A Pastoral Theology of Tragedy

Founders Journal · Fall 2003 · pp. 1-12

A Pastoral Theology of Tragedy

Tom Ascol

September 11, 2001 has in many ways defined our modern era. So much of our thinking is now in reference to the acts of terror perpetrated against the United States on that day. In the immediate aftermath, multitudes gathered to pray in churches across the land. People who had neglected spiritual concerns suddenly became spiritually sensitized. Everyone began to have opinions about God and concerns about God and wanting to hear from Him. There was no shortage of those who began to speak for God.

Tragedy presents unusual opportunities—for both good and ill. The potential for good arises from the fact that people are awakened to realities that they would otherwise ignore. C. S. Lewis famously made this point in his observation that “God whispers to us in pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [1] This is profoundly true. Once the world is awakened by tragedy and attention is drawn away from those trivialities that blind people to God a pivotal opportunity emerges. But there is no guarantee that it will automatically be redeemed. Someone must rise to speak God’s truth into the pain and suffering.

Those of us who are called to the work of pastoral ministry in the church bear the greatest responsibility for doing so. Shepherds of God’s flock must be willing to seize such opportunities and do our very best to point people in paths of truth and righteousness in the wake of tragedy. We must help people understand what God is saying in the midst of sorrow and suffering. There is great opportunity for tremendous good to be done for the kingdom of God when tragedy strikes.

But there is also tremendous opportunity for spiritual damage to be done—damage that arises out of misunderstanding or misrepresentation of God. This can happen even when intentions are good and motivations are proper. Unhelpful commentaries were abundant in the wake of September 11.

One well-known Baptist pastor wrote an editorial that was picked up by several media outlets. In it he stated, “You may hear misguided minds say ‘this must have been God’s will.’ Nonsense. In a world of free choices, God’s will is rarely done! Doing our own will is much more common. Don’t blame God for this tragedy. Blame people who ignored what God has told us to do: love your neighbor as yourself.”

This pastor rightly placed moral blame where it belongs, namely on the terrorists and their supporters. They were sinful and their actions were clearly evil. He further tried to guard very carefully the reputation of God as One who is not the author of evil. That is also appropriate. But in his effort to separate God from evil results in a cure that is ultimately worse than the disease that he is trying to address. His overly simplistic view of God’s will inhibits serious Bible reading because, as I explain below, Scripture refers to God’s will as being in some sense inviolable as well as in some sense breakable.

The unwillingness or inability to reconcile God’s absolute sovereignty with man’s absolute responsibility betrays a greater affinity to rationalism than Biblicism. The Bible certainly affirms both. If we are going to be students of the Word and ministers of the Word, then we must be willing to submit our thinking to Scripture and refuse to deny whatever the Bible teaches.

Theology Prepares Us for Tragedies

A cogent pastoral theology equips one to speak for God in a redemptive way when the inevitable difficulties of life occur. A theology of tragedy helps prepare people in advance to face difficulty with hope and encouragement. The Scripture instructs pastors to do precisely that—to help our people anticipate and prepare for tragedies that will come in their lives.

Two texts that teach us to think this way are John 16:33 and Ephesians 6:13. The former comes from the end of our Lord’s discourse in the upper room before His high priestly prayer on the night He was betrayed. Jesus concluded His message by saying, “These things I have spoken to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

In this world, you will have tribulation. That is one promise that no one ever likes to claim. But it is a promise of the Lord. Tragedies will come. But even when they do, Jesus wants His followers to have peace and good cheer. How? By paying attention to “these things,” that is, the truths that He has just taught.

Study through John 13–16 and you will find our Lord teaching on important theological subjects. He speaks of His death and resurrection and of the coming of the Holy Spirit. He talks about the necessity of living in vital union with Him and submitting to His Word. He addresses His oneness with the Father and the unconditional election of His people. There is no shortage of doctrinal content in those chapters and it is that content that He has in mind when He refers to “these things.” Jesus taught His disciples doctrine so that they might have peace in a world which He knew was going to be filled with tribulation.

