When Tragedy Strikes

On Sunday night, the most deadly shooting in American history by a single gunman occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada. As of now, the death toll is nearing 60, with over 500 others injured. Before I begin addressing this tragedy from God’s Word, I must share that our prayers are with those affected by this horrific event. God’s grace be with you all.

The question on many people’s minds after Sunday night’s shooting is, “Why?”

Scripture warns us against putting our own interpretation on tragic events like this and attempting to fill in the blanks that only God knows. But Scripture does not leave us totally in the dark during times like this. While we may never have Christ’s perfect knowledge and know the infinite number of reasons any one event occurs, we can have a biblical worldview with which to make sense of these things.

Why would someone commit such acts of evil?

One of the first things investigators delve into after a shooting tragedy is the issue of the gunman’s motive. Ironically, we cannot even discern at times the motives for why we do the things we do, let alone someone else. The world is full of people who often do the right things for the wrong reasons.

Yet Scripture does tell us that our sinful actions stem from a sinful nature. James says it this way: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). Scripture doesn’t even stop at that, but gives us a deeper reason into the insanity of our own sinful actions. This sin nature, which we have from birth, is an inherited one. Adam and Eve freely chose to doubt God’s goodness in the garden and believe the lie of the devil over the truth of God’s Word. God’s just curse on His good creation would touch every facet of life, from the microscopic viruses that attack us, to the life destroying storms of nature, to the ferocity of wild animals, even down to the twisted cravings that cause a toddler to yell, “Mine!”

I’ve heard it put this way: “We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.” Yet we can in no way blame God for our sinful desires anymore than a child can blame his parents for leaving the cookies out on the table and making him eat them. James says elsewhere, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he Himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Were there no God to stop us, there would be no limit to the evil our hearts could create. This is why it was good for God to interrupt the plans of the people building the Tower of Babel, and this is why it is good God has given us the common grace of conscience, law enforcement, and fellow citizens who know some things are truly evil and aim to stop them.

Why would God allow such evil to occur?

When asked His thoughts on a terrible evil of His day, Jesus gave a surprising response in Luke 13 that we would do well to consider. “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:1-5). 

Jesus basically says what we should take away from tragic events such as this is the awareness that our lives are a vapor, we will soon face God’s judgment, and therefore we must repent before our lives are cut short. It is not our place to draw false assumptions. It is our place to pray and check our spiritual pulse to make sure we’re ready to stand before God’s judgment throne.

Someone once said, “If God is God, He can’t be good and if God is good, He can’t be God.” But this leaves the definition of “good” in the creature’s hands instead of in God’s. The presence of evil does not negate the presence of God or prove God’s guilt. Rather, the presence of evil exposes our belief in ultimate “right” and “wrong”, in something called justice and righteousness, and clues us into the fact that God’s “ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Or listen to the way the psalmist lays it out: “Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). We cannot know why God allows evil, but we can know that God does all things for the glory and honor of His name. In the midst of the plagues God sent on Egypt, He told the evil Pharoah, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Even Satan himself is just another creature which God will bring into judgment. Martin Luther once said, “The devil is God’s devil” and another quote attributed to him has him say, “Satan is on a leash, whose length is determined by God.” This should reassure us all that no evil will finally stand a chance to God’s righteous wrath.

Why didn’t we see this coming?

The Las Vegas gunman’s brother was reported as saying, he never saw this coming. He said his brother had no history of mental illness whatsoever and said it was like an asteroid that came out of nowhere.

We cannot see the depths of evil that lie deep in our hearts sometimes until they are exposed by our sinful actions. Everyone of us have been surprised by our own evil choices at times. We think or say or do something that shocks even us, and all we can do is honestly repent before God and those we’ve offended. For those who resist the guide of their conscience continually, it becomes incapable of pricking and is so hardened that more intensified acts of evil carry less and less guilt (1 Tim. 4:2). Serial killer Ted Bundy confessed this of himself when interviewed about his actions. Bundy said his sinful trajectory began with lust, was fed by more and more aggressive pornography, and eventually led him to feel little guilt over the horrible murders of his victims. There are many more evil perpetrators out there who have yet to act out their intentions. We may never see them before it is too late, for they look just like us. As we look ourselves in the mirror, we must not think to highly of our own goodness to think we’re beyond evil ourselves.

What hope is there for our broken world?

Thankfully God has inserted Himself into the picture. Astoundingly God didn’t come here and remain untouched by our evil. He didn’t create a bubble around Himself and come to teach a bunch of pithy platitudes. He personally allowed the evil and brokenness of this world to kiss Him in the face as it were. To punch Him in the face. To spit on Him. To mock Him. To beat Him to a bloody pulp. And to pin His naked body to a cross. Jesus asked, “Why?” from the cross, though He knew the answer. God was punishing our sins on His own beloved Son so that all who turn in faith to Him can have life. At the resurrection, the work of Christ was proven successful and His victory over the grave was obvious. But the gospel isn’t just about our personal beliefs. It is also about cosmic redemption (Romans 8:19-25). By taking the curse on Himself, Jesus was reversing the curse and promised that this ultimate reversal would come at His return (Gal. 3:13). All the marred results of life in this world will be burned away when Jesus returns and the creation will once again sing and dance before Him (Isaiah 55:12). After the consummation, there will be no more hurricanes or hospitals, no more shootings or shots, no more wars or wild animals. All will once again be at peace. Christ’s church must continually say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” But for those who aren’t ready for His return, this is a call for repentance and faith in Christ. 

