The news over the last couple of days has largely been about the bombing in Boston during the Boston Marathon. There is a host of news sources, but one of my preferred sources is the Singapore Straits Times (http://www.straitstimes.com/boston_marathon).
How do we, as Christians, respond to such tragedies? It’s easy to communicate platitudes, to tell people how sorry we are or that we know how they feel. Often not personally knowing any of the victims, we communicate bad theology by telling victims’ families or friends that the dead are in a better place or that the tragedy was God’s will and that it will all work out for the best. Worse, we might be inclined to bloviate from pulpits or before television cameras that the tragedy was somehow God’s judgment for (insert perceived evil here).
To these bloviators, I’m inclined to quote to them what Jesus said when He was told about the tragedy of Galileans whose blood Pontius Pilate mixed with the blood of his pagan sacrifices, and when He mentioned those who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them. He asked “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” and, regarding those killed at Siloam “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” His response to both was “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (see Luke 13:1-5).
I understand that people want to be sympathetic or to show that they care or to show compassion – these are certainly appropriate, when the responses are genuine and not simply because they’re what’s expected (what I sometimes refer to as fake social niceties). Often, however, the best way to be sympathetic, to show we care, to show compassion, is to keep our mouths shut! Paul commanded in Romans 12:15 (ESV) “weep with those who weep,” not “sit with people and fill the air with words.” John Gill wrote in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, “so Christ, as he rejoiced with them that rejoiced, at the marriage in Cana of Galilee, wept with them that wept, with Mary at the grave of Lazarus. The design of these rules is to excite and encourage sympathy in the saints with each other, in all conditions inward and outward, and with respect to things temporal and spiritual; in imitation of Christ their great high priest, who cannot but be touched with the infirmities of his people; and as founded upon, and arising from, their relation to each other, as members of the same body.”
But how do we weep with those who are not members of Christ’s body? How do we weep with those who, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “have no hope”? We can’t give them the encouragement that Paul gives to believers in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, but we, knowing that they are without hope, knowing the spiritual gravity of the situation, can weep with the weeping lost. We can also offer them hope in Christ through the gospel, but we have to be careful how we do this as it can come across as being insensitive. Often, it’s best just to be there with them, sharing in their tears, offering a hug or a shoulder to cry on, and – especially – being there with a listening ear.
In 1994, I lost an adoptive sister to cancer. I remember the visceral reaction I had to being told “I know how you feel.” Excuse me?! No, you don’t know how I feel! At most, you only know what you have felt under similar circumstances – assuming, of course, you’ve experienced similar circumstances.
I realize that those who tell people “I know how you feel” are trying to be sympathetic, to communicate that we’re not alone in our suffering, but when people said it to me it was like someone stabbed me. It was meant to help, but it actually hurt. From that moment, I promised myself that I would never tell others I know how they feel because, frankly, I don’t; I only know what I felt under similar circumstances (when I’ve been in similar circumstances).
While we certainly must weep with those who weep, we must also be prepared to deal with the questions – especially the question “If God is a loving God, why did He allow this to happen?” Many have undertaken to answer the question, which is part of the larger question of why God allows evil and calamity to occur.
This is going to sound insensitive, but the fact of the matter is that the world is an evil place. As a consequence of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden and the sins of every human since then, bad things happen and humans do bad things because it is in their fallen nature to do so. God allows humanity, and the planet, to bear the consequences; but, frankly, we deserve worse! That God even allows us to draw breath from one moment to the next is an act of kindness on His part – particularly since each of us deserves eternity in the Lake of Fire and to bear the full force of His wrath, the wrath that Christ bore on the cross for those whom God has given to Him (see John 6:37-39, John 10:1-18 and Romans 3:24-26).
God doesn’t owe us any kindness whatsoever. He is under no obligation whatsoever to protect humankind from evil. If He chooses to do so, then it is entirely out of the kindness of His own heart. Evil happens in the world because humans are, by nature and from the moment of conception, evil. As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10-12 (ESV), “as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.'” Jesus said in Mark 10:18 (ESV), “No one is good except God alone.” That’s the hard, cold reality and there’s nothing comforting about it. We are entirely lost and without any hope whatsoever unless God chooses to save us.
The Boston Marathon bombing is very much a tragedy and the families and friends of the dead, the surviving victims, and many others are certainly asking questions, wondering why this tragedy happened, and feeling a range of emotions. We, as Christians, can only be there to weep with those who weep, to field the inevitable questions, and to offer the hope of the gospel.