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Processing Tragedy God’s Way

“Something about this being a church just strikes deeper at the core of our hearts,” she said, searching for some way to process the tragic shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Her name is Jennifer, a reporter for channel 4 news in Hartford, and she came by the church this morning asking me for a short interview. She asked some good questions that ultimately pointed to Jesus and the Gospel. Tragedy is tragic whether it unfolds at a church, a school, a bike path, or a concert. And it always calls for a desire for deeper answers.

How do we process the things that are happening in our culture right now? How do we, as Christians, respond to tragedies like the one in Sutherland Springs, Texas?

Practically, of course, we must be prayerful, comforting, and supportive to those who are grieving and suffering. It’s horribly heartbreaking.

Secondarily, we must be vigilant in ministry contexts. We live in a dangerous, fragile, evil, and vulnerable world—and our vulnerabilities only call us to a deeper and greater courage and dependence upon a Saviour who ultimately makes us invincible.

Yet, the deeper and more searching questions I want to address here are how to respond spiritually, emotionally, and biblically to these times. As I spoked with this reporter, and as I consider the mission of Emmanuel in New England, four things come to mind. Amazingly, we’ve studied all of these things recently in our series through Luke’s gospel. (You can hear these messages via our podcast here.)

Four Responses Compelled by Tragic Times:

Sorrow Over Suspicion

This is a time for sorrow before God but not suspicion of God. God never promised to make sense to us in this life. In fact, He’s promised the opposite—to work in ways we cannot fathom. Yet, He remains trustworthy, loving, sovereign, good, and just. For now sin has its way, but not forever, and not for much longer! Jesus will vindicate, of this we can be sure.

Finite minds can never expect to grasp the perfect purposes or timing of an infinite, eternal (timeless) God. It’s one thing to grieve, and God promises to meet us in our grief. He is the God of all comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3) But He does not promise to answer all of our questions yet. He has given us enough information to trust His heart, but He never gives us all the answers we want. He will someday, but not yet.

A.W. Tozer stated it this way, “A determination to know what cannot be known always works harm to the Christian heart.… Human curiosity and pride often combine to drive us to try to understand acts of God which are plainly outside the field of human understanding. We dislike to admit that we do not know what is going on, so we torture our minds trying to fathom the mysterious ways of the Omniscient One. It’s hard to conceive of a more fruitless task…. A blind confidence which trusts without seeing is far dearer to God than any fancied knowledge that can explain everything…. To the adoring heart, the best and most satisfying explanation for anything always will be, ‘It seemed good in thy sight.'”

Run to God. But don’t suspect Him of injustice. Don’t expect Him to account to you for His timeline or purposes. Be disappointed with a fallen world, but don’t allow that disappointment to fall onto God Himself. He has not failed you. He is working all things towards an ultimate kingdom on a cosmic timetable. He’s always up to something infinite, and He’s far more concerned with your eternal well-being than your momentary comprehension or approval of His plan.

Hope Over Despair

The New York Times ran an article last week entitled “Season of the Witch.” The article described the rise of occultism among millennials, and explained why young people are looking to superstition for answers. The teacher of a class on witchcraft in New York City is quoted as explaining that witchcraft is a way to exercise power in a world “without transcendent moral rules, a supernatural technology for taking care of yourself when no one else will. It lets you be the arbiter of your own justice.”

The article describes a resurgence of occultism that offers “real spiritual practice, adopted by people skeptical of organized religion but unfulfilled by atheism.” It states, “…Often when traditional institutions and beliefs collapse and people are caught between cultural despair and cosmic hopes, they turn to magic.” The article describes a generation who grew up in evangelical households and were strongly impacted by the atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. “But atheism wasn’t enough…. It left this huge vacuum, and that vacuum had to be filled with something.”

It concludes with this statement, “Millennial occultists might seem silly to outsiders, but you don’t have to believe in hexes, witchcraft or magic to take them seriously as a sign that many people find the present intolerable. Just under the surface of American culture, something furious is brewing.”

The point is this—we live in a culture that is caught in a gripping despair, so deeply and desperately, that they are willing to turn to fables! (2 Timothy 4:4) Some turn to fables because they refuse the authority of a personal Creator and Saviour. But some turn to fables because they have never really heard the true gospel. They are biblically illiterate and unaware of a gospel untainted by man-made religious structures.

For those of us who know HOPE as a person—Jesus—we have explosive, compelling answers for desperate hearts. We hold grace in our hands, and we must learn to be confidently generous with it.

Now is not the time to despair—it is the time to rise up with courage in Christ and confidence in the supernatural power of the Gospel. The world is stuttering and stammering. May those who knew Jesus personally rise up to patiently speak truth in love. May we infuse grace and real hope into the pervasive despair of our present culture.

