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Tragedy and the Providence of God

In light of the events of this past week I decided to step out of our study of the book of Genesis and address instead the topic of tragedy and the providence of God. God's goodness and God's power often come into question at a time like this. I've not had opportunity to verify the details of this story, but I will tell it to you as it was told to me.

Craig Scott of Columbine High School was in the library this past Tuesday with his friend Isaiah. Two students entered that room, armed. In front of Craig's eyes they shot Isaiah and moved on to kill others. Craig and some of the others pretended they were dead until the gunmen left. Then, I'm told that Craig stood and pleaded with the other students to also get up and make an escape. Hearing a plea for help, he reached down to assist Casey Ripsager of our church and help her out as well.

When after much difficulty they finally reached safety, Craig asked them to pray. He asked them to pray for the students, their friends and brothers and sisters, who were still in the school. For the next many minutes they prayed and they watched as one after another those for whom they had prayed came out of the school. As each one came out Craig would comment on how God answered prayer. Well, I think most of you know that Craig's sister did not come out. She died Tuesday.

Some made it out alive. Other's didn't. Craig prayed and it looked like his prayers were being answered, except the prayer that was most important to him. The prayer for his own sister. How do you make sense of that? How do you put that in any kind of perspective? How do we respond? What are we supposed to think? How does God fit into that, since God's name had been raised?

The tragedy at Columbine High School this past week raises a tremendous number of emotions, thoughts, questions. This experience has impacted everyone in this community in different ways. I believe there are many, especially those that are the most directly affected, who are still just numb. They are not asking questions yet. All they feel is a deep sense of sadness and grief.

If you are one of those in this place this morning, we are not here today to push you to think about answers. It may be that your mind and your heart are not anywhere close to being ready to even ask the questions, much less to try to search for the answers. Instead, if this is your situation, we would say to you we want to simply come along side of you this morning, and to hold you up and to pray for you and to care for you. Even after this service there will be people down front ready to meet with you and pray with and to do whatever they can to stand along side of you.

Tragedy makes us wonder who's in control.

Though not everyone here is as directly affected, I think everyone has been affected. For many of us questions do come. Some are fearful. This week I've heard several parents tell how their children have been expressing their fears. Even children who have not had relatives or friends involved at Columbine. Even for adults, those who allow themselves to think about these things, there's an undefined insecurity that hovers about like a cloud.

Is life truly that fragile? Is it that suddenly, quickly over? Does an inattentive driver drift into my lane of traffic as I'm heading home from church today and snuff out my life? Life is not as certain today as it was five days ago. When we dare to ask the questions, however, it comes down to something like this. Is anybody in charge of life? Is anybody truly in control? Is there any rhyme or reason to what happens? I think three possible conclusions come almost immediately to mind.

To the question: Is anyone in control? First of all there are those who say, "I'm in charge. I'm in control, at least of my own life." Though we often act like that from day to day, we quickly dismiss that conclusion when we experience what we have experienced this past week. When we are slapped in the face by capricious evil and senseless tragedy, I don't think there are very many left who would say, "I'm in charge."

I officiated at the funeral Tuesday of a 43-year-old man at our church. One week prior, he had been feeling fine and was at work. Believe me, there were a lot of very sober men at that funeral on Tuesday. I don't think any of them is feeling in charge today.

The second possible conclusion we might draw from the question "Who's in charge?" is that no one is. No one's in control. We're simply victims of fate. A two word bumper sticker proclaims that philosophy. Stuff Happens. But that conclusion not only doesn't account for the evidence of the good we experience every day, it also leads to two responses. Nihilism or hedonism. Despair or devil may care. Fatalism is, to me, the most tragic conclusion one could possibly draw from all of this.

But there's a third possible conclusion to the question "Is anyone in charge of life?" Yes, someone is in charge and that someone is God. If—with all the evidence for the existence of God considered—we choose to believe in him, then we are faced with a very serious problem. Whether it is the death of a 43-year-old husband and father, whether it is the magnitude of the suffering that is going on in Kosovo, or the tragedy of Columbine High School—if we believe there is a God, we are forced to ask what kind of God is this who is in charge?

