What does one think in the face of tragedy? What does one say? More important, what does one think and say about God? Is God a monster or can he be trusted?

It is so easy for someone like me who talks for a living to give easy answers to hard questions. For a number of years, I conducted a Skeptics Forum group where I spent a lot of Monday nights talking to atheists and agnostics. I won most of the arguments (including the ones that had to do with the problem of evil, pain and suffering in the face of the biblical assertion that God is good) not just because there was truth on my side but also because I talked better than most of those who were a part of those forums. If one is a good debater—and I am since I do this sort of thing for a living—one can win a lot of arguments.

I remember a young man who, when he was a teenager, had lost his hand in a tractor accident. He held up the stump and said, “Reverend, where the hell was your loving God when this happened?”

I told him the Christian position on pain and suffering in a reasonably intelligent fashion. But I remember driving home that night and asking God, “Okay, I won the argument but where were you when he lost his hand?”

How could a good God let a young man lose his hand and suffer for it the rest of his life? On a much larger scale, how could a loving God allow utter devastation and death? Can good come out of any of it? Must we simply remain silent and wonder?

Of course there are things that can be said to speak to the mind and depending on your proclivity to believe, might be helpful. C.S. Lewis pointed out that no matter how great the tragedy, one must always perceive the tragedy as happening to one person…not thousands. One can always speak of the good that often comes out of tragedy and our inability to see the whole picture. One can, I suppose, focus on God’s sovereignty and affirm Christian stoicism as appropriate. I suppose one can speak the truth that things would be a whole lot worse if mankind got what it deserved (death). Then there is the question of God’s justice in the presence of so much that is so good. One can talk about causal systems, the nature of a fallen world and its ultimate restoration, and the fact that one cannot eliminate evil, pain and suffering without, at the same time, eliminating freedom, responsibility and choice. 

But we aren’t conducting a debate here. I often tell my seminary students that when they confront tragedy in the churches they serve and the inevitable questions about why it happened, they should remember that intellectual answers have very little effect on broken hearts. Sometimes a hug is more needful than a lesson in theology, philosophy or apologetics.

Sometimes a hug is more needful than a lesson in theology, philosophy or apologetics.

Whatever one thinks or says in the face of tragedy…one should not be glib about suffering. It is possible to make things worse with silly and superficial statements in the face of horrible pain and suffering.

So let me say something important: I don’t have answers. I have the same questions you have. I wonder and my heart breaks too. I don’t understand God or the world any more than anybody else. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” Paul asked (Romans 11:34) with the only possible answer to his rhetorical question…“Nobody here!”

But I do know some things.

Don’t Be Pollyanna

I know that anybody who has a Pollyanna view of the world, of human nature or of suffering is an idiot. Peter was, of course, talking about persecution when he wrote his letter, but his words are apt in this context too: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you” (1 Peter 4:12).

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, wrote to a young friend, “This is a cheerful world as I see it from my garden under the shadows of my vines. But, if I were to ascend some high mountain and look out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see: brigands on the highway, pirates on the sea, armies fighting, cities burning. In the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds; selfishness and cruelty and misery and despair under all roofs. It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world.”

It was. It is. And things haven’t changed. A Christian who doesn’t understand that or forgets it would do well to be reminded.

This is Not Right

I also know that my heart is moved by tragedy and, more than that, there is something in me that says, “This is not right! This is evil! This is not the way it is supposed to be!” Paul said that the “whole creation” groans for something better (Romans 8:22). As one reads through the Psalms, one is stunned by the complaints of the people of God as they look at a world of pain and suffering, a world where there seems to be no help. For instance, in Psalm 44:23, the writer looks at the death of God’s people and cries out to God: “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!”

Where did we get this sense of tragedy? When did we start thinking, given the data that has been always available to us, there is something bent about our world? Where did we get the idea about the evil of tragedy and suffering? The atheist who cries out in the face of injustice, “It isn’t fair!” or “It isn’t right!” is logically inconsistent. Fairness and rightness are words that are irrelevant to one who doesn’t believe in a God who gives value…a God who determines what is fair and what is just.

And yet even the most strident unbeliever winces at the unfairness of tragedy and suffering. Even if they don’t know it, it is the “smell of heaven”…the yearning, if you will, for lost Eden.

There is Light

There is something else I know. I know that in the midst of the darkness…there is light. I know that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). I know that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). I know that the sovereign God who is the ruler, creator and sustainer of all that is—and it almost takes your breath away—has mingled his tears with ours and with those who have lost so much and suffered such great pain.  In other words, God didn’t remain in heaven unmoved by the tragedy and pain of the world. He came and suffered as we must suffer. He wept at open graves as we must weep at open graves.  He was lonely and afraid as we are lonely and afraid, and he died as we must die.

God didn’t give us words, philosophies or propositions for our intellectual questions. He did a whole lot better than that. He came himself. We worship a sovereign God who, nevertheless, is a suffering God. The cross is a lot of things…but it is also a cross in the heart of a kind and compassionate God. It is almost as if God said to our small minds: “There are reasons but you are finite and your understanding would never grasp them…so I will speak to you the language of love. I will identify with your suffering until Eden is restored and all questions are silenced in the light of my glory. And then, I will be with you until the light shines.”

The Good News

And then there is one other thing I know. In the midst of the darkness, those of us who belong to him have a responsibility to care, to reach out in compassion and to proclaim the good news in the midst of horrible news. We are called to shine light into an incredible and frightening darkness. We should never deny the darkness but someone has to say, “There is more. There is the One, if you will, who loves and shares in your suffering and who will, when the time is right, answer every question and dry every tear.”

We are called to shine light into an incredible and frightening darkness.

The Bible says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…” (Philippians 2:5-7).

We’re not much. We are sinners who, when we speak of God, must do it with great humility. We are sometimes afraid too. We also have our questions. We’re just a little light.

But when it gets dark enough, a little light will do.

Time to Draw Away

Read Psalm 23 & Isaiah 41:10

We live in a hard, dark and painful world, but God can be trusted. Not only that. God identifies with us. What does it mean for you personally to have a God who came and suffered as you suffer, who is lonely and afraid as you are lonely and afraid? Your sovereign and loving Father holds you. He has your back. He walks beside you. He walks ahead of you. And you really can trust him.