Courage in Spite of Fear

We can flee or we can focus! Before the followers of Jesus really understood what was going on before the resurrection, all they could think of was flight! They cowered into hiding, clutching their temporal worlds, feeling let down by their crucified Messiah. But something powerful, dramatic, transformative, and transcendent unfolded! Death was defeated and the risen Jesus lovingly confronted His fearful followers.

Suddenly all the preparative teachings of Jesus over several years came flooding back into the conscious understanding. Suddenly it all began to make sense. He had to suffer. He had to die. He rose again. He’s going away (physically). He’s leaving us here. Through us He is reclaiming the lost, redeeming His kingdom, and preparing for a climactic return and renewal as the purposes of time and space segue into a utopian forever!

Over and over Jesus talked about His “someday” consummated kingdom, and about the “right now” stewardship of His disciples in the development of that kingdom. He called them to not fear—“Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

He told them to speak with confidence and courage, “And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say: For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

He told them to occupy—to engage in kingdom business, witnessing, preaching, disciple-making—until He returns. “And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come.” (Luke 19:13)

He taught them that the kingdom grows within the hearts of men, one by one, and called them to literally “lose themselves” in the purposes and mission of this eternal kingdom (Gospel advancement) until He comes like a lightning bolt! “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)

If we are paying attention to His words, He has clearly prepared us and empowered us for such a time as this.

Energized Not Discouraged

Urgency can energize. God’s Spirit within us can transform our fearful hearts into determined hearts. One thing I said to the reporter this morning is this, “For our church family, this only amplifies and intensifies the urgency of our mission—giving hope to hopeless people! This raises the stakes.”

Under the surface of American culture there is growing anxiety and hostility—a perfect storm brewing of confusion and fear. Jesus-followers can offer the only true antidote—grace and hope!

Cultural structures have no reasonable answers. Religious structures have given us a selfish god who demands our behavior and self-reformation before he will save us. That leaves people hopeless. Academic and secular structures have given us an atheism and secularism that teaches we are randomly evolved, meaningless, purposeless, hopeless biological matter—nothing but random collisions of molecules and chemical reactions. This tells us everything is “as it should be” and there truly is no hope. In fact, this post-truth culture says, “Don’t even ask questions, because there are no answers.”

Yet, there indeed are rational, substantive answers which are both intellectually coherent as well as intrinsically beautiful and loving. In other words, the Gospel of Jesus adequately fulfills the mind’s demands for logic and the heart’s need for love. And ONLY the Gospel of Jesus gives life this kind of dual coherence and ultimate value and meaning.

To hearken back to the Times article, only the Gospel of Jesus can relieve cultural despair and fulfill cosmic hope at the same time!

In light of this, our call as believers is not to despair, but to courage. These conditions call forth a Spirit-empowered energy—a passion—from the hearts of believers. Unexplainable circumstances and urgent crises call those of us who are grounded with both feet in the gospel to worship flagrantly and to stand confidently and compassionately, offering coherent answers to hopeless people. This is not the time to fear, but the time to live out loud in gospel witness.

Jesus taught His followers not to be afraid of a “little thing called death. Almost flippantly and dismissively He said, “All they can do is kill your body….”

His point was that there is a deeper fear that should drive us. That greater fear is the eternal destiny of a lost soul—fear what will happen to those who don’t know Jesus. “And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5)

In other words, if we fear death, we will withdraw from culture and disengage in self-protection. But if, instead, we fear the ultimate fate of those who need the gospel, we will amp up our passion and efforts to give them the gospel—to confess Jesus with confidence.

One thing we can bank on—in desperate times, when we confess Christ on earth, He is calling all the resources of Heaven to our aid and strength. See it for yourself: “Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8) The one way for sure to mobilize Heaven’s army on your behalf is to more loudly lift up Jesus to lost people.

The first-century followers of Jesus got it! 

They lived in desperate, pagan times—so do we. They knew a resurrected Jesus—so do we. They had a wealth of instruction from Jesus on who they really are, how safe they ultimately will be, where their real power comes from, and where time and space is ultimately headed. They knew how it is all going down, and they knew their purpose while remaining on earth. We hold all of these same assurances today.

These once fear-filled, anxious, weakling disciples were transformed by God’s grace into courageous gospel-ninjas. To their own surprise, they became a spiritual force that brought eternal sanity, hope, and truth to the world. They jolted humanity with a loving, eternal reality check that exploded into a first-century church of tens of thousands. Their energized engagement with pagan and post-religious cultures turned countless hearts from hopelessness to Jesus.

Christian—this is a time for sorrow but not suspicion, hope over despair, and courage in spite of fear. Most importantly, this is a time for urgency to energize us.

The first-century followers of Jesus got it. By God’s grace, so can the 21st century believers.

With the time remaining, look up and lift up Jesus as He draws all men unto Himself.

            What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee. (Psalm 56:3)

            Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. 

            We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you. So then death worketh in us, but life in you. We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:1-18)

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