Living in the cold shade of the Columbine tragedy it appears that either: one, God is good, or two, God is powerful. If God is good but not powerful, that means God feels dreadfully sorry for all of those students and teachers, but he was powerless to stop the evil. If you take that choice, you are left with a powerless, good God. Either God is good and not powerful, or else he is powerful but he's not good. That is, he had the full ability to stop what took place in that building but he didn't care. In which case you are left with a powerful, evil God.

Those appear, and I emphasize that word appear, those appear to be the only two options. But the Bible contradicts those options. The Bible contradicts that appearance. It declares and it demonstrates and we've read it even this morning from Isaiah that our God is both powerful and he is good.

How we can know God's goodness when surrounded by evil.

But when death and senseless evil invade my life and my community how can I believe that? How can I believe what the Bible so strongly declares? How can I hold to the goodness of God and the sovereign control of God in a world that is filled with so much evil?

I believe there are three things we can do. Know what you will hear in the next moments is not a formula. And please understand me right from the outset what I am going about to talk about next I do not suggest for a moment is easy. It is not easy at all.

The first thing I think we must do when we are filled with questions and even doubts or anger at what is going on in our world, is we must wrestle with God. The last thing we need to do is give pat answers to the tough questions of life or to give no answers at all. Neither of those extremes will work.

Pat answers ignore reality. You hear pat answers and then you look at what happened at Columbine and they don't fit. Or someone comes along and tries to give no answers but that simply succumbs to fatalism. We cannot, we dare not, go to either extreme.

I'm so impressed with the many men and women of the Bible. When life looked and felt as though it was impossible they wrestled with God about it. They shook their heads. They cried. They complained. They accused God, but they never ignored him. They wrestled with him.

In the Old Testament there's the account in the book of Ruth of the woman Naomi. Her husband and her sons had died. Her livelihood was cut off. She was in a foreign country. She said to her neighbors when she finally made her way home, "Don't call me Naomi, call me Mara, or bitter because the Lord has made my life very bitter. I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty. The Lord has afflicted me. The Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." You hear her words? Strong words and accusations against God.

Elsewhere in the book she makes it abundantly clear that she believes in God's sovereign control of all life. Elsewhere in the book she makes it abundantly clear that she believes in the goodness of God. Her wrestling with God and her conviction of the goodness and power of God were not incompatible. Job wrestled with God. The psalmist, David, wrestled with God.

Four and a half years ago Flight 427 from Chicago to Pittsburgh crashed. In 43 seconds from the time trouble was detected 132 people died. Pastor Thad Barnum spent nearly two weeks at the crash sight working with the coroners and the clean up crews. One day as he approached a man unfamiliar to him the man suddenly turned on Thad and said to him, "You want some advice, Bud?" He didn't even know Thad enough to call him by his real name. Before Thad could respond at all the man said, "Don't make it easy. Don't tell us everything is going to be all right. This place is a hell hole. So tell it like it is. We are going to carry with us what we have seen here for the rest of our lives. Do me a favor when you get up in your pulpit tomorrow morning—don't let God off the hook."

That's good advice. Don't let God off the hook. Wrestle with him. You don't have to make excuses for God. He can take care of himself. Tell him what you feel, how deeply you feel it, but don't, don't run away from him.

How can you believe in an all powerful and good God in the face of tragedy? It starts with the admission of reality and wrestling with God.

Secondly, I implore you to look at the rest of the evidence. In the midst of the pain and the confusion and the immediate results of what has happened it looks like God has either failed at being good or he's failed at being powerful. But look at the rest of the evidence. His power is amply demonstrated in creation. His power has been seen in the miracles he's performed. But most of all, his power is demonstrated in the resurrection from the dead.

He is so powerful that he defeated death itself. Could anything possibly make his power more obvious and more certain? I haven't time to dwell on that but simply to say there is so much evidence that demonstrates the power of God.

Also his goodness. It is amply demonstrated in the good things that we enjoy day after day. It is demonstrated in the newness of each morning. His goodness is demonstrated in the love that we experience with family and friends. But most of all, his goodness is demonstrated in his death for you and me.