One day, we will all know the answer to the question, “Why?”, but until then, we must only remember who is truly in control of this chaos.

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God Meant It for Good

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20a)

Perhaps the biggest issue people have with Christianity is how a good God can coexist with the evil and suffering of this world. More ink has been spilt trying to give a sufficient answer to the question of God’s goodness in an evil world than I could write in ten lifetimes, but in this one verse we find perhaps the best concise explanation. 

Let’s at least get one thing out of the way before we break down what is going on in this text: the problem of evil cannot really be a problem to God. Were God to face a real dilemma He cannot solve, such as the presence of evil, He would cease to be the sovereign authority of all creation. The problem of evil then is really only a problem from our human perspective. The old saying, “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good He is not God”, from a play by Archibald MacLeish, sums up the belief of many regarding this issue. Yet in the life of Joseph, we encounter a God who is God and He is also good. On the one hand, He is in total sovereign control of all things (including evil and suffering), while on the other hand, He is altogether good and loving. Isn’t that the kind of God we all know exists anyway? One who is truly God and is truly good?

The story of Joseph’s life is quite remarkable. A dearly loved and favored son, Joseph dreams a strange dream of his family bowing before him only to be sold into slavery by his own brothers for even mentioning it to them. He is then falsely accused by an evil seductress and imprisoned, only to later be released by Pharaoh for interpreting dreams, and ends up becoming second in command over all Egypt and saving multitudes from a dreadful famine. 

Joseph’s story has traces of evil and suffering all over it: favoritism, envy, hatred, slave-trading, betrayal, lies, temptation, false accusations, prison, and famine. Yet at every turn in Joseph’s story, the reader is reminded of God’s good purposes and presence. In his slavery, imprisonment, and rise to power, we are told, “God was with Joseph.” Apparently a good and sovereign God can coexist with evil and suffering in this world. But how?

Later in his life, Joseph’s dreams have been fulfilled. He stands as second in command to Pharaoh and his brothers finally come bowing before him. The very plot meant to destroy Joseph’s dreams actually was the instrument by which those dreams were fulfilled. Had Joseph never been sold into slavery, he would have never been falsely accused, and had he never been falsely accused, he would have never been imprisoned, and had he never been imprisoned, he would have never been released to become Pharaoh’s right hand man, and had he never become Pharaoh’s right hand man, multitudes would have perished in a severe famine.

In Genesis 45:5-8 Joseph tells his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…so it was not you who sent me here, but God.” The psalmist, in Psalm 105, is so bold as to add that God, “summoned a famine on the land” and “sent a man ahead of them, Joseph.” How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements? You sold me…God sent me. You meant evil…God meant it for good. Famines are bad…but God summoned it. 

First we must realize that what often seem like contradictions in our Bibles are actually not contradictions at all, but paradoxes. A paradox is the coming together of two parallel truths that don’t seem to be reconcilable. When 19th Century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was asked to reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility, he said, “I wouldn’t try…I never reconcile friends.”

The glorious truth obvious to Joseph and to all God’s suffering saints throughout the ages and needs to be understood by us as well is: behind every drop of suffering and behind every dark spot of evil, God is sovereignly working out His good and perfect plan. This truth is one some believers foolishly run from, yet which is given by God as a support for them in the trials of life. Instead of embracing God’s sovereignty and goodness behind our suffering and behind the evil of our world, many believers choose to attribute all supposed “bad” events to Satan and all supposedly “good” events to God. I was in a Bible study once with a godly Christian woman who said her father’s death was all the work of Satan and refused the thought that God could have been sovereign behind it. After a time of her own prayerful reflection and study, she told the group that she now understood that God was sovereign and did allow her father to die for His own good purposes.

Think of the most ungodly and heinous act in human history. Now, can you confidently say, “The perpetrators meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”? Perhaps you were thinking of the Holocaust or September 11th. But these crimes pale in comparison to an even more despicable crime: the crucifixion of God’s only Son. The early church understood the cross to be both the most heinous crime ever committed and an offense God predestined to occur for His own good purposes in redemption. In Acts 2:23 we read, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” So on the one hand, there are “lawless men” who “killed” Jesus and on the other hand, Jesus’ death was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Then again in Acts 4:28 the church prays that all the evil perpetrators (Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and Jews) did, “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” 

If God is sovereign over a famine in Joseph’s day and all the sin leading up to that event in his life and the horror of Christ’s crucifixion, then He is sovereign over every evil event and amount of suffering in this world. Yet God always has a good purpose which He brings out of evil and suffering. The ultimate good purpose of all evil and suffering in this world will be realized in the new heavens and new earth when the bride of Christ will finally be redeemed out of this sin-cursed world and all will be renewed. Until then, may we learn to rest in God’s sovereign care over our lives even as we live in a world full of sin and suffering. 

