Responding to Tragedy

In 1999 I was preparing to leave my extra small two-bedroom apartment in Laurel, Mississippi, and drive to Hattiesburg to visit my then-fiancé (now wife) after she finished classes at Southern Miss. Shortly before leaving, I saw a breaking news segment on TV. The segment mentioned something about a shooting at a school in Colorado. While driving down I-59, I listened as the radio continued to carry the news. Upon arriving at Mandy’s apartment, we both watched the news coverage of the horrific incident. It was the first time I recall seeing such a tragedy on such a large scale. The Columbine shooting was an outlier at the time. I’m sad to say that hearing about such tragedies is becoming too frequent.

The country has witnessed the five most deadly mass shootings in our history in the past ten years. Think about that. In our 241-year history, the last 10 years have contained the five most deadly mass shootings.

Less than two weeks before Christmas in 2012, a crazed gunman killed his own mother, then killed 26 other people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Twenty of those victims were between 6 and 7 years old. Five years later, in April 2017, another crazed gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech.

The past two-and-a-half years has been inundated with such tragedies. As summer began in 2015, a group of Christians met together for a time of prayer in Charleston, South Carolina, only to be senselessly gunned down. Nine people died. A year later, 49 people lost their lives at a nightclub in Orlando. Just last month a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas, making that tragedy the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The events of this past Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas, are still fresh on our minds, as we think about the tragedy that took the lives of 26 people.

When we hear of incidents like these, our hearts break. Our minds race to find some kind of answer, but we end up not being able to fully answer the “Why?” question.

But we can do something. And we must do something. Our calling as people of God is to love others. Regarding other believers, we are reminded that we are indeed “one body” with many parts (1 Corinthians 12). When one part of the body rejoices, we rejoice with it. When one part of the body suffers, we suffer with it.

In light of tragic events like those that occurred at First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, allow me to suggest a few things to keep in mind and to practice…

1. Accept the fact that we cannot give a full answer to the “Why?” question.

We need to come to the realization that when tragedies happen there isn’t an easy, churchy way to explain why. We need to be honest and admit that sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Sometimes life isn’t fair. There is absolutely no response that sufficiently answers the question of why. We need to learn to be okay with that.

One of the most unhelpful things we can do when tragedies like this happen is to manufacture an answer that isn’t there. We should avoid mantras such as “Well, this was just God’s will,” or “God needed another angel,” or “God will not give you more than you can handle.” These statements, though well-intended, have no biblical basis. And if they have no biblical basis, they don’t need to be spoken.

I can tell you that it is NOT God’s desire for a man to shoot and kill innocent people, whether they were gathered at a club in Orlando or sitting in a church in Sutherland Springs. Let’s just accept the fact that there are things that happen that we cannot understand, much less explain.

2. Lean into the Lord and learn to trust even when you cannot understand.

Proverbs encourages us to trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not to rely on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5-6). We can trust God through good times and bad. We can trust that God is still good, even if our circumstances are not. We can trust that God keeps his promises, so we can know that those believers who died are now in the presence of God. We can trust that God is going to walk with these families as they journey through the long, dark valley of the shadow of death. We can trust that he is with them, and that his rod and his staff will comfort them.

Our job is not to understand it all, but to trust God through it all.

3. Pray for the families that are forever changed because of this tragedy.

The idea of praying has taken a beating in the media. One notable senator said, “Thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Well, Senator Warren, I believe in the power of prayer. As James tells us, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

I get it. Praying for the victims will not change what happened. But I am fully aware that I cannot change what happened. And I know it could very well happen again. But I’m not going to allow the reality of suffering or the experience of tragedy to diminish my responsibility to pray for these families. It’s not my job to figure out how prayer works: it’s my job to pray.

4. Anchor your faith in eternal hope.

Just this past Sunday, when speaking about enduring adversity, I said that for the believer, adversity is temporary. There is coming a day when God will end all adversity. A day is coming in which we will never again hear of a shooting at a school, a club, or a church. God will one day wipe away every tear that has been shed during tragedies such as this one. Knowing that such a day is coming does not diminish the pain these families are facing, but it does give them a sense of hope to know that the valley they are walking through is not eternal. The hurt will one day be taken away. There is coming a day in which their pain will be forever banished for all eternity.

Jesus told us that in this world we would have trouble, but to take heart because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Sometimes that trouble seems bigger than the world, and it might very well be. But thankfully the God we serve is the one who spoke that world into existence, and he is bigger than even the deepest tragedy.

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