John Stotz said this, and I love it, "I could never believe in God if it were not for the cross." In his short playlette entitled "The Long Silence" he wrote these words,

At the end of time billions of people were scattered on the great plain before God's throne. Most shrank back, but some near the front talked heatedly with belligerence. "Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?" snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. "We endured terror, beatings, torture and death."

In another group a black boy lowered his collar, "What about this?" He demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. "Lynched for no crime but being black."

Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that men had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed child, and in the center of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. And it was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man. Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudice jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone, then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses even to verify it.

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people ascended. And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

Who can deny his goodness? Who after knowing what he has done can possibly say that he is not good? And who, after looking at the preponderance of evidence, could possibly deny his power? How then do you account for the tragedies around us?

I think the answer is perspective. We look at the death of a loved one and we are tempted, as does the rest of the world, to think that that's it. They died. It's now all over. We look at tragedies as if they are somehow the last chapter of the book. We are so limited in our perspective. We're so unknowing of the future that we are tempted to despair.

Whose perspective about the tragedy of Columbine do you have? Only our limited one? Or God's?

What I'm going to say next I would not say to those who are most deeply affected by this situation. It is not that what I am doing to say next is not true, but it is that the truth that I am going to speak next, I believe must be one that is adopted before a tragedy strikes. Or at least sometime after when the pain begins to subside.

If we would alter our perspective—if we would, as it were, climb into the heavens themselves and sit beside God and look at all of life from his perspective—we would see that what to us was the worst possible experience, is in fact within the sovereign and good plan of God. Those are extremely difficult words and a difficult concept to accept.

In our pain and in our limited perspective we balk at that concept. If even spoken in the wrong place at the wrong time, it sounds cruel. But the Bible teaches it over and over again. Joseph said after his troubles, "Others meant it for evil but God meant it for good." James in the New Testament said, "Consider it joy when you face trials, because God uses it to bring about his purposes and his ends."

Not only do I ask you to wrestle with God. Not only do I ask and challenge you to look at all of the evidence of his power and goodness and his perspective. Lastly I challenge you to pray. Prayer is an exercise of the will. Prayer is a choice to believe God is listening. Prayer demonstrates our willingness to be proven wrong about what we feel or think at the moment. Prayer is God's method for bringing his purposes to pass. Prayer is an expression of dependence on God. Therefore prayer is an act of faith.

Having wrestled with God, having looked at all of the evidence, we finally come to a decision point. Will I choose to let go? Or will I choose to trust him, even though I do not have his perspective?

As I said, I do not pretend for a moment that this is easy. The struggle is intense and for those most deeply affected the pain is almost immeasurable. I am very aware that what I have said today, or all that could be said, does not answer all of the questions. It is impossible for us to fit all of the pieces of life into a pretty little picture.

Instead of answering all the questions, however, we must eventually decide if we are willing to come to the person. To the person of Jesus Christ and whether we are willing to simply trust him.

It was told to me that Craig Scott—who prayed for the safety of the others and his sister, and prayed for them with such confidence and such desire—spoke after learning of his sister's death. Saying, "My sister is with the Lord. I will see her again."

I don't think Craig could say that glibly in light of what he had been through. That statement coming out of the experience that he had been in seems to me could only be said if somewhere he has wrestled with God. Somewhere he has looked at the larger perspective. Somewhere he has come to understand that there is more evidence. Without being able to answer all of the questions, he has come to the place of saying, "I trust you God."

Do you? Maybe you're at the place where frankly all you can do right now is wrestle. Then wrestle. Maybe you're at the place where you need to look at all the other evidence. Go back to the Scriptures and see it over and over again. He is powerful and he is good. Maybe having done all of that you are at the decision point. Will you simply abandon him or will you choose to believe him for who he is?

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Jerry Nelson is senior pastor of Southern Gables Church, Littleton, Colorado.

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Sermon Outline:


God's goodness and power often come into question during times of tragedy.

I. Tragedy makes us wonder who's in control.

II. How we can know God's goodness when surrounded by evil.


Craig Scott, when he heard about his sister's death, said "My sister is with the Lord. I will see her again."