By / May 25

We all know that feeling: That grip on our heart when we turn on the morning news to hear about a heartbreaking tragedy that has just taken place; or when we open our email and read about fellow believers losing their life for the sake of Christ; or when we see our culture dishonor God and his holy Word.

In our fallen world, there is much for us to grieve. There are many things we hear and learn about on a daily basis that leave us bewildered, confused, saddened, crushed and even downright terrified. What is a believer to do? How do we wake up each day to devastating news, to wars and rumors of wars, to heartbreaking stories?

The Psalms of lament

Between the time David was anointed by Samuel and when he finally became king of Israel, he spent a long time on the run from King Saul. Saul wanted him dead and was intent to make it happen. So David and his loyal followers moved from place to place and at times, lived in caves. On once such occasion, while on the run for his life, David penned Psalm 142, which begins, “With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord” (vs. 1).

Psalm 142 is a psalm of lament. Different than the psalms of thanksgiving or remembrance, the laments are those psalms where the writer cries out to God. Many of us read the laments and nod our heads because the psalmist gets it. He knows what the real world is like. He doesn’t sugar coat things; he tells it like it is. The words of the laments are ones many believers turn to when they are frightened, hurt or saddened by the pains of this life.

But the laments do more than just mirror what’s going on in our hearts. They show us how we can live life in this fallen world. They show us what to do when we are grieved by what’s happening around us. They show us how to respond when everything in this world is changing and the unknown future fills us with fear. Thankfully, the laments have a pattern we can follow so that we, too, can cry out to God in our distress.

Learning to lament

  1. Turn to God. In Psalm 142, the psalmist cries out to God. For example, he says, “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (vs. 2). This is the first lesson of the laments. When we are uncertain, afraid, confused or saddened, we need to come before our Father in heaven. As adopted children, redeemed by the blood of Christ, we are free to come into God’s presence with confidence and know that he will hear us. Not only that, but he delights that we come before him. More often than not though, turning to God with our emotions is not the first thing we do. Instead, we usually try to distract ourselves from painful emotions, pretend they don’t exist or seek to find a temporary savior to our problems. But the laments remind us that God is King. He is our Savior, deliverer and refuge. He alone is our salvation.
  2. Cry for help. In Psalm 142, David then cried out to God for help, “Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!” (vs. 6). This is another element of the laments—asking God for help. Whether it is help for ourselves, for other brothers and sisters in Christ, for our country or for our world, we need to cry out to God. Like David, we need to seek God’s deliverance and mercy.
  3. Speak the truth. The next lesson we can learn from the laments is how the psalmist speaks the truth about who God is. He reminds himself of God’s character and goodness. In verse three, David wrote, “When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!” He reminds himself that God knows all things. In verse five, he refers to God as his refuge, “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’” As we cry out to God in sorrow or fear about all that is happening around us, we too need to remember who God is and what he has done. He is good and faithful. We need to remember “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1).
  4. Trust in the Lord. Lastly, the psalmist voices a response of trust in the Lord, “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (vs. 7). This is the goal of the laments. They move forward from despair to joy, from fear to trust, from loneliness to hope. As the psalmist comes into God’s presence and cries out to the Lord, he remembers who God is and what he has done, and his joy is rekindled. He knows that God rules and reigns over all things. He knows that God’s redemptive hand is at work. He knows that God is good. And so he responds in praise and trust. He doesn’t know when the Lord will deliver him, but he trusts and believes that he will.

The pattern of the laments is for us to follow as well. When our hearts are broken over tragedy, evil, and sin in the world, we need to lament. We need to bring our grief, sorrow and fear before the Lord. We need to cry out to him for help. We need to trust his goodness and faithfulness. For he alone is our refuge and salvation.

By / Mar 26

UPDATE (May 19, 2016): Another mysterious airline tragedy is in the news today. EgyptAir flight 804 vanished from radar with 66 people aboard while making its way from Paris to Cairo. Incidents like this can fill us with fear and cause us to question the safety we perceive around us. This article was written last year to remind us of truth and point us to the solid Rock on which we stand. 

I served four years in the Marine Corps as an air traffic control officer. I often heard from more experienced air traffic controllers that aviation incidents seem to “come in waves of three.” The month of March has been no exception. On March 10, a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crashed near Eglin, Florida killing all 11 service members on board, including seven Marines and four members of the Army National Guard. A couple days later, on March 12, another Marine was killed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma when his vehicle was struck by a T-59 Hawk that had veered off the runway. Now, this Tuesday, March 24 a Germanwings Airbus A320 has mysteriously and horrifically crashed in the French Alps killing all 150 souls on board, including sixteen young students and two babies.

