What do we tell our children and students when tragedy strikes? What do we tell them when it appears so random; one person is taken, another is spared, one home is destroyed, another escapes? Are some just luckier than others? Are some people just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Are some more sinful and thus more deserving of punishment than others? Is tragedy the work of Satan with God watching on and grieving?
Who is in charge; chance, nature, Satan, or God?
Over the last several days I have listened as well meaning Christians and pastors have sought to answer these questions. While I understand the good intentions and that media sound bits don’t lend themselves to deep theological explanations, I confess that I have been disappointed by the responses I’ve heard.
The majority of the explanations imply that tragedies such as the tornadoes that struck last week are the work of Satan and/or nature and that a loving God is grieved but ultimately an impotent bystander as Satan, nature, and/or chance work their will upon the earth, destroying lives and property. God is there to love, console, and to pick up the pieces left behind by Satan and/or nature.
God is loving, he does care, and he does console.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, Where have you laid him? They said to him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. So the Jews said, See how he loved him! (John 11:35ff)
But God is also sovereign and omnipotent. Nothing happens in this world—from the smallest event to the deepest tragedy—unless he ordains or permits it for his own purposes, his glory, and the good of his people.
God is in charge, not Satan and not nature—both must submit to God’s all wise, holy, and sovereign rule.
God often does not provide an explanation for individual events, but he does provide overall guidance for how we are to understand events in this world and how we are to respond to him.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Ps. 119:105)
Although far from complete, the following verses may be of help to you as you grapple with God’s inscrutable will and help your children or students to do the same.
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? (Lam. 3:37ff)
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1ff)
While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you. Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:18ff)
From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. By the breath of God ice is given and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen. (Job 37:9)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. (Prov. 3:5)
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:8ff)
Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord. (Jer. 9:23)
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Ps. 139:16)
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29)
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matt. 6:25ff)
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Rom. 12:15)
(Note: these verses apply only to Christians, not to non-Christians): And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28ff)
God does not tell us why he ordains and permits certain things. He does tell us that he is sovereign, all powerful, all wise, and loving. We do not need to defend or apologize for God. We do need to trust, submit, and worship—just as Job did.
Our response is one of honesty as we acknowledge our pain and the pain of others, of loving care for those hurting and in need, humility as we recognize the limitations of our understanding, and of trust in God and his word—even when we are surrounded by darkness, destruction, and death.