Out of evil, even terrible evil such as the Columbine and Uvalde massacres, good may come.
For many people, it takes the jolt of tragedy, illness, or death to create an existential crisis of faith. At such a moment, we want clarity while God wants our trust. How do we respond?
A Scottish preacher in the last century lost his wife suddenly, and after her death he preached an unusually personal sermon. He admitted in the message that he did not understand this life of ours. But still less could he understand how people facing loss could abandon faith. “Abandon it for what!” he said. “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.”
Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey