September 27, 2020
Suffering and loss are probably two of the biggest challenges to faith. They're two of the primary reasons non-believers give for being non-believers. When you talk with people who are unsure about what they believe, you will likely hear something about suffering and loss. People struggle with reconciling a loving God with evil and the hardships that strike us in this life.
How do you talk to hurting people about the Christian faith in the context of suffering and loss? You first have to know what to believe. Therefore, you have to know what the Bible says.
Let's start with the question "Why?" Why do bad things happen? What do tragedy and loss mean in our lives? How do we get through them and past them?
Here's a good Biblical reference point. Luke 13:1-5 says:
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.”
What inevitably happens when catastrophe strikes? At some point, the question will be asked, "Where was God?" People always seem to question how a good God could allow terrible things to happen.
It happened to Jesus.
Some people asked Jesus a question about an atrocity Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had given the green light to. People who were worshiping were massacred by Pilate's soldiers. The people who came to Jesus were troubled by this. They asked how God could allow it to happen to His chosen people.
Jesus answered their question with a question. "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered this way?" What do you hear in that answer? Right, the theological assumption was that the suffering people experienced was in direct proportion to their degree of sinfulness. Some people think that way today.
Of course, suffering and death came into this world because of sin. So, the people who questioned Jesus were correct in assuming the connection between moral evil and physical suffering. But what did Jesus do? Jesus took the opportunity to remind the crowd that we cannot jump to the conclusion that all people suffer in direct proportion to their degree of sin.
A survey of the Bible clearly makes that point. It shows how the wicked sometimes prosper. And righteous people sometimes suffer. That's what the Book of Job is all about. Job was the most upright man in the world, and yet he suffered greatly. Meanwhile, his so-called friends assumed he must have fallen into terrible sin. When the going gets tough, you really know who your friends are, right?
So back to Jesus' question - “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?" The answer was obvious. Of course not. Jesus wanted to get the idea of a proportionate connection between sin and suffering out of the disciples' minds. The reason was clear. He didn't want them to go thinking that they were better people in God's sight because they had not suffered and died. So he warned them. "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
To drive his point home, Jesus dovetails another incident to the initial question. There is strong extra-Biblical evidence to this incident. Jesus asked:
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.”
Again, the victims here were no better or worse than anyone else. And again, Jesus warned them - "unless you repent, you will likewise perish."
Those who were killed by the Roman troops and those who died when the tower fell may have been upstanding citizens. They may have been wonderful people. But in the vertical dimension, in their relationship to God, none of them was innocent, and the same is true for us. Jesus was saying, "Instead of asking me why a good God allowed this catastrophe, you should be asking why your own blood wasn't spilled." Jesus was reminding his hearers that there is ultimately no such thing as an innocent person. That's why we should not be amazed by the justice of God but by the grace of God. We should be asking why towers don't fall on us each and every day.
When anything painful, sorrowful, or grievous befalls us, it is never an act of injustice on God's part, because God does not owe us freedom from tragedies. He does not owe us protection from falling towers. We are debtors to God. It's a debt we cannot repay. Our only hope to avoid the punishing justice of God is repentance. That's what Jesus said.
Make no mistake. Jesus wasn't being insensitive or harsh with his disciples. He simply had to jolt them out of a false way of thinking. We would be well-served to receive his jolt with gladness and believing hearts, because it helps us see things from the eternal perspective. We can deal with the bad things that happen every day in this world only by understanding that behind them stands the eternal purpose of God and by realizing that He has delivered us from the ultimate catastrophe…the collapse of the tower of His final judgment on our lives.
There is no other way to think about such things when we feel the heavy weight of trials and tragedies of life.
So, as we consider opportunities to share the truth about Jesus Christ with people who have hard questions or difficult circumstances, we need a grasp of some of the essentials of Biblical faith. There will be a time and a place for heartfelt conversation. When we're asked about towers and massacres, we have Jesus to share.
So, back to our beginning question: How do you talk to hurting people
about the Christian faith in the context of suffering and loss?
The following story is based on real events.
A family was getting reading to go camping. Dad was loading up the last few bags into the minivan. Mom was packing food and snacks for the road. Their oldest child was making sure her iPod was ready for the long drive. Their youngest, six-years-old, was shooting hoops in the driveway as the rest of the family finished up.
They were excited about their trip to Colorado. Getting back to nature and cooler mountain temperatures were the biggest draws. As they finished loading dad called out to his son to get into the van. Six-year-old Billy took one last shot. The ball bounced off the rim and into the street. Billy chased after it. He didn't see the car and the driver of the car didn't see him until it was too late. Billy died on impact.
Several days later, after the funeral service, a family friend went up to Billy's mom and said, "I know this is tragic and heart-breaking, but don't forget that God knew what He was doing." That comment pierced a grieving mom's heart.
We have to know what we believe. We have to know how the Bible speaks to specific situations and questions. And we have to have wisdom about what to say and when to say it.
While her son died over a decade ago, his mother still feels the sting of that well-intentioned woman's words.
What do you believe about these kinds of tragedies? What words would you share and when would you share them? These are all hard questions, because among the joy and beauty and grace of life, there is also hardship. What do we have to say about that?
Let this video clip guide us in our thinking of our immediate response:
When I first saw that clip, my heart cried out, "Why isn't anyone running up there to hug that precious little girl?" I still feel that.
In the immediacy of loss and hardship, the first and best thing is to be present. No words need to be spoken. A hug, an embrace, some kind of comforting touch. People simply need something to hold on to.
Next week, we'll look at words to speak. There needs to be words. In the beginning was the Word…
I want to close with a quote that will give direction to what we believe when tragedy strikes:
TO KNOW THAT GOD KNOWS EVERYTHING ABOUT ME AND YET LOVES ME IS INDEED MY ULTIMATE CONSOLATION.
- R.C. Sproul