Our Lord is a model for pastors at this point. It is imperative that those who shepherd the church of God not wait for devastating trials to come before developing a theology of tragedy. We must prepare ourselves and our people for the inevitable difficulties of life. How? By heeding, meditating on, teaching and applying sound doctrine.

Paul does this in Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” The apostle is addressing the issue of spiritual warfare. He has introduced the subject in verse 10 after spending the previous 21 verses addressing the key relationships in life. Commentaries often miss the connection between Ephesians 5:22–6:9 and 6:10–20. I am convinced that what Paul is doing in the earlier verses is marking out the battlefield for the spiritual warfare that he describes in the latter verses. The most significant dimensions of spiritual warfare don’t take place in some exorcist’s chamber or demonically infested neighborhood (as is commonly thought today). Rather, the bloodiest theatres of spiritual warfare are the kitchen table, the den, the classroom, the bedroom, the office and job site.

After he has marked out the battlefield Paul then brings to light the deadly nature of the conflict. Beginning in 6:10 he reminds us of the reality of the devil and all the demonic determination to undo the work of God in the lives of God’s people.

Because believers are in this spiritual war on a daily basis, we need to take up daily the whole armor of God. This is necessary so that, “having done all we may be able to stand” (13). Specifically, that we might be able to stand “in the evil day.” Now some take that reference to the “evil day” to be simply a generic reference to life after the fall. That may be. But more likely he is referring to particularly trying times, “perilous times,” as he calls them in 2 Timothy 2:1. These would be seasons of unusual outbreak of evil. Such times will come and in order to be prepared for them and to keep standing through them, believers need to take up the whole armor of God.

In verses 14-18 Paul explains his meaning and it is immediately obvious that the armor he has in mind can only be identified theologically. Truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, Scripture and prayer—these are the armament that will enable the Christian to withstand in the evil day.

So like his Lord before him, Paul instructs believers to prepare for tragedies by becoming theologically equipped. And it is every pastor’s job to help prepare his people in the same way. Like the ant in Proverbs, when it is summer, we ought to be storing up, knowing that winter is coming. Jesus promised, “In this world you will have tribulation.” Tragedies will come both personally and in larger contexts of family and friendships. They will also come nationally and, as the efficiency of communication continues to increase, even globally. The present is always the proper time to prepare for them.

Let me offer a few suggestions for developing a pastoral theology of tragedy. What I am talking about is learning to think of tragedies theologically. This should just be a subset of thinking about all of life theologically. In order to live life to the fullest we must live coram Deo, conscious that we are always under God’s gaze. He is the one who has made us and is providentially ordering our lives. He has a purpose and a kingdom that is being advanced in the world. As His redeemed children, we need to see everything in life through these lenses.

Exegesis

Specifically, to develop a theology of tragedy we must first give careful attention to exegesis. Study those didactic passages that directly address the issues of trial and suffering. If you start with the book of Psalms you will be more than introduced to the inspired thinking of God’s people regarding trials and tragedies. But there are many clear passages in the New Testament as well.

Consider Romans 5:1–4:

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Notice how Paul links justification with tribulation and trials. Confident of possessing peace with God and standing in grace the believer can rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. “And not only that,” the Christian can also glory in tribulations. Why? Because he knows that they will ultimately serve for his spiritual growth and cannot diminish in the least his acceptance with God. This confidence is his because of the Lord Jesus Christ whom he is depending on by faith.

A similar type of reasoning is in the apostle’s mind in Romans 8, especially beginning in verse 16. This section is filled with insight on suffering and trial. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” What in the world is the apostle talking about? From the personal dimension to the cosmic dimension, he goes on to speak of how everything in creation is anticipating the great day of redemption because the whole created order has been kept captive through the damage of the fall.

What is it that the apostle is seeing? What is it that he wants his readers to see about tragedy and suffering when he says that it is not worth comparing with what awaits us? In thinking through trials and tragedies we need to linger over such texts with this prayer on our hearts: “O, Lord, show me what you showed Paul! Teach me to see and believe what he saw so that I can honestly say what he said—that my present suffering is not even worth mentioning when compared to the glory that awaits me in heaven.” Such praying will prevent our exegesis from being superficial or merely academic.

Philippians 1:29 is another verse that should be given attention. “For you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for His sake.” God has “granted it” to us to suffer? Suffering is a gift? That is exactly what this verse says. If suffering is a gift, then the means of suffering whereby God gives that gift need to be seen for what they are. It is not true that they “have nothing to do with God’s will,” but rather they are the outworking of God’s will in giving us the gift of suffering. Pastors need to meditate on this and to teach their people to think deeply about suffering as a gift from God.

There is no shortage of passages that provide direct instruction about Christian suffering. Philippians 3:7–11, Colossians 1:24, 1 Peter 4:12–19, Hebrews 10:32–39 and Matthew 5:11–12 are some of the key ones that should not be overlooked.

I preached from Luke 13:1–4 the Sunday after 9/11:

There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; 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 sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?”

This passage is filled with insight on how to respond to and evaluate tragedies. It considers trials that arise both from human malice (as with Pilate and the people that he murdered) and from natural disasters (as with the tower fell). Jesus does not say many of the things that we might have anticipated, but what He does say is very instructive regarding how we ought to view such things and prepare for them before they arise. Tragedies, He indicates are like warning shots fired across the bow of the unrepentant’s ship. They are a call to repentance.

Case Studies

Along with exegesis of key passages, I also suggest a careful study of biblical examples of tragedy. How have God’s people handled tragedy in different situations? The Bible is filled with these kinds of stories. Hebrews. 11 is a great place to start. Along with the better known heroes of faith mentioned in that chapter (Abraham, Joseph and Moses) the last verses include people whose experiences do not look very victorious. They were tortured, mocked, chained, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, tormented, destitute, and forced to live in deserts and caves. Yet the writer says of them, “of whom the world was not worthy” (38) and says that they “obtained a good testimony through faith” (39). We should study their examples and pay particular attention to the exercise of their faith through trials.

Joseph is a classic example of one who suffered well in the Old Testament. Tragedy invaded his life but he saw at the end of the story that God was behind it all. Joseph did not simply confess that God somehow worked his trials into an overarching purpose that had been planned all along. Rather, he confessed that God really actually did it and He did it in order to bring about great good (Genesis 50:20; cf. 45:8). He had a theological understanding of God’s ways with His people.

Job’s proverbial story teaches the same lesson—that God uses tragedies to accomplish His good and wise purposes in the lives of His people. The book of Job is a great help in drawing together key doctrines that must inform our thinking about human suffering. From our insider perspective we see things that Job could not see as he was going through them. From the beginning we know what God was doing, but Job did not know. We know about the discussion between God and the devil and how God granted him specific permission to disrupt Job’s life. But Job knew none of this. He is going about his life as he always had when suddenly, through both natural disaster and moral evil his life is devastated.

Job did not deserve to suffer in this way. It was innocent suffering. I do not mean that he was sinless. Rather, I am pointing out that he did not do anything to deserve this. He did not get cancer because he smoked or he did not get AIDS because he was promiscuous. He was seeking to live the way he knew to live and these tragedies came to him despite his best efforts to honor God.

His story confronts us with the questions that always arise in the wake of tragedy: “How can we trust God? Where was He? What are we to make of God?”

It is interesting to see how this line of questioning is addressed in the book of Job. Job of course confesses that the “Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” and he humbles himself in sackcloth and ashes. His first three friends show up and for seven days do a great thing by keeping their mouths shut. They are just with him. Here is a vital lesson for pastoral ministry—knowing when to speak and when not to speak. Most of the time in the immediate aftermath of tragedy it is better to say too little than too much.

Job’s three friends did well until they opened their mouths. When they did speak they revealed a very trite understanding of God and evil. Their theology was neatly wrapped up but it turned out to be patently false. They offered simplistic answers with a condemning spirit. Their thinking is summarized in Eliphaz’s comments in chapter 4:7–9:

Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off? Even as I have seen, Those who plow iniquity And sow trouble reap the same. By the blast of God they perish, And by the breath of His anger they are consumed.

