Making Sense Out Of A Senseless Tragedy
Last Sunday, the people at our early worship service saw a sermon. That’s what I said—they saw a sermon. Oh, they heard a sermon, too. I preached, and most of them, I suppose, heard. But much more importantly, they saw a sermon. Let me explain…
Wednesday, a week ago, Scott Chapman, one of our bright, popular, committed young people, just seventeen years into this life, was killed in a tragic boating accident. His family, devastated by this seemingly senseless loss of their beloved Scott, nevertheless, held fast to their faith that in Christ we have a hope which transcends death. Scott’s funeral was on Friday. On Sunday morning, his family, filled with grief but wrapped in the spirit of Christ, walked down the aisle to take their accustomed place in the pew to worship God and to glorify Jesus Christ. As I looked out at them, fighting to hold back my tears of awe at their witness, I thought to myself: “What they have done is an infinitely more eloquent sermon than any I might preach.” And from this sermon we saw last week, I have drawn inspiration for that sermon. In a week when we have been shocked almost into senselessness by senseless tragedies all about us, I want us to turn to the Christ who can help us try to make some sense of it all.
Specifically I want us to look at Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind, as recorded for us in John 9.
To be blind is bad enough. To live without light is to grope instead of grasping, to stumble instead of striding. Fingers become a fumbling tangle; feet shuffle through a fog which will not lift. With the darkness comes a loss of initiative as the sightless settle into the predictable monotony of accustomed routine, fearing any alteration in the patterns which have been mastered by force of habit.
But to be born blind is so much worse. That is the kind of senseless, hopeless tragedy that shakes our confidence in ultimate good. For the Gospel writer, by introducing us to “a man blind from his birth” forces us to deal with a man doubly stricken. Never had his eyelids opened to a shimmering sunrise or a wayside flower or a little child’s face. He had never seen reality whole but was left to piece together a few ragged fragments from the stray sounds and smells and shapes that came his way. I have a minister-friend who in an accident early in his life was left sightless, yet, unlike this wretched victim, at least he was left with some vivid memories of the visual world about him. Yes, to be born blind, to live in perpetual darkness—how senseless and tragic that is.
So Jesus and His disciples were “passing by,” or rounding a corner as it were, and they encountered this nameless man whose blank stare must have stopped them in their tracks. Ironically, they came upon him in the very courts of the temple, probably at the Gate Beautiful where the beggers sat, a dark stain on the dazzling splendor of the Holy Place. The man and his tragedy could not be avoided. And their reaction to this senseless tragedy was identical to our own. They cried out: “Dear God, why?” And in the verses which follow, we find set forth in bold relief, two alternative strategies for coping with tragedy. In the disciples we see the human approach to tragedy, and in Jesus we see the divine approach to tragedy. I want now to spell out those two approaches and then to draw from them three affirmations for the way Christians pan confront the seemingly senseless tragedies of life.
First, the human approach to tragedy.
As soon as the disciples caught sight of the blind man they blurted out the stock questions which religion had taught them to ask in the face of unexplained evil: “Lord, yho sinned, this man or his parents?” You see, we have always sought a simple cause-and-effect solution to the problem of suffering. Such was the earliest and most basic answer of the Old Testament: sin causes suffering.
But here was a case which did not fit such a neat formula for the victim had been stricken from birth. The only way he could be blamed for that would be to make the ridiculous assumption that he had done something wrong in his mother’s womb! The only other course seemed to be falling back upon the Old Testament concept of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation.” In any case, the disciples believed that the only way to deal with tragedy and evil in life was to explain it.
In what strikingly similar fashion do we fall into the same debate when tragedy occurs. It’s almost as if we believe that determining cause and assigning blame will make the tragedy more bearable. To be sure, in some cases such judgments must be made, for while it does the victim little or no good, such a determination may help to protect others from similar pain in the future. But what of those instances in which the ultimate causes are hopelessly obscured?
Some still say: “the person sinned”—that is, tragedy springs from one’s own ignorance or, indolence or irresponsibility. Others still say: “the parents sinned”—that is, the person inherited his problems; she was born and bred in hopelessness; they never had much of a chance.” But there are times when such words become salt in the wound. What about a four-year-old who drowns? What about a young woman who dies in childbirth leaving a brokenhearted husband and a motherless child? What of a forty-year-old man at the peak of his powers whose life is snuffed out by a heart attack? What then? Usually we mumble out something about it being God’s will.
I used to say that. I don’t anymore. For I have to ask you: Do you think it is God’s calculated will for some misguided maniac to destroy the lives of those young students at our university? Do you think it is God’s calculated will to souse a man with alcohol, put him behind the wheel of a car and send him speeding down the road to kill a whole family? Do you think it is God’s calculated will for someone to think so little of human life that he would torture to death an innocent child? That’s not the will of the God I know and love.
You see, the reason this is so hard is because like the disciples, we want an explanation for the tragedies of life. We honestly believe that goodness has its rewards—that if we are good enough then we shall be spared the calamities of life. But then when something comes along to shatter that notion, we are left wondering where God is in all of it, and scrambling to find answers to the question “Why?” That’s our very human approach to tragedy.
But now, the divine approach to tragedy.
Jesus took the opposite tack from His disciples. They asked: “Lord, who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus said: “Neither. That’s the wrong way of approaching the issue. Rather this man’s blindness provides an opportunity for the works of God to be made manifest in him”. With that word, light began to break for the first time through the darkness that had blinded both the man’s sight and the disciples’ insight.
Notice, please, that the disciples’ question sought to determine the cause of the problem, and so viewed evil in light of the origins from which it had come; whereas the answer of Jesus sought to deal with the solution to the problem, and so viewed evil in light of the reality to which it could lead. The disciples wanted to understand tragedy by tracing it backward, while Jesus wanted to overcome tragedy by tracing it Forward. In other words, tragedy is redeemed not by being explained but by being changed.
