Columbine. Virginia Tech. Orlando. Las Vegas. Parkland, Florida. Unfortunately, the list can go on, and not just for shootings. There are natural tragedies every hurricane season, with homes destroyed and lives irrevocably altered. Bombings by terrorists and plane crashes will inevitably appear on the news every few months.
And then there are the smaller catastrophes, the ones that don’t make the headlines and that confront us in our daily lives. Cancer. A car accident. A miscarriage. Tragedy is no respecter of race, nationality, or religion. Christians don’t get any immunity from suffering.
Terrible events evoke a reaction, but they also demand thoughtful and heartfelt response. What does God want us to do?
Our presence as God’s presence. If Christ is present where two or more are gathered in His name, then that includes whenever we suffer and grieve together. Being Christ to those who are undergoing tragedy models Christ’s interaction with those who suffer. The day before His crucifixion, Jesus tells the disciples, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, ESV). God promises His presence on the eve of His very own death. Because that same Spirit is with us, our presence is a help and reminder of Christ’s words amidst disaster.
God is present within the church and among Christians, but bearing His presence is also one of the most powerful ways that Christians can love the world. Often, this simply means showing up after catastrophe: Samaritan’s Purse providing aid in the aftermath of a hurricane, congregants gathering to pray after the Charleston church shooting, or the neighbor who regularly visits the woman down the street who’s lost her husband.
Remember and raise awareness. The pain from tragedy can stay with us for the rest of our lives. If we don’t remain aware of its effects, that pain will come out in harmful ways. When we forget how awful the destruction was, driving the pain underground and refusing to acknowledge it, then the wounds will fester and inflict even more suffering. It may appear difficult to forget about global calamity, but sometimes the never-ending stream of crises and suffering makes the terror seem banal to us.
God wants us to confront suffering. He doesn’t want us to hide from it out of fear or shame or to flee from it because it’s traumatic. He is there as a rock because He has undergone tragedy as well: the crucifixion. Think about communion. The church is remembering and proclaiming the tragic death of Christ, with the awareness that His suffering led to resurrection, to new life for us. Imagine how the apostles must have felt, realizing that their Lord had been executed. God knows that we are forgetful, which is why Christ gave us instruction to remember and celebrate His sacrifice. We must commemorate and remain aware of catastrophe.
Take action. But remembrance and awareness aren’t enough. Tragedy accusingly asks, “Who will act?” Christians should be the first on the scene of disaster as well as the most outspoken for change afterward. Churches across Europe opened their doors to refugees fleeing ISIS. I visited Nashville and saw Christians taking in Kurdish families who had come to America to escape the conflict in Syria. My church organized mission trips to Mississippi and New Orleans to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina.
So often, the idea of taking action can appear like just another humanitarian campaign or moral obligation, but calamity demands genuine action and practical response, regardless of the conveyed image. Political change is sometimes necessary, too, although when entering a heated discussion, we need to be extremely wise about our motives and the positions we take. Perhaps taking action means a plea for gun control or different legislation on refugees or tighter security at schools. We offer thoughts and prayers, but we also lend our hands, feet, and voices.
Sacred silence. Jewish communities grieve death through a practice called sitting shiva. Family and friends go to visit mourners at their homes, and upon entering, the visitors won’t speak unless the grieving initiate conversation. Sometimes not speaking is more important than words. Silence testifies to the inexplicability of tragedy. In the quiet, we wait, like Job, for God to speak.
We can’t escape the reach of disaster. If we aren’t undergoing it ourselves, then we’ll certainly be near someone else who is. Suffering will ensue, and when it does, we look to the cross. Christ’s death proclaims what no other faith or religion does: God can transform tragedy and suffering into new life. God is present in the midst of the most terrible events and present afterward to heal the wounds.
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