He speaks for all of them that God brings good to the righteous and suffering to the unrighteous. Such was their theology.

This is a classic example of what not to say to a suffering person. Does God bring judgments on people for their sins? Yes, He does. Is all tragedy the result of sin? Yes, in the general sense that we live in a fallen world and there were no tragedies before sin. But it is dangerous at best to reason from that generality to any specific case. To do so with infallible certainty is foolish and to do so in the immediate wake of suffering is heartless.

Job responds to this with some very hard questions of God and tried to justify himself in ways that are not admirable. But the real point of the story begins to unfold in chapter 38 when God starts questioning Job. The Lord’s questions explode like theological cluster bombs on Job’s thinking. “Where were you?” “Who are you?” Job is humbled to the dust.

These rhetorical questions have their intended effect by bringing him to a deeper, healthier knowledge of God. Out of that deepened understanding Job says in chapter 42, “I have not known anything.” He learned that God alone is sovereign and blameless in all His ways.

In response to the question, “can we trust God?” Job’s wife says, “no, you cannot trust God. Curse him and die.” That is the way many people feel in the wake of tragedy. “If this is what God is like, I want nothing to do with him. Why in the world would you trust a God that would allow this to happen to you?”

Job’s friends answered the question with a qualified “yes.” “Yes, you can trust God if you will start dealing honestly and directly with your problem and just buy into a cheap theology that says, ‘God always blesses those who try to do right and He always judges those that do not try to do right.’ So if you will admit that your suffering is a specific judgment of your specific sin, then you may trust God to bless you when you do good and give you trials only when you do not do good.”

But Job comes to a completely different answer. As he contemplates the question of God’s trustworthiness he concludes, “Yes, though I do not know where to find God at times, and though it seems at times that He is my enemy, He can be trusted in the face of inexplicable pain and suffering—especially, when you see Him for who He is and come to understand that you do not know nearly as much as you thought you knew.”

Can God be trusted in times of tragedy? Yes, particularly if you refuse to make the mistake of misrepresenting what faith looks like in times of tragedy. This is an important point for developing a theology that would be helpful in tragedy.

What does faith look like in the midst of horrific suffering and confusion? It is not the happy-go-lucky, glib kind of superficial expressions that we often see on the cover of glossy magazines and TBN. It is patently not that. Nor is it merely the positive mental attitude that many commend in the name of Christ. Faith, real faith, is built on certainties. And because of that, it is able to live with mysteries. It rests confidently on what it knows and waits humbly on God when confused by what it cannot understand. And sometimes that humble waiting upon God does not look very strong and it does not look very victorious. But it can be a rugged determination that refuses to curse God when some of your closest relations are saying to you, “curse God and die.” I like the way that John Piper put it. Sometimes true faith is nothing more than an “uncursing hope in an unfelt God.”

That is what Job had. This is also what we see in Jesus on the cross. “My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?” That was a real cry of discouragement and concern. But it was a cry to “My God.” He was crying out to God. It is a cry of faith, faith that does not look very victorious, faith that could be held up to ridicule by some who think that faith should always appear glitzy and with a broad smile. Job is a wonderful example of this but even more so is the Lord Jesus Christ.

Systematic Theology

A third suggestion concerns the work of systematic theology. There is no substitute for it. The longer I stay in the pastorate the more I recognize how relevant systematic theology is to ministry. Do not let anyone ever convince you that theology does not matter or that courses in systematic theology are unimportant.

Those who would pastor the church of Jesus Christ must develop a careful, rigorous systematic theology. Such discipline will help you minister the Word of God to God’s people in a variety of life’s circumstances. The pastor who does not have this will at best miss many opportunities and at worst, confuse and hurt people by misrepresenting God to them.

There are many important biblical doctrines. I will highlight just a few of the most essential ones for this subject.

