How Can a Christian Make Sense of Personal Tragedy?

Nov 21, 2017 | Apologetics, Article, Christian Living, Philosophy

Note: This post makes mention of Ravi Zacharias. It is with a heavy heart that I must acknowledge a tragic independent report concerning evidence of sexual abuse and predatory behavior on the part of Ravi Zacharias. This man was a huge inspiration to me, as is evident from reading my blog, and the news was more than heart shattering. Some ministries leaders have come to the conclusion that removing articles about and references to Ravi is the right move; I have come to a different conclusion, and here is why:

  1. Though I cannot begin go to imagine the grief or pain of those Ravi hurt and the emotional toll of his behavior, it is also the case that to discredit a piece of information due to the character of the source of such behavior is to commit the genetic fallacy. If I quote or mention Ravi, it is because I believe those items to contain truth value on their own merit.
  2. To go back and change previously written information without a careful disclaimer is, I believe, a form of revisionist history. If a disclaimer must be offered anyway, I believe there is value in keeping the material accessible. So while I know it is a difficult ask to say, “Just trust the ideas and disregard his personal character,” I must ask that of you as a careful thinker.
  3. I have seen a lot of comparisons by Christians to not removing Ravi’s work because biblical characters like King David and others had fallen into terrible sin, and they have obviously been given to us as a gift to learn from (Romans 15:4). Why “cancel” Ravi if we’re not “cancelling” the Bible? It does seem to me, though, that there are two problems with this line of thinking: (1) These books are inspired by God and thus we can trust his revelation to us. They were examples given for a purpose. (2) These characters also seemed to show true biblical repentance of their wicked actions. Ravi remained unrepentant until his dying day. Therefore, I do not think these are 1-and-1 comparisons. This behavior reflects SERIOUS error and dangerous behavior on the part of Ravi and, to an unknown degree, RZIM as a whole, and that must not be taken lightly or swept under the rug.

I do not expect you to agree completely with this decision. I do ask that you respect the thought, prayer, and seeking of counsel in which I engaged regarding it.

It was September 11, 2001. This was a day filled with tragedy. For many, this was a day filled with very personal tragedy. In fact, as I was looking through the bookstore the other day, I came across a book called Let’s Roll, which many know is the story of Todd Beamer. Todd was a heroic passenger on United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked on that fateful day. He led the charge against the hijackers on his flight, leading the plane to crash into a small field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania instead of its intended target–thought to be eithher the White House or the U.S. Capitol Buiding. For a long time, it was hard to pass a car that did not boast a sticker saying, “9/11 We will never forget.” At only 12 years old, this was an event full of tragedy for me as well–but if I’m being honest, my age hindered me from feeling the full weight of it. September 11, 2001, however, was a day of personal tragedy for me, but for a different reason. It was the day we buried my father after a struggle with Leukemia and eventually, due to his weakened immune system, Pneumonia, which took his life. As we rode to the graveside burial, listening to the news reports of the ensuing events, my mind and heart were racing. It was hard to know what to make of it. As I look back on that day now, I can so clearly remember all of the events. I cannot remember a THING about the day before or the day after. But I could walk you through the events of that day as if it had happened only hours ago. Personal tragedies are hard to forget. They strike us at the very core of our being. They cause us to pause and ask deep questions about ourselves. They cause us to re-evaluate life. They cause us to question our fundamental beliefs. Personal tragedy, in the Christian life, is no real mystery. The Apostle Peter wrote, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” You see, he knew how easy it was for a person to question God in their trials. If we’re honest, many of us DO think it’s strange when something bad happens! We’re Christians, right? Doesn’t that mean we get to take the easy route? Doesn’t that mean “all things work together for good to them that love God?” Doesn’t that mean God “knows the plans He has for us?…thoughts of peace, and not of evil?” When people use these verses, they terribly misuse the context–usually, they just remove it all together and take the verse to mean what best suits their situation. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” All means ALL. There is a cost associated with living godly. But, let’s finish the Apostle Peter’s thought from above: “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” Rejoice?! In suffering?! That’s what it means to be a Christian. Story after story can be read about Christians enduring suffering and persecution. Not only for their beliefs, but in the usual aspects of life and family which affect everyone. The difference is that we have “not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus Christ knows what it means to endure hardship and persecution. God is not removed from our trials. Rather, He has already been there and endured them! Jesus bore our burden of sin. There is no trial weightier than that. Practically speaking, how do we make sense of personal tragedy? How do we learn to rejoice as partakers of Christ’s suffering? How can we give answers to others when they ask how a loving God could be “okay” with such an evil world? Here are four, Biblically-motivated thoughts:  