After all, what hope would there be if there were no sovereign and good God behind the helm of this world and behind the wheel of our own lives?

When God’s Will and Our Will Collide

We’ve all been there. You have your entire day planned out and all is smooth sailing…then it happens. Your car won’t start or you lose your keys or your baby has an allergic reaction and you’ve got to rush to the doc right now (me this week).

In moments like this it is so easy to carry hidden frustration toward God because of your circumstances, but this would be a failure to trust His wisdom, goodness, and sovereignty over your life. We may seem more spiritual when life is all smiles and we’re sipping a Starbucks on a breezy, carefree day, but God doesn’t see it that way. What we call interruptions to our will are actually perfectly coordinated and strategic elements of God’s will being worked out in our lives. The Christian life, among other things, is a series of God-planned interruptions uniquely crafted to wean us from self and teach us to depend upon Him; the sooner we learn this, the better. This is because of the focus of God’s will and the unique possibilities of accomplishing that will through our lives. 1 Thessalonians 4:3a states, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

Since God’s driving purpose in our lives is our sanctification, and since we are best sanctified to God through hardship and suffering, His will often collides with ours. Were we to have the ability to be God for a day, we might try to sanctify someone by giving them a blissful sunny day, a leather-bound journaling Bible, and two child-free weeks at a rustic cabin in the woods that looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting. But this only reveals how man-centered and comfort-driven our view of sanctification is. While our approach at being God would make people feel more spiritual, they wouldn’t actually be more spiritual than if they had been pressed by hardship to cry out to the Lord in desperation. The single person may feel more spiritual because they have less demands on them that are pressuring them and causing their sin to be exposed. Marriage makes us feel less spiritual only because living and loving another sinner is hard work and it brings out more of our selfishness. Having children makes us feel even less spiritual because these little, needy, and ill-tempered humans demand things from us and bring out the sin that was below the surface when we were single.

So how can we remind ourselves that God is working in the difficult interruptions of life? Here is a statement to carry with you and even recite in your mind whenever God interrupts your will to carry out His: God’s will, God’s way, God’s time, God’s day.

God’s Will, Not Ours

Flat tire. Sickness. A screaming toddler with an ear infection. Exhaustion. When it happens again and you’re tempted to lose it, remind yourself that God is in charge. A year or so ago news channels were all abuzz over a cruise liner that headed directly into a hurricane despite the fact that the captain knew about it prior and didn’t change course. Now picture God behind the helm of this ship called your life and He is charting the perfect course toward your sanctification. We sometimes wish we could grab the wheel and steer clear of all trouble, but the Lord knows best when we need to enter a hurricane head on. Prince of preachers Charles Spurgeon rightly said, “I have learned the kiss the waves that push me against the Rock of Ages.”

God’s Way, Not Ours

Our way to accomplish sanctification isn’t usually God’s, but we must trust that His way is best. Another Spurgeon gem is: “When you cannot trace God’s hand, you can trust God’s heart.” It’s true that, ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’, but God knows the best way to sanctify a child of His and chooses it every time. Our trials appear random, but don’t be deceived. Peter says it this way: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious that gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7, underline mine). 

Like a good carpenter, God uses a variety of tools to sanctify us: weather patterns, migraines, grumpy people, you name it. The trials are “various” (same word in James 1:2), but these are each “necessary.” So the next time something happens you didn’t plan for, remind yourself this is God’s necessary means of sanctification in your life today.

God’s Time, Not Ours

We like things to happen on time. Who wants to wait? But Moses waited forty years in the back side of the desert. Noah waited for over a century before the flood came. Abraham waited for most of his adult life before God finally kept His promise when he reached 100 years of age. God loves to sanctify using time. Maybe it’s a prayer request that seems five years late or something that you doubt will ever happen since you’ve waited so long, but remember God’s timing is best. Also don’t forget that, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). So calm down, you’ve only been around an hour or so.

God’s Day, Not Ours

Lastly, we must remind ourselves each day that it isn’t really our day at all…its God’s; and it’s all for His glory. Psalm 118:24 reminds us: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The specific “day” the psalmist mentions is Good Friday. A few verses earlier we see, “the stone” being “rejected” by the builders and it all being “the LORD’s doing.” Jesus prayed in Gethsemane: “Father, take this cup from me…yet not my will, but yours.” Jesus gave up the will of His flesh so that God’s will of redeeming sinners could be accomplished.

Will we not then daily pray alongside Jesus, “yet not my will, but yours”?