Certainly you need to grasp and go deep into your study of the doctrine of sin. An appreciation of what the Bible says about sin will destroy all utopian myths. Such myths permeate our culture. We live in a world that seems always to be progressing and we are regularly told about things that are going to get better. We must not allow the dizzying advances in medicine and technology to blind us to the desperate reality of sin.

In Romans 3:10–20 Paul takes several Old Testament snapshots of sin and weaves them together into an imposing mosaic. Paul writes as if he is following the path of a spiritual tornado. To see the universality of sin and the devastation it has wreaked not on human nature alone but on all of creation is to be reoriented toward the problem of evil in the world. As John Gerstner so aptly put it, the problem is not so much the problem of pain but the problem of pleasure. Given what the Bible says about sin, why isn’t this world filled with streets flowing with blood? It ought to be, in light of the wickedness of sin. But God, in his mercy and grace, restrains sin and sinners and we come to appreciate more of that grace and mercy only in the light of sin. Because of sin, tragedy and suffering are inevitable.

Second, develop a healthy doctrine of the devil. By healthy, I do not mean popular. Too much that is popularly believed about satan is not at all healthy. The devil is wicked. He is purely evil in ways that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Think of how the Bible portrays him. He is the one who originates lies, who is a murderer, who comes to destroy. Think about the power of the devil. The Bible ascribes incredible power to him—power to ensnare, to make sick, to work miracles and even to kill. We must believe everything the Bible says about the devil and never forget him. But we must also remember that the devil is inferior to God. He is God’s devil. He is like a dog on a leash. God can let him out and He can pull him back. So as we acknowledge his power we must not fall into dualism. The devil belongs to God.

Third, develop a doctrine of heaven and hell. People too often lose sight of eternity. We need a two-world view if we are going to live biblically. This world is not all that there is. We must constantly remind our people of this because all the advertisements and entertainment produced by our culture are designed to focus our attention exclusively on this world. The temporary nature of this world is kept out of view. People are bombarded with thoughts of getting every benefit and payoff here and now. But the Bible teaches about heaven and hell.

Along with this, develop a doctrine of judgment. Because God has designed us in His image, there is within us a desire for justice. This desire is right and it remains even in our fallen nature. It does not always work itself out properly because of sin, but it is there. So we should be sensitive to the cry for justice that sometimes expresses itself in terms of “it’s not fair” or “it’s not right.” Such laments are too often quickly dismissed as self-centered protests (and they may well be only that). But the impulse that desires justice is a reflection of God who is Himself just and we ought to understand and teach a doctrine of justice and judgment that distinguishes the cry for justice from the desire for vengeance.

 The former is right. The latter is wrong. Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” It can be a great comfort to those who have been tremendously mistreated to know that God will make things right. They should be urged to commit themselves to their faithful Creator who always will judge righteously (1 Peter 4:19).

Study and think clearly about the doctrine of conversion. What does it mean to be a real Christian? That sounds so simple in our day but, sadly, it is naïve to assume that everyone in our churches has a biblical view of this. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? How does one become one? Of what is a real Christian capable in the face of tragedy?

The reality of remaining sin in the life of every believer should make us cautious and gracious in our judgments of those who respond intemperately to trials. Job did not look like a model of faith while in the throes of suffering. What do faith and repentance look like in a fiery trial? Being clear on this will prevent us from encouraging unrealistic and unhealthy responses to suffering.

We must guard against stoicism, on the one hand. Some Christians equate keeping faith in the midst of suffering with maintaining a stiff upper lip. But a refusal to feel the pain of tragedy is superficial. God never calls us to that There is a time to weep. If Christ calls us to do anything it is to be real and to respond realistically. He Himself did that. Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb. He wept and cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane. He visibly and audibly suffered on the cross. And He never tells us to be faithful by denying our emotions.

Stoicism is not the answer. But on the other hand, neither is an unbridled emotionalism where emotions and passions rule. We must guard against that. How do you do that? By remembering what we are and what we have in Christ. We must learn and encourage others to learn to focus on unseen realities, especially when suffering. 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 teaches this:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

The most important issue is the doctrine of God. How does God fit into these things we experience as tragedies? Study and believe the sovereignty of God. What does the Bible say about His sovereignty? It says that He is absolutely sovereign without any mitigation. That is offensive to many people, but it is a fact from the Scriptures. The Bible teaches that God is absolutely sovereign in the details of life. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s will (Matthew 11:29).

The Bible also teaches that God is infinitely good. “You are good and do good” (Psalm 119:68). Goodness is an attribute both of His person and of His work.

The Bible teaches that God is full of wisdom. He is infinitely wise. That is, He always does the best things in the best way. After writing about the plan of God’s gracious salvation for eleven chapters Paul erupts in praise of divine knowledge and wisdom (Romans 11:33). The more clearly we see what the Lord has done and the more deeply we will be amazed, like Paul, at His wisdom.

Christians are called to believe that God is always sovereign, wise and good at the same time. These attributes of God are foundational for faith in the midst of trial. Whether it seems like it or not, God is always sovereign, good, and wise and all of the temptations to respond in ways that would deny any of these characteristics are always wrong. Believers must fight against such temptations and remember and believe the truth about God.

Along with the character of God, study His will. How do you understand the will of God? If you have a simplistic view of the divine will, you will be hopelessly confused in trying to read the Bible and apply it to the world.

 The Bible speaks of God’s will as both secret and revealed. James Boyce, the principle founder of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a very good section on the will of God in his Abstract of Systematic Theology. He makes some very nuanced arguments about how we should understand God’s will as it’s set before us in the Scripture. Whether or not one agrees with the details of Boyce’s discussion his main point is absolutely critical. That is, one must recognize that God’s will is both decretive as well as revealed. He has a will of decree and a will he has made known to us for is our duty.

Scripture speaks clearly that God’s will, in the sense of His decree, cannot be broken. In Daniel 4:35 we see that King Nebachudnezzar finally learned this. “All the inhabitants of earth are reputed as nothing, he does according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain his hand or say to him, ‘what have you done?’” Job also learned this lesson and so he prayed, “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You” (42:2). In terms of His decree, God’s will is going to be worked out always and infallibly.

In terms of what God has revealed for us to do, as summarized in His law, His will is often violated. In that sense, no one measures up to God’s will at any time in this life in a perfect way. We are called to live our lives in accordance with His revealed will and it is by this will—His law—that we will ultimately be judged.

Without this two-fold understanding of God’s will, you cannot come to a balanced perspective about God’s ways with us. It is His (revealed) will that we live perfectly. This does not happen in this world. It is also His (decreed) will that all of our imperfections, indeed every event in the world, work together for the good of His people and the glory of His Name.

Deuteronomy 29:29 is an important verse to remember when thinking of God’s will. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” We live in the light of what God has commanded and we leave the secret things concerning His decree with Him.

All of these doctrines get their focus and come together in the doctrine of Christ. It is here that we need to live and from which we need to minister. Think through His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and His return. It is in Christ that we find all the other teachings of the Scripture culminating and being expressed in a way that gives us hope and meaning in the midst of and in the wake of real tragedy.

We can with confidence say that “we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knows what you are going through when you suffer. God knows what it is like to have a son die. He has experienced that. Christ knows what it is to be mistreated, to be subjected to moral evil in the world, to be unjustly treated. He has experienced these things.

And in His cross we are given the paradigm by which all tragedies in the world are to be evaluated. Was the crucifixion of Jesus the will of God? That is a question that should be asked of those who reject the idea that God can in no way will tragedies of life. The death of Jesus is the most atrocious, scandalous, heinous, unjust crime in all of human history. Nothing compares to what happened to Christ on the cross. If there is any event that should never have happened in terms of the laws of justice on a human level, it is the execution of Jesus Christ. Was that God’s will? God says “You shall not murder.” Men murdered Him, didn’t they? Then His death was clearly a violation of God’s revealed will.

But do we not also read time and again in Scripture how Jesus’ death on the cross was the very purpose for which He came? He is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) and “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him” (Isaiah 53:10).

