Looking Back & Looking Forward
SEPTEMBER 8, 2021
September 11, 2001
What do we do with tragedy, pain and suffering? Where do we go? With this week’s 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, it is an appropriate time to revisit Steve’s thoughts following that day. This is Steve’s letter from November of 2001. What he wrote then is just as true today. And it is always good to be reminded.
I’m writing this in late September, a couple of weeks after the tragic terrorist attack in New York and the Pentagon. I always feel uncomfortable writing something after a major event (good or bad) that I know you won’t get for a while. There are always developing details and my fear is that I could miss something that happened between the time I wrote to you and the time you got it.
However, I have decided that my lack of knowledge about the events that could have happened between the time I write this and the time you get it is a really good thing.
Do you know why?
First, as Christians, we are concerned not so much with the momentary, but with the eternal. God’s perspective includes, of course, the present events of our lives, but his perspective is far greater and more profound than that. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulations…” Here Jesus wants us to know that he is aware of everything, including the pain, the doubts, the fears. But then Jesus reminds his disciples about a different perspective. “…but be of good cheer,” he said, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
If you had been standing on Golgotha the day Christ died and had been among those who loved him, you would have been devastated. Talk about tragedy. But, of course, you would not have known about the empty tomb, and the explosion of power and love that was being released on the world as a result of the events surrounding the crucifixion.
After hurricane Andrew struck south Florida, we had a radio rally in Miami. It had been planned for months before the hurricane hit with such horrible devastation. Do you know the title of my teaching that night? It was, The Wisdom of the Wind. Can you believe that? That was the title we had put in all of our advertising long before we knew anything about the hurricane.
I don’t think so. In fact, I believe God, knowing about the hurricane, had made sure that I could look back and see the title and the teaching that had been planned for that night and, further, that he was saying to me, “Child, I knew from the foundation of the world about the hurricane, its devastation, the fears and the pain. I wanted you to know that I knew what my people would face. But I also wanted you to know that I knew what my people needed to hear from my Word. Try and remember that I’m here, I’m in control, and that no event—no matter how tragic and painful—is outside the purview of my love and my control. So, why don’t you trust me?”
Second, I’m glad that I have to write this now and you have to get it later because, frankly, nothing has changed and all that we have believed is still true. When I was a student at Boston University, there was an Old Testament professor, Dr. Harold Beck, who was greatly loved by his students. The great Alaska earthquake had just taken place and someone asked Dr. Beck what he would say to his congregation the Sunday after the earthquake if he were the pastor of a church in Anchorage. I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “Nothing different because, you see, if I had been their pastor I would have prepared them for that kind of thing before it happened.”
The writer of Hebrews could have been writing to us after the tragedy when he wrote, “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Hebrews 4:14).
I once asked Corrie ten Boom about the tribulation described in the book of Revelation. “Stephen,” she said, “there is more tribulation right now in places in the world than is described in the book of Revelation. You don’t experience much of it in America, but you have been protected. In some places it is very hard.”
Well, now we know.
Cyprian, the Bishop of the church at Carthage in the third century, wrote to his friend Donatus:
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, pirate 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.
Yes it is. That hasn’t changed.
Then Cyprian wrote:
But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret…They have overcome the world. They are the Christians and I am one of them.
That hasn’t changed either. One time St. Francis was working in his garden and someone asked him what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back that day and the world was coming to an end. “Why,” said Francis, “I would continue to work in my garden.”
That’s what we need to do. We need to continue our lives—a little sadder and wiser perhaps—but to continue doing what we’re supposed to do. We need to pray for those who are in such pain, for our leaders, for our military, for those who work in very difficult circumstances, and for our country. We need to point to Christ in everything we do, bearing witness to the “hope that is in us” because this is an incredible opportunity. However, that was what we were supposed to do before the tragedy. We’re still supposed to do it. That hasn’t changed.
And then there is one other reason I’m glad I’m writing this now and you are getting it later. As time passes, we have a tendency to think things are normal. They really aren’t normal. The pain and the shock recede and we are apt to say really dumb things. When that happens, we (and I’m more apt to do this than most) have a tendency to pretend that we have all the answers, that we are at peace, that we speak from Sinai. Already the prophecy people are talking about Armageddon, the religious leaders are talking about God’s judgment, and the Christian celebrities are talking about what God was thinking when he allowed the tragedy to happen.
There is probably nothing less attractive than Christians (myself included) pontificating. Paul said, “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?” (Romans 11:34). Our witness isn’t that we know the mind of the Lord. We don’t. Our witness is that we know the Lord. And as Spurgeon said, “When you can’t trace his hand, trust his heart.”
I did an interview for our local Christian television station shortly after the tragedy. They wanted me to explain how a good and loving God would allow it. I don’t know what I was smoking when I said I would do it.
The dear people who do the program opened by asking me that question. I wanted to pontificate; but, fortunately, I had an attack of sanity and said, “I don’t know. Wish I did, but I don’t.”
Frankly, I felt really dumb. After all, I’m a religious professional and I’m supposed to have answers. “I’m just as angry as you are,” I told the television audience. “I’m as confused and as afraid as you are. I want to destroy the people who did this. I want justice. Those are real and honest feelings…and legitimate ones. But I’m also a Christian and I know one thing that unbelievers don’t know. I prayed this morning and there was no perspiration on God’s upper lip. I can’t trust the circumstances, but I can trust him. That’s all I know to do. I don’t have any other option.”