Where is God In the Tragic Moments of Life?

July 1, 2016

If there’s anything that the past few week’s worth of news has taught us, it’s that the world is a very unpredictable place. However, as a new parent, the stories that have gripped me have been the ones involving children.

  • At a zoo in Cincinnati, a young boy falls into the Gorilla enclosure and a large silverback gorilla is killed because workers are unsure if he is a threat to the child or not.
  • At a Disney resort in Orlando, another young boy is playing near a lake when, all of a sudden, an alligator comes up from the water and attacks him. The parents rush over to fight off the alligator and a struggle ensues. Sadly, the parents aren’t strong enough to take their boy back from the gator’s grip and it drags him into the lake. His remains are discovered the next day.
  • Finally, of course, there is the Orlando mass shooting incident. A gunman walks into a nightclub and kills 49 people and wounds 50 others before being killed by police. In the aftermath, there were reports that some parents were in the very same moment, finding out that their son or daughter had been killed and that they were part of the LGBT community.

These sad and senseless tragedies have forced me to ask myself, “Where is God in all of this tragedy? How would he respond?” This is especially true in the Orlando incident. In the aftermath of that shooting, I questioned my own involvement in social media in light of some of the responses that I read online. While there were many people who expressed sadness and anger at the event, there were those who were implying that the people in the Orlando nightclub shooting weren’t totally victims in this event due to their sexual orientation.

“They were living lives of sin anyways,” were the underlying messages that I was reading in the comments. So, to these online critics, could it be that the gunman was somehow used as “divine punishment” against these people in the LGBT community? Apparently Westboro Baptist thinks so.

Again, where is God in all of all of this tragedy? How would he respond?

If you want to know how God would respond to tragedy, you have to start by looking at Jesus. Let’s look at one of His most famous stories to get the answer.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” -John 8:2-5

Imagine the scene: you’re sitting in church one morning studying with Jesus when, suddenly, the back doors fly open and in comes a crowd with a naked woman. Yes, naked. Most theatrical depictions of this scene gracefully cover her up. However, the text implies that she was in her most vulnerable moment because she was “caught in the very act”.

This really is an unnerving and uncomfortable situation by most standards. She was brought to Jesus by none other than the “church folk”. Normally, bringing someone to Jesus’ feet is seen as a good thing, but the motive that prompted this unpleasant encounter was anything but evangelistic:

This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. – John 8:6a

Their reasoning was cold and calculated. If Jesus were to have said, “leave her alone.” They would accuse him of abolishing the law. “Oh, Jesus has no standards! He just wants to let everyone run wild and do their own thing without respecting what Moses clearly teaches.”

Had Jesus said, “stone her,” it wouldn’t have been any better. Stoning someone was a death penalty punishment and, in those days, the Jews didn’t have the authority to kill someone. Any capital punishment needed to be done through the state. To incite this option, the crowd seems to have come prepared with throwing stones too. Had Jesus given the order to kill, someone would have probably reported Jesus to the authorities immediately with some garbage story like, “This man Jesus is a renegade vigilante, intent on taking matters into his own hands. He is subversive to the Roman state. However, we law-abiding citizens don’t want to be complicit to home-grown terrorism.”

This nameless woman was a pawn in what the Jewish authorities believed would be a catch-22 for Jesus. In an unconventional move though, Jesus does the following:

But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. – John 8:6b

He ignores them! However, that wasn’t the end of it.

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. John 8:7-8

The Bible doesn’t say exactly what he was writing down on the ground. Although, knowing that Jesus could read hearts and minds, most would say that he was writing down their sins. I think that we can get an extra clue in regards to the content of his sand-writing by looking at what happened next:

Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. – John 8:9a

If I had to guess, I’d say that the sins Jesus was writing were ones that would have been obvious first to those who should know better (the oldest), and then finally work its way down to the youngest. I’ve come to believe a theory that my father shared with me, which is that Jesus also wrote down the very law which they were citing. This is a text found in Leviticus 20.

See if you can find the inconsistency with the story we’ve been reading:

The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death. – Leviticus 20:10

Did you catch it? Read the text again.

According to the law, the punishment for adultery is death. However, there was something (or, rather, someone) missing from the equation in John 8… where was the man?