1. A Fair Discussion

  James 1:2-4–“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing [this], that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have [her] perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” Importantly, we must approach a subject such as this with the utmost humility. It’s easy to look at someone going through a trial and respond in a pompous manner. I’ve been guilty of this. The Bible teaches pretty clearly about suffering, but we must remember that everyone is unique, and it’s not so easy to identify with others experiencing personal tragedy. The point I want to make is that it is fair to ask God “why” when you don’t understand. Those who say it is unethical and sinful to question God have not taken away anything meaningful from studying the Book of Job or the writings of Paul. In his darkest hours, Job asked in pain and agony, “Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” Job asks a fair question. If we remove the obvious emotional nature of these questions and ask them from a purely logical perspective, are they not warranted? Job, unable to see God’s purpose in allowing such pain, is simply asking why God didn’t just allow him to die when he was born. It’s fair. If life is going to full of pain and agony, why not just die? Job later observed, “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.” Paul reports to us that he pleaded with God three times for the removal of his “thorn.” Continually, God simply said no. If we take nothing else from these stories, let us agree and conclude that this is certainly a fair discussion to have. It’s okay for people to wonder why God could allow personal tragedy. What a disservice we do to those who ask when we reply with unthoughtful rhetoric. “God has a plan.” Certainly so. However, and especially in the life of a new Christian, this plan is not so easy to recognize. We must encourage those experiencing personal tragedy to have faith and to trust in God, but it must also be done within its Scriptural context. Even taking a few moments to go through the actual Bible with someone and recount the experiences of those before us may be enough. The Holy Spirit can do His comforting work unhindered, but He always works within the context of the revealed Word of God. It’s important to remember that “all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).  

2. Biblically Speaking

  Hebrews 4:15–“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Pain and suffering are not abstract concepts in God’s Word. They are very real. The Bible is, of course, an accurate picture of the way the world actually is. As we’ve written before, a fundamental requirement for a coherent worldview (especially concerning any religious motivation) is that it must match the reality of our daily experience. The Bible is an incredible book. It meets us where we are. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” The Bible exists to teach us about God. But it also exists to teach us about ourselves. See, the Bible is able to reveal things about ourselves that we could not know otherwise. For example, even if the first time you realized you were a sinner was because you heard a preacher preach, he was preaching the Word of God! And that’s how he found out that he was a sinner! Therefore, suffering in the life of a Christian MUST be examined in the context of God’s Word. It’s not just that God has a purpose and a plan for your life. It’s that He has ordered the entire world to operate in such a way, and is able to use things that are not his will to accomplish his will (more on that in a moment). But there is another step. Just as suffering and personal tragedy must be examined in the context of the Bible, it must also be examined in the context of eternity. Here is what the Apostle Paul said, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Paul is making a remarkable statement. Because we are children of God, Paul reckons (i.e., concludes) that our suffering has so little worth in light of eternity that not even a comparison should be drawn between it and the glory that will, one day, be revealed in us. In short, Biblically speaking, we can make sense of personal tragedy because it does not define us. Our lives are not the sum of our multiplied tragedies. Our lives today ought not to be compared with what they one day will be. In John 16:33, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” We can expect personal tragedy. But in and through Christ, we can also expect to overcome it.  

3. A Purpose in the Pain

  Proverbs 16:9—”A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.” Thus far we have briefly mentioned abstract concepts such as “God’s purpose” and “God’s plan” all while making the case that pain and suffering is not an abstract concept, Biblically speaking. The thing we must come to terms with is that, if Christianity is indeed a picture of reality, then we have some major emotional difficulties to work through. Not the least of these is the sin of humanity. When we (human-kind) wonder what is wrong and broken in the world, our minds often drift to various places. Atheists blame religion (many blame Christianity in particular). Religionists blame atheists and other religionists. Many would like to be able to blame other humans, but cannot because it would mean conceding that there are objective moral obligations and duties. Everyone is surrounded by utter absurdity trying to make sense of the pain and suffering in the world. But not the Christian. The Christian worldview alone provides a basis for these propensities and thoroughly explains why we have them and what can be done about them. What we’re left with is a world that is broken because of the very thing that allows us freedom and life: choice. God gave us (humanity as a whole) a choice in the garden of Eden. We told God that there was something more important to us than Him–ourselves. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” This is fundamentally true and can be seen in the first chapters of the Bible. Pride and a haughty spirit came before the destruction and fall of man. But, according to our Bible, God is a good and loving God–despite the fact that we often experience personal tragedy. He doesn’t desire that any go to Hell (2 Peter 3:9), and yet, gives us the right to choose Him out of love. It is because of that choice that we must deal with pain and suffering. Can God work out this paradox in our lives? He can–something we see clearly in the story of Joseph. It’s a familiar story—Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph spends some time prison and has a few mishaps, but ends up becoming “Vice-Pharaoh” if you will—the second in command of Egypt. When his brothers come to Egypt seeking for food during the famine, Joseph messes with them a bit before revealing his identity. He then says these words, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20). These are, in my estimation, some of the most comforting words in the Bible. Knowing that God can use ANY circumstance in my life is an incredible thought. And, looking back on my life, I have seen it to be true! I’ve seen God use tragedy in my life to do great things. I’ve seen God restore broken relationships. I’ve seen His will revealed in my life through what otherwise would have been meaningless sorrow. While I do not believe it is a thoughtful enough to respond to a hurting person by simply saying “God has a plan,” we can certainly comfort in the fact that we know it’s true. Over and over again we’ve seen God do the impossible—both in our lives and in His revealed Word. He can do it again! All He requires on our part is faithfulness to Him and trust in Him. He can and will do amazing things in your life—through any circumstance. In return, He asks for your full heart and a consecrated life. He gave His for us—how much more willing should we be to do the same for Him?  