One of the reasons I wanted to become an air traffic control officer in the Marine Corps is because I had faced my own aviation tragedy. When I was two years old in 1986, my father was killed when the F-4 Phantom he was piloting collided with another F-4 off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean during a training maneuver. His body was never recovered.  That event will forever shape my life.

Coping with the loss of a loved one in an aviation tragedy

As you can probably imagine, one of the most difficult things the family members or loved ones of a victim of an airplane crash face is not having a body to mourn. Sometimes bodies are recoverable, but in many cases, as in the recent Airbus tragedy, they are not.

An airplane crash makes death even more dramatic, too, since the loved one is seen by friends and family one moment only to take off on a plane the next and never be seen again.

Then there are the questions that follow in the wake of the tragedy. Did my loved one suffer? Was it traumatic? Did they have time for any last thoughts? Did they survive the crash only to later?

Now in the case of the recent Airbus tragedy, where it now appears the accident was caused purposely by the co-pilot, there are even more sickening questions. I personally can not imagine what those mothers with babies were thinking as they were holding this little life in their hands, knowing it was about to end.

Unspeakable horror.

Then there are the deeper questions. Why did this happen to them? What if they'd taken an earlier or later flight? If only. The “what if” scenarios can play out in your mind forever.

This Could Have Been Any of Us

Then there's the question some may be thinking but probably not voicing: Why did these people die in a crash and not me on the myriad of plane trips I have taken? 

One idea prevalent in many world religions, including much of the modern West, is karma—good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. If we obey God and help others, in other words, God is obligated to give us longevity of life, nice possessions, healthy relationships, and good health. But if we're selfish and harm others, we're doomed to a terrible existence and possibly tragic death.

The reality according to the Bible, however, is that “good people” don't exist. We are all sinners deserving death (Rom. 3:236:23).

Paul puts it like this: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:11-12). Even Christians, he later says, are still subject to pain and even tragic death: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23).

So the answer to the question is that these people who perished in the recent aviation tragedies were no worse than you and me. They were all sinners in need of grace. Perhaps some were even Christians. The reality is that because of sin, and unless Christ does not come back in our lifetimes, we will all die in some way.

Tragic Death Reminds Us to Flee to Christ

When I was a boy, God used my father's tragic death (he was a Christian) to open my eyes to the sudden reality and finality of death and judgment. He used it as a beacon to lead me to Jesus.

Some people once asked Jesus about a devastating tragedy in which some Jews, who'd been worshiping in Galilee, had been slaughtered by Pontius Pilate. Jesus replied to 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” (Luke 13:2-3).

Jesus' point is that every one of us is a sinner deserving death and that death often comes unexpectedly, bringing us before the judgment of God. People who experience tragedy are no more deserving than we are. The suddenness of death reminds us to repent of sin and flee to Christ Jesus, so that we can escape eternal death in hell. That's what Jesus is talking about. He continues: “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” (Luke 13:4-5). (For a helpful theological explanation of this passage, see R. C. Sproul's article “When Towers Fall.”)

What does Jesus mean by using the word repent? He's talking about more than a guilty conscience or convicted feeling regarding something we've done wrong. He's referring to a change of heart about who we are as people (sinners before God) and who Christ is (our righteous sin-bearer). As John MacArthur explains, “[Repentance] is a spiritual turning, a total about-face. In the context of the new birth [it] means turning from sin to the Savior.”

How should we respond in the wake of tragedy?

So how do we respond in the wake of such tragedy?

  • We must first and foremost, seek God. Nahum the prophet wrote, “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nah 1:7). Ultimately only God can provide peace and stability in the “day of trouble.”
  • We should pray for those grieving that they'll find out as much as possible about the last moments of their loved ones' lives, and perhaps even find their loved one's body.
  • We should remind ourselves that we too are still subject to death, and in fact will all die, unless Christ returns. We must continually look to our Savior, then, who has conquered death for us.
  • We should look for opportunities to share the hope of Christ Jesus, since everyone we know will also face death and ultimately stand before God in judgment.
  • We should thank God that those in Christ will experience a resurrection of life. Paul declares: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'” (1 Cor. 15:52-55). And this resurrection unto life includes the bodies of saints that have been lost at sea.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how God has used tragedy in your life to bring you or others to deeper (or perhaps saving) faith in Christ.