Yesterday we witnessed another mass shooting. As students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., were preparing for the end of another school day, a lone gunman entered the building and opened fire, and in an instant their lives were changed forever. Another school shooting. Another horrific tragedy.
I watched on television from my office as the events on the ground unfolded in real time. I stood there, grieved and horrified, watching in disbelief as the news anchor set forth the details. First there were reports of serious injuries, and then numerous fatalities. And in those moments, witnessing a scene that has become too familiar, I felt a few well-known emotions welling up inside of me.
It’s not a secret that tragedy evokes our strongest emotions. But beyond my sense of grief and horror, the strongest emotion I experienced in those moments was fear; not so much a fear related to the physical safety of myself or the people I love most (although certainly that to a lesser degree), but fear concerning the question that I knew countless thousands, if not millions, of people would ask themselves after learning of these events. In the face of unspeakable acts of violence, many people will ask: How can a good God let this happen?
It’s not the actual answer to that question that fills me with fear and dread. It is my awareness that in the middle of such tragedies, many people will rightly recognize the evil in the world for what it is yet wrongly conclude that such a world could not exist under the watchful care of an all-powerful and benevolent God. My is fear that their grief and horror and outrage will drive them farther from grace. But in addition, I am also fearful in these circumstances as I anticipate the cheap, rote answers that some of my fellow believers will put forth to assuage these concerns.
Evil presents difficult questions. How indeed can a good God allow the world to be so violent and cruel? Such a question deserves no pat response. And the truth is, that isn’t what people are even looking for. They don’t want easy answers, and that is good, because the church really doesn’t have any. During times of apparent suffering or tragedy, we are often quick to remind those who are hurting that “God works all things together for good.” But even this assertion that seems so straightforward and simple is neither easy nor cheap. Yes, God is working together all things for good. But at the very center of this tapestry of “good” that God is knitting together are two, perpendicular, blood-soaked pieces of wood.
The ache of our hearts and the pain in our souls bears witness to the truth: things are not supposed to be this way.
Our world was so broken and our hearts were so evil that we could not be saved, and the creation could not be redeemed, apart from Christ. The gospel is a message of love and redemption, but it is founded upon the suffering of God’s Son. And even as Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” he promised that those who would be his disciples will live lives of bearing crosses, experiencing afflictions and tribulations, and following him in his suffering (2 Tim. 1:10; Luke 9:23; Acts 14:22). Jesus himself taught us that the presence of suffering is no sign of God’s absence, nor is the presence of evil a sign of God’s indifference.
In the aftermath of a tragedy, we look to reason. We seek to understand the various details in order to find peace and move on. But sometimes, indeed it is often the case that acts of violence and tragedy are beyond our ability to rationalize or comprehend. Still, there is more good news. Our hope is not based on our understanding. There are many things about yesterday’s events that we may never fully grasp. Still, we can grieve with hope, not because we understand, but because we know. “I know whom I have believed,” the Apostle Paul declared (2 Tim. 1:12). It wasn’t that Paul understood how each trial and hardship fit into God’s plan: indeed much of his pain remained a mystery to him (2 Cor. 12:7-8). Rather, Paul was filled with hope in the midst of suffering because Paul knew God. He did the only thing he could do, entrusted his suffering and his soul to a faithful Creator. And in the face of tragedy, often we can do nothing more.
Days like yesterday, we feel the full force of the curse’s sting. But even there, in the midst of our grief, in the midst of the deepest sorrow and pain and despair, we experience the longing for redemption. The ache of our hearts and the pain in our souls bears witness to the truth: things are not supposed to be this way. Ultimately, our response to these tragedies shouldn’t be to question God’s goodness, but to beg for his mercy and to extend his comfort to those who are suffering unbearably. These are the birth pangs. In our darkest moments and our lowest points, may God give us grace to place our hope where it belongs, in his promise of redemption.
When we speak to tragedies, we don’t need easy answers. We never need to minimize pain or explain away evil. We need the gospel. Even now, our God is working. He makes beauty from ashes. He brings light out of darkness. And he brings peace to chaos. Even as we grieve, we can remain full of hope because we know whom we have believed. And he is making all things new.