4. Expressing Thanks

  Ephesians 5:20—”Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” On a recent Sunday School trip to Northern Kentucky, one of the young preachers from our church gave a succinct—and very powerful—devotion. To paraphrase, he said, “We must not only thank God in all things, and with all that we have, but also we must thank him for all things—this is the hardest to do.” And He’s right! The above verse is true of any circumstance. Somehow, we ought to find it within ourselves to be thankful to God for everything that has happened in our lives. Somehow, I am to be thankful that my father died when I was only 12 years old. Somehow, those families with children that have cancer are to be thankful to God for it. Somehow, the Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas is to be thankful that a man tore into his church building with a gun and murdered 27 faithful church members—including his own 14-year-old daughter. My heart—and probably yours too, if you’re honest—rebels vehemently against this admonition. This is probably why Jeremiah describes our heart as being “desperately wicked”—because it refuses, in and of itself, to be thankful to God when it feels violated. But Colossians 3:15 may give us a clue as to how we can come to terms with this in our own lives—”And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.” The verse ends by telling us to be thankful. But, it lays out a prerequisite—“let the peace of God rule in your hearts.” Are we doing that today? Consider that a question for personal reflection. Does the peace of God really rule in our hearts? Do we rest and take confidence in God in our daily walk with Him, or do we constantly try to solve our own problems? How we answer that question may give us a clue as to how we’ll react in a time of tragedy. If we’re used to taking our own problems to task, we will probably just turn to our old ways during tragic times and try to figure it all out on our own. But if the peace of God rules in our hearts, that undoubtedly (and quite literally) means that there is no higher feeling in our hearts than God’s peace. And—what can possibly trump that? Remember—God gives us peace that “passeth all understanding.” And that peace “shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” What a promise! The Scriptures, then, seem to be saying that in order to be thankful for all things, God’s peace—which passes all of our human understanding—must rule in our hearts. Only then can we express the level of thankfulness God requires in our lives. But the verse in Colossians places a very important condition on this—“to which also ye are called in one body.” That means a true Christian is the only one will have his part in this experience. While my intent is not to make you doubt, perhaps, if you have no peace in your heart, it is because you do not have Him in your heart? It is good to take account of ourselves—“examine ourselves”—to use the Apostle Paul’s phraseology. Peace is also one of the fruits of the Spirit. A life without God’s peace simply cannot be thankful to God for all things. This is a true test of faith in God. While there is no expectation of you to do this with ease, it is something a child of God will naturally do. True Christians run to God in the midst of trouble. False professors run away. To finish out that thought, notice Galatians 4:6—”And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” “Abba” literally means “papa.” It speaks to a deep relationship—not the “Lord to servant” relationship but the “Father to son” relationship. If, in our sorrows, we turn to the One whom we know to be faithful and true instead of running from Him, then indeed, we know we are sons. What peace could be greater than knowing you are a son of God? It’s amazing, really, what God has done for us. He has given us everything. As the song says, “How deep the Father’s love for us…that He would give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure!” How can we not be thankful for giving us the ultimate peace in spite of our pain—freedom from the greatest tragedy—a life in the bondage of sin and an eternity spent in hell? For those of who have been born again, we have already been rescued from it. And though that in itself may be hard to make sense of, I’m glad we have a “more sure Word of Prophecy”—God’s Word—that has stood the test of time and eternity. How do we make sense, ultimately, of personal tragedy? By letting the peace of God rule in our hearts, as His children, and by giving thanks for all things unto Him. — Recommended Further Reading:

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