WHERE IS GOD WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN?
by Luis Palau
On Tuesday morning, the nation of America wept-and continues to weep. We truly live in a tragic world.
How does the God of the Bible relate to these tragedies? Where is He when they occur? Can we continue to believe in a loving God who would permit such terrible things to happen?
These are important questions. God’s Word teaches:
1. Accidents and even mayhem are a part of life in a fallen world.
The moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, they brought sin into the world and deadly accidents and murderous acts soon followed. Cain, the very first human baby, grew up to become the very first human murderer (see Genesis 4:1-8). And accidents have plagued human kind ever since the race was driven from Eden.
No one is exempt, not even the most godly. I doubt few would question that the apostle Paul was one of the most effective and dedicated Christian workers in history, yet his life was peppered with serious accidents until it finally ended under the blade of a Roman executioner.
Paul suffered through at least as many accidents and hardships as any of us ever will, and yet their painful occurrence never shook his confidence in a good, loving God. Why not?
Unlike us, Paul did not see tragedy as prima facie evidence against the existence of a compassionate heavenly Father. In fact, he could write, “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Don’t misunderstand; Paul was no masochist. He didn’t delight in hardships and accidents because he enjoyed pain. No, he meant that when life overwhelmed him, he knew God would step in to help. Paul delighted in his own “weakness” because it was that weakness that gave God the opportunity to display to the world His own irresistible strength. And for that Paul was grateful.
Jesus, too, told us to expect pain and difficulties in this life. “In this world you will have trouble,” He warned His disciples in John 16:33. And to the public at large, He said this about the future: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:7). It isn’t a pleasant thought, but that’s the way life is sometimes in this fallen world. It may shock us, but it shouldn’t surprise us.
Tragedies are always agonizing and often senseless. But thank God, that is not where the story ends.
2. God is in control, even when it doesn’t seem as if He is.
Events never spiral out of God’s control, as if He somehow lacks the power or insight to direct the affairs of our little planet. That is why the apostle Paul, a man who knew intimately the pain of a fallen world, could tell the ancient Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth . . . .From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:24-27).
The Bible insists that God is sovereign, that “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. . . . He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:34-35). Even when tragedies occur and innocent life is taken or maimed, God remains in ultimate control. Nothing happens that does not first pass through his loving hands.
We may not fully understand how this can be when we face painful tragedies, but our lack of understanding does not diminish or destroy its truth. Before we were born, God knew exactly how long we would live and how we would die. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be,” the psalmist said to God in Psalm 139:16. And that remains true whether those days are many or few.
3. God has a purpose in what He allows, even if we don’t know what it is.
From our perspective, tragedies look meaningless and senseless and chaotic, but God knows how to take even tragedies and bring good out of them. Although I do not believe that God causes all tragedies the Bible says He is incapable of sinI do believe He has a purpose in allowing painful events to occur. Nothing that happens is a mad, meaningless accident. We may not understand what His purposes are, but we can take comfort in the fact that they exist. God specializes in taking evil and bringing good out of it.
Does the Lord cause some to die so the lives of others could be spared and the souls of still others might be better? No. God is not a murderer. But He does know how to take tragedy and bring good out of it. When we get home to heaven, we will finally see His purposes even in the tragedies of life. Meanwhile, we must continue to believe that He does have a purpose in everything that happens even if right now we are unable to see a shadow of what that might be.
4. Tragedy can serve as a wake-up call.
Oxford professor C.S. Lewis wrote years ago that “pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world” In that way, some tragedies may serve as wake-up calls for spiritually sleeping people.
A stubborn, secular, and even blasphemous society sometimes will be stopped short only when a tragedy of national proportions takes place. In the flood of the media reports, sometimes redemptive truth gets out.
In a way, “tragedy” is a big reason why the cross and crucifixion of Christ still grip our imagination (even those who reject the Gospel). There is something so profound about Calvary that even people whose religion has nothing to do with Christianity, even people who reject Christ both intellectually and verbally, nevertheless are gripped by the story.
Thank God, perhaps, that He allows tragedy to so grab people. But what a shame that it takes such a horrendous wake-up call for us to open our sleepy eyes.
5. It is possible to embrace hope even in the midst of tragedy.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to endure a tragedy without the hope that God offers. Without Jesus Christ, there is no hope. There is simply an eternal, black, cold, and unrelenting void.
Just last week I came face to face with a cynical man who didn’t believe in anything. What a miserable way to end life. I think unbelievers must, from time to time, wish that they had the hope of eternal life and a home in heaven. But of course, they have no such thing. Instead they have cynicism.
Of course, we Christians grieve when those we love are taken from us, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We do not believe that people cease to exist (except as memories) when they die; the Bible tells us that we will again see all those loved ones who put their faith in Christ. As the apostle Paul writes, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who die, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have died in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
Thank God, some atheists come to recognize their hopelessness and turn from it. A distant relative of mine who for almost seventy years claimed to be an atheist came to me one day and said, “My dad was an atheist. I’ve always claimed to be an atheist. But now I’m reading the Bible and trying to get insights, and Luis, if there’s a God, I want to know Him. If there’s eternal life, I want to have it. Can you help me?” At least he was honest, but he waited far too long to find the hope he lacked.
Hope is readily available to all of us, even in the midst of tragedy. And not only hope for eternal life and hope of being reunited with those we love. Hope is available right now, square in the middle of tragedy, because God has promised to walk with us through any disaster that might overtake us.
6. This world is not our final home.
When loved ones die in tragic accidents or at the hands of wicked men, it is good to remember that this world is not our final home.
We were created for eternity, and tragedy can never change that. This is only a transition period, a prelude, to what God really has in mind for us. But because we usually look only at the present, we often consider someone’s death premature or untimely. Our perspective is enormously limited. We tend to look only at what could have been (and in our minds, should have been) down here on earth. But God looks at all of eternity. If we are to cope with tragedy, we must learn to look at it through eternity’s lens.
This article is adapted from WHERE IS GOD WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN? by Luis Palau (New York: Doubleday). Copyright (c) 1999, 2001 Luis Palau, P.O. Box 1173, Portland, OR 97207, USA, http://www.lpea.org , firstname.lastname@example.org. Permission granted to “forward” this book excerpt to family and friends. All other rights reserved.