It was Harold Kushner who wrote: “Only human beings can find meaning in their pain.” So when tragedies come we can redeem them from senselessness by imposing meaning on them. The question “Why did this happen?” is the wrong question. A better question would be, “Now that this has happened, what am I going to do about it?” No one has said it better than one of the survivors of Auschwitz. Listen:
“It never occurred to me to question God’s doings or lack of doings while I was an inmate of Auschwitz. Although, of course, I understand others did. I was no less or no more religious because of what the Nazis did to us, and I believe my faith in God was not undermined in the least. It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God, to blame Him, or to believe in Him less, or cease believing in Him at all because He didn’t come to our aid. God doesn’t owe us that, or anything. We owe our lives to Him. If someone believes God is responsible for the death of six million because He didn’t somehow do something to save them, he’s got his thinking reversed. We owe God our lives for the few or many years we live. And we have the duty to worship Him and do as He commands. That’s what we’re here on earth for; to be in God’s service and to do God’ bidding.”
Here is the core of our confidence: that God still works to shape wholeness out of the chaos. There is still the untamed savage, but there is also Albert Schweitzer patiently working to make a clearing on the edge of darkest Africa. There are raging epidemics, but there is also Robert Hingson with his jet spray inoculation gun working to banish smallpox from the earth. There are people dying tragically in the black holes of Calcutta, but there is also Mother Teresa bathing and wrapping them in the love and mercy of God. Tragedy is redeemed not by being explained, but by being changed. That’s the divine approach to tragedy.
Here then are three affirmations for Christians to make in the face of seemingly senseless tragedy.
Affirmation Number One: God does not lie. Our God keeps His word and we can be certain of that. God entered this twisted, tarnished world in Jesus Christ to live amongst us, to share our burdens, to show us His power, and to redeem us to a life that is eternal. He came in Jesus Christ so that we might be certain that the One who could take a crown of thorns and twist it to His glory, the One who could take a hideous blood-stained cross and transform it into a symbol of victory, the One who could crack open a sealed tomb and raise His Son to new life—this One can deal with our tragedies and ultimately lead us to victory.
I think here of David Heath. He was nearly finished with medical school when he was stricken with cancer. The prognosis was not good. Still with treatment, he managed to complete his medical studies. He was to make it one year in practice before he died. Not long before David Heath died, some insensitive soul said to him: “David, when you realized how sick you were, why didn’t you drop out of med school and let someone else have your place?” David replied: “Because God called me to be a physician.” The man then said: “Well then, why did God call you to be a doctor when He. knew you were going to die?” David Heath answered: “I’m going to ask Him that just as soon as I get to heaven.”
Do you hear that? He believed that God does not lie. He did not know the reason for the tragedy which had befallen him, but he was certain of God’s call and claim upon
his life, and he was certain of his ultimate destiny. God does not lie.
Affirmation Number Two: Jesus Christ does not leave. The Bible declares that Jesus “sticks closer to us than a brother.” He is with us always, especially in the times when we need Him most. Nothing happens in our lives which is beyond the bounds of His vision or beyond the circle of His care or beyond the reach of His power. That means that as we face the hurts and the hazards of this life, there is never a broken heart, never a darkened home, never a painful decision, never a sore temptation, never an open grave, but that Jesus is there! God does not lie and Jesus Christ does not leave.
Affirmation Number Three: We do not lose.
Paul says it in Romans 8:28. I was brought up on the King James Version of the Bible. I memorized parts of it, including Romans 8:28. But that verse in the King James, while it sounds wonderful, couldn’t be further from the truth. It says: “All things work together for good to them that love God…” Not true. All things don’t work for good. Some things work for bad or evil even for those who do love God. The new translation is accurate: “In everything, God works for good…” That means that even in the darkest, most senseless tragedy, God goes to work to bring from them His ultimate good for those who love Him. So we can face the tragedies and uncertainties of this life with this prayer on our lips: “Lord, if it be possible, remove this burden. If it cannot be removed, then give us the power to be sustained through it. And if we cannot be sustained through it, then when we lose our life here, raise us to new life in the kingdom of heaven.” You see in everything, no matter how tragic and senseless and diabolical it may seem, God still has hold of us and He will work to bring His good.
In Carl Sandburg’s massive study, Abraham Lincoln, Volume Four, there is a very touching little moment. At last the Civil War was over. Lee had surrendered. A crowd had gathered outside the White House—a large raucous crowd, wanting to celebrate the victory! They called for President Lincoln to make a speech. Lincoln stepped out onto the White House balcony and began to speak of the need to make reconciliation with those who had been enemies. The crowd, displeased with the tone of Lincoln’s remarks, and filled with dislike for those who had lost the war, began to chant: “Hang them! Hang them! Hang them!” At that point, Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Tad, tugged at his father’s sleeve. Lincoln bent down. Tad said to his dad: “Don’t hang them, Papa, hang onto them!” Great Lincoln then silenced the crown and with jubilation, he cried: “My son has the answer. We shall hang onto them!”
There is another Son—our great and gracious Christ who took upon Himself all the troubles and tragedies of the human experience and died in order to give us eternal life. He tugs at the sleeve of the Heavenly Father and says: “Hang onto them, Father. Do not let them go. I died for everyone of them. Hang onto them.”
That’s the only way to make sense out of senseless tragedy when it comes—to remember that God does not lie (We are His), to remember that Jesus Christ does not leave (He is ours), and to remember that because we are God’s and because Christ is ours, then no matter what happens in life,
We do not lose!