Could the man have been present in the crowd? Could he have been paid off? This seems to point to some sort of conspiracy behind the scenes. Yet, given that the elders were expected to know the law better than anyone, it would make sense that they would be the first to leave seeing their own hypocrisy.

In quoting the text as the basis for the accusation against this women, they conveniently omitted the part of the text which condemned them as well. It’s been my experience that, many times, those who try to take the high moral high-ground to condemn others forget that they are just as guilty of something in another area of their lives as those they are condemning.

Take the Orlando shooting as an example. Some Christians, even pastoral colleagues, were quick to point out what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived…men who submit to nor perform homosexual acts…will inherit the kingdom of God.

But like the Pharisees in the story, they only quoted the part that implicated those they were against, and conveniently left themselves out of the sphere of guilt themselves. The entire text says:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who submit to nor perform homosexual acts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

In today’s world, many people seem to have a hierarchy in regards to what the Bible describes as sin. We tend to think of certain sins, like murder, as the worst, while lying as a lesser one. We even give names to quiet our consciences like “white lies.”

However, according to Scripture, there is no “hierarchy” of sins. What could have made the Pharisees so blind to this glaring hypocrisy? There are not many quotes that leave me astonished. But the following highlighted text, I believe, gives insight into the thinking of these men:

Earnest workers have no time for dwelling upon the faults of others. We cannot afford to live on the husks of others’ faults or failings. Evilspeaking is a twofold curse, falling more heavily upon the speaker than upon the hearer. He who scatters the seeds of dissension and strife reaps in his own soul the deadly fruits. The very act of looking for evil in others develops evil in those who look. By dwelling upon the faults of others, we are changed into the same image. But by beholding Jesus, talking of His love and perfection of character, we become changed into His image. By contemplating the lofty ideal He has placed before us, we shall be uplifted into a pure and holy atmosphere, even the presence of God. When we abide here, there goes forth from us a light that irradiates all who are connected with us.

– Ellen White, Ministry of Healing pg. 492

Like the Pharisees, if you look hard enough, yes, you’ll find faults in others. Yet, it may be that the faults that you find in them are your own flaws reflected. The only solution to this world’s problems lies in the conclusion to this story:

 And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” – John 8:9b-12

So where is God in the tragic moments of life? He is in the very moment. He understands what is going on. He knows the pain. He’s not there to point and laugh at the pain; He’s a shoulder to cry on and provide a path for a way out. He’s the solution.

Jesus did not deny that the people He ministered to were sinners. He did not disagree with the Pharisees about that. The question really was: What should be done with sinners? That is where Jesus and the Pharisees sharply disagreed. The Pharisees said: shun. Jesus said: Save them.

If you want to get an idea of the mindset, check our this Pharasaic commentary on Exodus 18 taken from Mekilta Amalek vol 3:

“Let a man never associate with a wicked person, not even for the purpose of bringing him near to the Torah.”

Going back to the Orlando shooting, I was very encouraged to see several Adventist churches open up their doors to members of the LGBT community to conduct funeral services in their facilities free of charge. Really, this is showing compassion in the same way that Jesus showed compassion to people who were outcasts of the established religious circle. This may seem extreme to us in theory, but in practice, many churches operate the same way:

We like to say that Jesus meets people where they are, but we require them to come to our program in our building in order to hear that. @shawnbrace

Unchurched people will never come to church to listen your favorite preacher come to talk about the mark of the beast. However, they will be there where the church shows compassion to a group that needs mercy.

Even if you believe that the people that died in the club were “wicked people,” consider what the Bible explicitly says about the death of evil people. Does God take pleasure in their death?

Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? – Ezekiel 18:23

For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God. “Therefore, repent and live.” – Ezekiel 18:32
Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’ – Ezekiel 33:11

I especially like this last text because here, God says that the wicked are actually the ones in the house of Israel! Really, this blog isn’t only about how to relate to outsiders, it’s about how we relate to and among ourselves!

Hopefully this post has given you something to think about. If you want a recap of this devotional, it would be this:

“Be like Jesus: Spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.” -Joshua Harris

Image credit: Woman Caught in Adultery, John Martin Borg, 2002