So was the crucifixion of Jesus the will of God? The question cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” First, one must determine what aspect of God’s will is in view. If the question is about God’s secret will—His decreed will, then the answer is yes, infallibly. If, however, the question is about God’s revealed will, then the answer is no.

Peter keeps both aspects in mind in his sermon at Pentecost. He says of Jesus, “Him, being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death” (Acts 2:23). Peter tells his hearers that they have sinned, they have violated God’s will by crucifying Jesus. They are guilty and accountable before God for the death of Jesus. But in another sense God did this according to His own foreknowledge and predetermined purpose.

So where was God at the crucifixion of Jesus? Was he there? Absolutely He was there. Nor was He a mere bystander, He was orchestrating the events. God was doing His greatest work, redeeming people to Himself in an event that looked like a completely gratuitous tragedy. This becomes the paradigm by which we must measure every other tragedy in life. If God was doing His deepest work in the greatest tragedy of human history then we must be willing to believe that God is also doing great works in lesser tragedies of life. That is the hope that pastors must give their people. We must call people to look to Christ, to believe in the goodness of God in Christ, to see it, to live off of it, to taste it, to try to bring it into experience before tragedy and then to go on living on that truth in the midst of and in the wake of tragedy.

Out of all of these other truths grows the doctrine of providence. Just like the incarnation and the Trinity, so providence is a mystery. God has taught us that He is sovereign over the events of life but that does not in any way mitigate our responsibility for our actions. We must, therefore, live with the tension these truths produce because they are revealed. And the certainties that He has taught us about our faith gives strength to face the mysteries without despair.

Conclusion

Expect tragedies and tribulations to occur. Do not be surprised by them. Prepare for them because the Scripture says they are inevitable. Learn from them. Do not miss the lessons. There is much to be learned through suffering. In 2 Corinthians 1:8–10 Paul says that he was “burdened beyond measure, above strength”, so that he “despaired even of life.” And the reason that this happened to him (as he later came to understand) was so that he might learn not to trust in himself “but in God who raises the dead.” He is saying, “tragedy came to teach me to trust God.” Three chapters later he refers to those trials as light and momentary. In chapter 1 he says “I nearly died by them” but in chapter 4 he says they are light and fleeting, “working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (4:17). Tragedy prepares you for glory. Tragedy works in you the ability to experience greater glory. We may not understand exactly how this is so, but that is what Paul says.

Trials wean us away from the world. They lead us to develop greater desires for heaven. When we suffer losses we are forced to remember that the things which are seen are temporary and fading away. Such times direct our vision to the unseen realities that are eternal.

Through tragedies we discover sin that may lie deeply buried in our hearts. Trials have a way of bringing such sin to light. Moses was the meekest man in all the earth the Scripture says. And yet in the midst of tragedy, we see his passions sinfully displayed. Or think of Job. His patience is proverbial and yet in his story his impatience is starkly displayed. Tragedy exposes our remaining sin thereby helping us to see our need for repentance.

Respond pastorally to tragedies. People are not interested in nor do they need a lecture on theodicy when they are awaiting the emergency room doctor’s report or facing a fresh grave. Every pastor ought to develop and constantly refine an imminently biblical theodicy, but none should feel compelled to say everything at any one moment. When the opportunity to speak does come, speak honestly, wisely and lovingly. But speak with consideration to what the Larger Catechism calls “the necessity and capacity of your hearers.”

Address people in terms of what they can handle and what they need. Jesus did not tell his disciples everything at once. On the night He was betrayed He said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). It is also instructive to note what Jesus did not say in Luke 13 when tragedies stemming from human malice and natural disaster where brought to His attention. He did not try to explain them. He did not try to defend God. Rather, He seizes the opportunity to call them to self-examination and repentance.

I love the Heidelberg Catechism. The first question and answer summarizes much of what I have tried to communicate in this article.

Question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

Answer: “That I am not my own but belong body and soul in life and in death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my father in heaven.”

To know and believe this is to be equipped to provide encouragement to any child of God when tragedy comes.


Notes:

1 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: MacMillan, 1962), 93.