Our news has been filled lately with natural disaster followed by natural disaster. Just yesterday, we heard that over 126 people died from a tornado that hit the town of Joplin, Missouri. This happened less than a month after over 300 people perished in Alabama from a similar disaster. Earthquakes, floods, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, not to mention other tragedies people face… Is there something God is trying to teach us or say to us through all of these events? Some have suggested that these events are a judgment upon humankind by God. The rational is that, for one reason or another, God is angry with us and therefore these things occur as wrath or judgment. Others suggested it has no bearing on that at all and that these events occur simply because of the sin which came into the world at ‘The Fall’. In this way then, these tragedies all happen as part of the price of being human in a fallen world; it’s just part of life.
I’m not sure how qualified I am to give anyone a definitive answer to such a deep, profound and human question. I’ve seen these events, and the devastation they produce, at a distance in that this type of tragedy has never affected my private property or family. However, as a pastor, this is one of those questions that gets asked a lot, both by those who observe tragedy and those who go through it themselves. Over the years I have wrestled with this question like so many other people and have embraced an answer I think most answers the dilemma of tragedy in our lives. The heart of this answer is found in an answer Jesus gave to a disaster that happened when he was upon the earth. It is found in Luke 13:4-5. Jesus refers here to a tragedy that occurred when the tower of Siloam fell killing 18 people. As with many other situations, people were looking to Jesus to tell them whose sin or what sin caused the hardship these people were facing. They were trying to get Jesus to assign blame for the tragedy, but Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t say that this incident was to prove that someone was guilty of sin or that someone’s actions were being punished for wrong doing.
Jesus looks at this disaster another way. He sees it as a reminder, or a life message, to all who experience this tragedy. The message is very simply this, “No matter how awful or tragic the event is that you have witnessed, remember this, there is a far greater, far more severe, far more tragic fate that befalls all who are not in relationship with God. It is eternity separated from God!”
Please don’t get me wrong, these events we’ve witnessed are tragic. The issue is whether we are allowing the witness of such events to help us ask the right questions. Our immediate response may be “God why did you allow this to happen?”, but we also need to ask “If this had been me and I were to die, (and there is no reason it couldn’t be), would I spend eternity in relationship without or apart from God?” The first time I ever heard the lessons of tragedies taught this way was from John Piper after the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis where 13 died. My immediate response was, “I’ve been asking the wrong questions to tragedy and missing the message and opportunity to learn tragedy provides.”
The wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, said this “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind and the living will lay it to heart.” Eccles 7:2 ESV. We learn how to live when we consider our own deaths. In a culture that seeks to ignore death and push it away with the pursuit of pleasure, we are keeping ourselves from asking the most pressing questions and learning life’s most important lessons.
I’d love to know your thoughts. How do you handle the tragedy you see around you?