Where Is God When Tragedy Strikes?

This article has been republished in light of the terrorist attacks in Boston. It was originally written following the tragedy at Sandy Hook but is applicable in this situation as well.

Like much of the nation, I watched in horror yesterday as the news anchors reported the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My stomach ached every time they mentioned that most of those killed were children. For the parents who lost children, I am simply crushed. I wanted to reach out to them but at the same time, part of me wanted to stay away due to the fact that I was helpless to provide much, if any, immediate comfort. The only way those parents and family members could move forward was to start the grieving process which, as I could tell from the agony they were experiencing, was occurring naturally.

When people grieve they experience emotions that are usually more than sadness. It’s often a roller coaster ride of sadness, anger and denial along the way to eventual resolution in which they return to some form of normalcy. At some point, often times early in the grieving process, they’ll ask a question we’ve all asked. “Where was God?” “Why didn’t God act to prevent this?”

Because most people care and want to do something to help, they’re often quick to answer the hurting person. There’s the always popular, “Everything happens for a reason” answer which would only infuriate me if given such an cliche response. “What reason in hell would be important enough to need for this to happen?!” I might respond that way.

There’s the “God-is-in-control” answer that a number of people turn to which, in my pain, would probably lead to me answering, “Apparently not.”

I’m just being honest.

Words spoken in grief aren’t always logical or rational but then again, sometimes they are, and I think that each of the potential responses I’ve listed are more than just an emotional, angry reply. I think they’re perfectly reasonable.

Was It God’s Fault?

Is God to blame for the events at Sandy Hook? That’s a question that, if we’re not careful, we’ll answer “yes” without meaning to. Saying that “everything happens for a reason” directly implies that God allowed this to happen or even planned it because he needed it to happen so that some other situation could occur later. But do we really believe that almighty God had to allow or cause the death of children in order to accomplish something? I don’t. Either he’s almighty or he isn’t and I believe that he is, therefore, he can accomplish what he wants with or without certain people or situations. Or are we to say that God can’t accomplish his will without killing children?

So let’s not play the “everything-happens-for-a-reason” card.

The “God-is-in-control” answer has the same weaknesses. If he is in control then he is implicated in this tragic, heart-breaking event. If he is literally holding the controls then he outright caused it! So is God in control in the way that we think of “control”?

Do We Really Understand God’s Ways?

First let me say that I’m not claiming to be a “God expert.” I majored in theology in college and used to preach (stop acting so surprised) but several years stand between me and those days. But I do think that I have something worthwhile to say about God’s role in the universe. So if you disagree with me, that’s fine, but know that I’m not suggesting you’re flat-out wrong if you do. I don’t think the answer is extremely simple. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s extremely complicated either.

Here’s an example that might help explain where I’m coming from. While I was in college, a girl I’d dated for several months broke up with me. A mentor of mine saw the distraction and gloom in my face and pulled me aside. I told him what had happened and in my pain I asked, “Why did God do this?” His eyes flashed anger and then calmed before he replied. He met my eyes and softly said, “God didn’t break up with you.”

He didn’t have to say more than that to teach a young theology major the most important lesson he learned during his university days. People have free will. I understand that there are Christians who don’t believe that, but I do. If we deny free will then it’s difficult to explain why Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. Did God plan that? Was he the puppet master who forced humans to sin and be removed from the garden? That simply wouldn’t make any sense. Adam and Eve chose to sin. They chose to defy God’s authority.

Free will works the other way as well, in that, when we love God, it’s real love. It’s not forced.

God doesn’t overrule free will. He doesn’t “make” people love us because that simply wouldn’t be real. People choose for themselves and sometimes they choose to do bad things. Sometimes very bad things. They are free to do so and often times that hurts many others besides themselves. And sometimes people who could have stopped someone from doing something bad choose to be somewhere else instead because they didn’t know the future.

So it doesn’t make sense to blame God for someone else’s actions. That means that we don’t serve God by attributing horrible things like death to “happening for a reason” or because it’s somehow in “his will.” Humans brought the bad of this world on ourselves when Adam and Eve sinned. That wasn’t God’s will. Things are messed up in the world. I’m offended when people ignorantly suggest that God is in control of this world when we see starving children, political corruption, injustice, broken families, broken hearts and other sorrows.

Though it brings me no pleasure to be the one to point this out, 1 John 5:19 tells us clearly that God is not in control of the world. That’s right. Read it for yourself.

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19).

It hurts and angers me to say it but it’s the truth. Though we sing that peppy song that says, “This is my father’s world,” I’m sorry, but it’s not anymore and hasn’t been for a long time. We messed it up royally and God relinquished control. Why else would the devil offer Jesus control of everything he could see when standing on the temple? Remember? Take a look at Luke 4 starting in verse 8.

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Jesus could have said, “but I already have control.” In fact, I’ve heard preachers say that the reason Jesus turned this one down was because he already had control. But that wouldn’t make sense. If the devil knew that Jesus already had control, why would he offer it to him? Also, how would it be a temptation, as the Bible says that it was, if Jesus “really” wasn’t tempted because he already had control?

We live in a fallen world that is a great distance from what God intended. Why? Free will. We, or at least, Adam and Eve, chose to sin without fully knowing the consequences of the choice.

Am I saying that God never intervenes? Of course not. But God is a gentleman and let’s us choose who our “god” is. For now. One day all will be forced to bow, even the Hitler’s of the world. But for now God allows us to choose.

How Do We Answer The Hurting?

So how do we answer those who ask where God was during their tragedy? The best answer I’ve heard was stated by a preacher from my youth named Lamar Plunkett. In answer to that question, Lamar said, “I suppose he was probably in the same place he was during his own tragedy, when his son was killed.” God’s son was falsely accused and killed by politicians and preachers who sought power and control. In this, God was also a victim of free will though he used what happened for good and even knew it would happen because he could see the future. Did he force them to do it? No, God doesn’t force people to sin.

So perhaps the answer to those at Sandy Hook is not the pat answers of the past. Perhaps those of us who simply can’t relate to such horror should point them to the one who also had his child murdered. To the one who ripped the temple’s curtain in two and refused to let the sun shine because of his grief and anger. And sometimes his response is simply to listen without talking. Perhaps we should follow his example in this when we attempt to comfort those who face tragedy.