In December after the awful events at Sandy Hook Elementary, I wrote a piece entitled “Why I believe in Jesus when children are murdered.” Almost 3,000 people read it. Believe it or not, that’s not common for me on a blog that averages 6-8 posts a year. Now, like yours, my heart is breaking as devastating pictures, stories, and numbers emerge from Oklahoma, where a tornado has ravaged the community of Moore, including another elementary school. I considered simply reposting those words from December, as my sentiments are much the same and they seemed to strike a chord then. Some of those same words are here, but as I reflected, I also wanted to acknowledge an extra layer of difficulty and ache in these events: there is no madman with a gun to blame today. There is only this question…
What kind of God stands by while a tornado two miles wide indiscriminately devours a populated area and seems to pay special attention to a building full of terrified children?
That’s the question, isn’t it? Those of us who live by and tell a Story that an all-powerful God creates, sustains, and loves us often prefer to bury that question beneath familiar answers and the detached comfort that it wasn’t us in the path of that wicked storm. But we should stop that. The question won’t go away. We ought not do the world the disservice of ignoring or minimizing it because we are uncomfortable with the fact that, if we absolutely had to offer an answer to what this kind of event says about God, most of us would struggle to muster much more than: I don’t have the first damn clue.
To be fair, there are those who have more concrete answers and explanations for God’s motives. Perhaps there were some particularly sinful people He wanted to wipe out, and this is how He did it. It would seem odd that those people were all concentrated in Moore, Oklahoma or that many of them were in elementary school, but that won’t stop some from suggesting that God orchestrated this event for such reasons.
To be clear, I certainly believe that if God is who many of us suggest He is, then He can do as He pleases in accomplishing His purposes. I’ve lived enough in my almost thirty-eight years to understand that even my most basic assumptions about how life, death, and everything in between should happen are short-sighted and flawed. So if God is any kind of God — if He knows everything or even just a little bit more than me — surely He is able to see (even create) art when all we see is a series of chaotic brush strokes. If that is so, I do not deny that there is some divine logic in moments I experience as unconditionally tragic. And yet when Christians emerge in the aftermath of natural disaster posturing as God’s Secretary of Defense explaining the reason for His latest military strike, I confess I wonder if His next target might just be these self-appointed divine diplomats. Confidently blaming God for killing people because He’s mad at them or their neighbor by hand-picking the Bible stories that support your point while ignoring the ones that don’t seems to me a dicey endeavor.
But if I’m not prepared to declare that God was wiping out sinners in Oklahoma and considered the wider path of carnage “acceptable loss,” I’m left with the excruciating tension between immense tragedy no human caused or could have stopped and my belief that the unfolding story of God’s activity in the world is, as Tolkien tells it, everything sad coming untrue — even shootings and tornados. (Avoiding that tension, I suspect, is why many default to quick explanations.) The climax of that story is Jesus, the literal presence of the God who is Love sent among us to do what we cannot do — fend off brokenness and death.
It’s a ridiculous story by most standards, I know. And I don’t just mean the part where a God we can’t see is involved in our lives or the part where he actually shows up in our world in the form of a baby or the part where he somehow dies and rises again to save us all from our sins.
I mean the notion that death has been undone. It seems silly. Impossible. And of all days, today it seems utterly contrary to what our bloodshot, tear-filled eyes see on television. There simply is nothing about the death of school children and the hearts of parents split wide open that would cause anyone to suspect that death is undone. If anything, Death seems to be carving out new spaces in the world. We spend decades and billions of dollars chasing it down through vaccines and the eradication of diseases that plagued humanity for centuries. We arm ourselves and turn our schools into fortresses to stem the tide of its unthinkable new assaults. And then Death descends from the sky as if to mock us, a harrowing reminder that our safety is an illusion. No matter who you are or what you believe, this much is undeniable: Death is a persistent, heartless bastard.
Today is the kind of day that causes the most devout of (honest) Christians to look to the sky puzzled and shattered, wondering why. This is the kind of hellish suffering that places a seal over the hearts and minds of skeptics and unbelievers everywhere. And on days like today, the most devout of (honest) Christians understand why. If a merciful God exists and is involved in the universe at all, children shouldn’t die like this.
I confess I spent a number of years dealing with death mostly in theory and from a distance. The past year has robbed me of the option to speak about death and its undoing in abstracts. I’ve pastored three families grieving the loss of their father, sister, and daughter, including the families of two of my best friends – families I consider my own family. I’ve stood behind a microphone at three funerals. I’ve walked with Amy as she mourned the loss of one of her close friends, a thirty-nine year-old wife and mother of two young boys. I’ve cried at least once a week for months when I look at my kids, still deeply connected to the moments when death came for one of ours (and lost).
There is no religious pretense left in me when I speak of death. I know it is real. I know it is cruel.
And I can neither avoid nor fully answer the question, “Where is God when…?” But I am unsatisfied by the easy answers offered by the certain: the believer who confidently explains God’s motives or the unbeliever who insists that tragedy proves his absence. One denies Mystery; the other denies Goodness. Both are arbitrary, thinned conclusions drawn when our imaginations have been dulled and we see only brush strokes, forgetting that life is art.
So how do I believe in Jesus on a day like today? How can I still imagine that a loving, invisible God is alive and at work in a world where children and adults trying to protect them are arbitrarily slaughtered not by a mentally ill man with a gun, but by the wind itself?
Because I must.
I must believe that Death won’t be allowed to continue to eviscerate us. I must believe that better drugs and better laws are and better shelters are not our only weapons. I must believe that there is a greater victory coming than safer schools or fewer guns or a more stable climate. I must believe there is an Arbitrator of all things who sees through Death’s facades of violence and pestilence — who doesn’t discern between a gunman and a tornado as we do, but who simply sees these desperate eruptions as Death’s last gasps and, unbound by time, patiently points through them to His accomplished and yet still coming Victory. I must believe that the souls of children lost in the battle are not abandoned, but held and tended by their Gentle Maker. I must believe there is a Righteous King who will deal justly with Evil in all its forms. I must believe that there is a Rescuer who will make everything sad come untrue.
I cannot believe that life and death are arbitrary – that each child’s death will be the end of her story – that each shattered parent will be left without hope of a day when their every moment isn’t defined by unspeakable loss.
Life can’t be a story in which Tragedy and Evil and Death have the final word. There must be another chapter. And there must be a Hero.
Certainly there are other reasons for my faith, and there will be other days for describing them. Today is for this one: I believe in Jesus because I need a rescuing hero. I need to know that Violence and Death – however much they try to steal and kill and destroy – will not have the last word. I need to know that Love and Life win, and I refuse to believe they don’t.
Some say believing because I need to believe merely exposes my weakness. And they are right. I am weak. The difference between the weak and the strong is simply this: the weak admit they are weak; the strong deny it. But such strength is an illusion exposed by every tragedy and every death.
So what is stronger: fatalistic acquiescence to the grave or fierce hope that my need to believe something better than me exists simply sets the stage for a story better than the one I can write myself? None of us can fend off death ourselves. Accepting that weakness and yet believing death can be overcome — I contend this is true strength.
I believe in Jesus today because deep down in my soul, I believe Death will be undone, and the Story of Jesus putting Death itself to death is the best story I’ve ever heard. My soul says it must be true. Nothing else will do.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces…