When Tragedy Strikes

The well-known American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Trouble makes us one with every human being in the world.”[1]  I find this to be true.  Everyone has experienced heartache and pain.  As Christians, however, we must seek to learn from the Scriptures how to respond appropriately during the various crises of life.  Although I cannot be comprehensive in a short blog post, I simply want to lay out three things we must realize when tragedy strikes.

First, we must realize that we don’t have the whole story.  What I mean is this: Oftentimes when people are in the midst of a trial—a cancer diagnosis, the death of a child, the loss of a parent—they desperately want to figure out why the trial has come upon them.  In my experience, this leads them to try and identify what they’ve done to deserve this kind of treatment.  It’s almost as if being able to determine the root cause of the trial would in some way make them feel better.

The Bible, however, doesn’t allow us to make some connections.  The best place to see this is the book of Job.  Job 1:6-12 and 2:1-8 teach us that we don’t always have the whole story.  There is more going on than we are able to see.  Pastor Ken Jones of Glendale Baptist Church nicely summarizes the matter: “Really, the crux of the story [of Job] is in the first chapter.”  Participating in the roundtable discussion with Pastor Jones, Michael Horton comments, “Like us in our suffering, Job didn’t have a prologue to the story.”[2]  Not having this prologue precludes us from drawing a one-for-one correspondence from some sin in our life to the reason for the tragedy.  Although speaking to the issue of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, in his study notes on the book of Ecclesiastes in the ESV Study Bible, Max Rogland offers us some wise counsel worth considering when it comes to our suffering: “True wisdom includes the humility to admit that man cannot ‘figure out’ all of reality in a fallen world.”

Second, realize that you’re not being punished.  John 9 is the place to start here.  In this chapter, Jesus comes into contact with a man who had been blind from birth.  Someone approaches Jesus and asks, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).  Jesus responds in no uncertain terms: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (V. 3).  Since the young man was born blind the assumption was that his mother had sinned in some way.  Jesus dismisses such a thought and says that God has his own purposes in this matter, namely, “that the works of God might be displayed.”  In his explanation of this passage, Kim Riddlebarger writes, “to attempt to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between some specific sin and an illness overlooks the fact that all people are born in sin.”[3]

Third, realize that God loves you.  John Calvin insightfully remarked that Satan wants Christians to believe two things every day of their lives: 1) God doesn’t love me; 2) God doesn’t care about me.  Not only does Satan want Christians to believe this every day, but he especially wants them to believe this when they are in the midst of a trial.  Satan wants to use personal tragedy and traumatic experiences in our lives to harden our hearts against God.

Consider Deuteronomy chapter 1.  As Moses is preaching to the nation of Israel, he recounts the peoples’ failure to enter the Promised Land, as recorded in Numbers 13-14.  When the people failed to enter the Land, they began to grumble against God.  Notice very carefully what the people concluded about their inability to enter the Land.  As Moses said in his sermon, “You murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the LORD hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us’” (Deut. 1:27).

These words hit me like a ton of bricks a few weeks ago.  Sometimes because of the trying challenges we face, we wrongly conclude that God hates us, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.  But O how Satan wants us to believe lies!  This is why we must fight to believe the promises of God. My prayer is that God would strengthen his people to such a degree so that when tragedy strikes their first response isn’t to ask, “Why me?” but rather to boldly declare with the Psalmist, “This I know, that God is for me” (Psalm 56:9).  Or maybe it’s the Apostle Paul we cite: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32)

[1] Bob Kelly, ed. Worth Repeating: More Than 5,000 Classic and Contemporary Quotes (Grand Rapids: Kregel (2003), 348.

[2] Michael Horton et. al., “May the Name of the Lord Be Praised: Introducing the Book of Job,” Modern Reformation 23:2 (March-April 2014): 6.

[3] Kim Riddlebarger, “Who Sinned That This Man Was Born Blind?” Modern Reformation 23:2 (March-April 2014): 27.


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