God and Our Tragedies

girl cryingBackground: On December 3, 2013 two Kalamazoo teens were killed in a car crash, and another took his own life. Many of my students knew these young people, and it was an emotionally wrenching time for the Kalamazoo-area home school community. I wrote this open letter, first and foremost for my students, but then someone suggested that I post it more broadly; I did, and the response to the letter was more than I ever expected. In it, I try to help those who have experienced a tragedy begin the process of grieving and dealing with the hard questions of why God allows such suffering and bad things to occur. This week another young person was in a serious crash and people are asking again, “Why?” In another post I’ll address some of the “why’s” we can explain, but for now I’ve been asked to re-post the original open letter, with only slight edits. I hope and pray you find it healing and helpful.

Many dear friends are grieving tonight…for three young lives ended today. Among many in our community hearts are broken or are breaking, and people we love are crying their eyes out. Parents all around us are hugging their kids a little tighter, as many of our teens are experiencing, for the first time, the death of a peer, a friend, a classmate, a Prom Queen. Worst of all, two families have lost beloved children.

What are we to make of this? How can it make sense? What purpose could there be in these tragedies? These are the situations when, as we sit in puddles of tears, we just can’t see the way clear to a rational reason for any of it.

Just two weeks ago, in my worldview class (which includes several friends of those who passed on), we discussed the nature of suffering. Why do we suffer? Why does tragedy occur? What could God possibly accomplish in horrible circumstances?  I told my dear students that, if they hadn’t experienced tragedy yet, they would.

I promised.

Because that is what happens in a world that was created good, but not perfect, and which is falling apart around us. Creation groans in its fallen state, and tonight we groan along with it.

But our groaning and grieving and weeping is not everything, and need not be the end of the story.

I told my students that when you’re in the weeds—in the middle of a horrible situation, like a sibling or a parent dying, like a typhoon wiping out your home, like a cancer diagnosis, like an assault—that in those close quarters of desperation and grief we can’t understand it at all. We can’t see what any of it means, where God could be, or what God could be doing by letting our world fall apart around us. But, as Corrie ten Boom (who lived through horrors most of us will never face) wrote, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

Even the pit in which you may now find yourself, you are not alone.

I told my students that because your world is so dark when you are in that pit, that you must decide ahead of time to understand something about God and cling to it, desperately, as if your life depended on it, when you don’t have any answers:

God intends all of our human experiences to direct us to Himself.

Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Paul, James, and Peter all told their readers that God is accomplishing purposes through our suffering and tribulations, even when we can’t discern the designs of his handiwork or the tragedies He permits (Romans 5:3-4; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 5:8-11). And then there is that familiar promise, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). And we’ll hear this a lot over the coming days and weeks, about how not everything is good, but that God works things together for good. And in the short term, it will sound trite and maybe even a little pathetic. But wait.

Let’s not forget how Paul introduces that promise: He writes a couple of verses earlier (Rom 8:26-27),

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

Paul is saying that when we are in a pit of grief so deep that we don’t even know what to say, the Holy Spirit groans before God on our behalf. My children, you do not walk this painful path alone, and you have not been abandoned.

My point to my students was that we must intellectually grasp the principle that the purposes of God—yes, even His unknown and unknowable purposes—are somehow, inexplicably, being accomplished. And we must understand this before tragedy strikes, so that in our grief we do not curse God or abandon him in what seems like a hopeless, pointless, and purpose-less situation.

Young people, gather together with your friends and loved ones and grieve for a time, for this is right and necessary and healthy. But also gather with older people, those gray-headed elders of The Church who have already walked this path more times than they care to remember. Talk with them about those times that the Lord used tragedies—including deaths of people taken from them much too soon—to do something in their lives. (I can tell you that some of the most important times in my Christian walk occurred among fellow-worshippers in ICU waiting rooms or funeral parlors.) Allow them to speak this evidence into your life, to testify about the Lord’s work. Perhaps there are things they don’t yet understand, and that’s okay, too.

 Older people, seek out opportunities to share your experiences with young people in your circle of friends or in your church. Tell them that you understand what they’re going through. Share with them how the Lord has grown you and those around you through life’s tragedies. This day is one of the reasons you lived through that day…to minister to the broken-hearted around you, and testify to God’s goodness.

Love one another, comfort one another, care for each other, treasure the moments you had with your friends who have gone home ahead of you. And if you can’t talk to God quite yet, or you don’t know what to say, let the Holy Spirit groan on your behalf until you can. Grieve, and in time, you will move forward. Your life will be better for having known them. And then, after a little while, bit by bit, let the Lord show you how He wants to use these friendships and relationships, the loss of your friends, and what you are experiencing now to draw you nearer to him, and to grow you ever more into the likeness of His Son.

May the peace of God the father, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the love of Jesus surround you, enfold you, and comfort you.

Peter