Local News: This Thursday’s Mission Mississippi Prayer Breakfast will be held from 6:30am – 7:30am at Trinity Presbyterian Church in the Fellowship Hall (5301 Old Canton Road). The purpose of Mission Mississippi’s bi-weekly prayer breakfasts is to foster greater unity in the Body of Christ in the metro-Jackson area across racial and denominational lines. For more information, contact Ben McLain at 601-977-0774 or go to www.missionmississippi.org.
It is a dangerous task for Christians to “explain” tragedies like this month’s bombing at the Boston Marathon which left three dead and almost 150 injured. Any attempt, however theologically astute and well-intentioned will no doubt sound to some like attempts to “explain away” the tragedy. Presbyterians, unfortunately, are especially susceptible to this error, given their predisposition to focus on the eternal decrees of God and his absolute sovereignty. Presbyterians have an innate distrust of mystery or leaving things open ended. Hence, when asked why such terrible things as the Boston Marathon bombing occur, it’s difficult to give the answer that would actually be most edifying, which would be a simple, “I don’t know.”
If God is not to be reduced to a passive deity who simply watches things happen, but doesn’t actually have control over them, we must conclude there is some sense in which (to use the language of the Westminster Confession) he “ordains” everything that happens—if “ordain”, when referring to the evil in the world, means something like “allow to happen”. If God chose not to allow something, it couldn’t occur. For instance, God could’ve prevented Judas from betraying Christ, but ordained that it would occur as it did, yet at the end of the day Judas did what he wanted to do of his own volition and free will. God is in control of the big picture, which of course includes all of the little events that make up the big picture, but that doesn’t give us license to presume to know more than we do know, and it certainly doesn’t mean we can use “God’s sovereignty” as a trump card that mechanically ends all doubt. That wasn’t how Jesus interacted with people.
If God didn’t ordain tragic events—in the sense of allowing them to happen—they couldn’t occur. But people don’t need to be told that during a tragedy, any more than an individual who lost a loved one who didn’t profess faith in Christ needs to be told at the funeral about what Scripture says about the punishment meted out for rejecting Christ. As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a time for everything. Tragedies are times to mourn, to weep with those who weep. There may be times to contend, times to argue, times to persuade. But times of national tragedy are not those times.
There are many things that could be said that may technically be accurate, but they are not pastoral; they would not edify. Consider as an example of the right thing being said at the wrong occasion the Biblical book of Job. If one reads the speeches of Job’s three friends—speeches for which God later rebuked them, saying they had not spoken what was right—one will be hard pressed to find much in them that is not true in an abstract sense. The friends talk at length about how God is holy, man is sinful, and how God punishes evil and rewards good, and how physical suffering is often the result of God punishing someone. All of these things, in theory, are accurate. However, it wasn’t what Job needed to hear during his suffering and bereavement. Job’s friends reminded him that God was sovereign, but it wasn’t what he needed to hear.
Presbyterians prize theological accuracy. For this, they should be applauded. However, accuracy, cut off from pastoral care and love, doesn’t help anyone. There is a reason the words “cold” and “hard” often accompany the word “truth”. Jesus is the perfect example of truth spoken in love. When Mary and Martha wept at the grave of their brother, Lazarus, Jesus didn’t fuss at them for crying or give them a theological defense of the sovereignty of God. He wept with them.
Amid all the discussion about terrorism in general, and the Boston Marathon bombings in particular, Christians need to offer empathy to people. For some people, the fact that such tragic events occur will cause them to question the existence of an all-powerful, all-good God. Such individuals don’t need to be fussed at. Job, who was brutally honest about his own doubts, was commended by God, while his friends who offered him trite comforts, were rebuked. Jesus had compassion on doubters. Certainly, we should as well, we who, apart from the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, would be dead in our own unbelief.
We should also remember that we serve a Lord who was tempted in every way, just as we are, and yet was without sin. If he was truly tempted in every way, then we must conclude our Lord himself was tempted to question God’s sovereignty—to even question God’s very existence. His cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, was not a stoic recitation of a psalm, but the cry of a heart that felt deeply forsaken.
The New Testament teaches us that when we serve the suffering, we are, in a mystical sense, serving Christ himself. Part of the answer, then, to the question, “Where is God during tragedies like the Boston bombings?” is that he is right there in the midst of it, suffering along with the sufferers. Part of our calling as Christians is to suffer along with our fellow human beings. Not to offer condescending advice that we rationalize because it’s “true”, but rather to enter into other people’s pain.
God’s sovereignty must never be held up as a theological abstraction that is divorced from his love. All of God’s decisions, even his decision to allow bad things to happen for reasons we can’t begin to fathom, are motivated by love. God is sovereign and God is love. During times like these, the emphasis on God’s sovereignty must be intertwined with an emphasis on God’s love. Otherwise, we’ll miss up an opportunity to be to hurting people what Jesus was to Lazarus’ sisters and we will, like Job’s friends, offer “proverbs of ashes”.