And as I read the tales and saw the pictures I experienced a range of emotions; shock, disbelief, nausea, fear, compassion, pain, anguish. Where was God on Friday when Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 kids and 6 teachers?
The answer is – he was there. So why didn’t he stop the horrendous killings?
In short although he is sovereign, although he is all-powerful, although he could have stopped it, yet God has chosen to give humanity self-determination. He has given us the freedom to make our own moral choices.
If we give it a moment’s thought I don’t think we would have it any other way. We treasure our freedom almost above everything else. “I just want to be free” is the cry of post-modernity. Well we are and the price is often suffering.
But that doesn’t mean God is idle, distant or uncaring – quite the reverse in face.
What does he do in the face of evil, suffering (and death)?
1. God is angry
The bible is clear – God gets angry in the face of evil and sin.
‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness’. Ro 1:18
We all know about God’s love – he is famous for it. In fact we turn him into something of a sugar daddy. We forget that he hates evil with all his being. Every ounce of his being is repulsed by the smallest evil act. For surely he is angry at this wanton waste of life, for the terror and the pain that this evil act has caused.
2. Justice will be done
As human beings, ever since we were children and claimed “It’s not fair”, we have a sense of justice and fairness because our blueprint, is God himself. We are made in the image of God. And the Bible is clear – God is a God of justice. He might have given us moral choice and self-determination, but he expects us to act rightly. We don’t know why Adam Lanza did what he did. He may have been ill, but we do know that everyone without exception will pay for the evil they do. Adam will be judged. Justice will be done. He will have to face his Maker and face the consequences of his actions – as indeed we all will.
3. God suffers with us
The uniqueness of the Christian faith is the Christmas story. No other religion claims that God has come as one of us, to live alongside us and to suffer as we do. The incarnation: Jesus was human, Jesus was God. Living as one of us, then dying on the cross, one of the cruellest forms of execution means that God himself has suffered as we do. He has become like us in life and in death too. Even now he knows the pain we suffer. If God has not protected us from pain because of his commitment to our self-determination, he has stood with us in the worst of it.
I have found the following playlet very helpful in reflecting on this. I first found it in John Stott’s book, The Cross of Christ.
The Long Silence
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame but with belligerence. ‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror….beatings…torture….death! In another group a young man lowered his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. ‘Lynched….for no crime but being black!’ In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. ‘Why should I suffer?’ she murmured. ‘It wasn’t my fault’.
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 man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said. So each of these groups sent for their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a young black man. A person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was 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 prejudiced 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 to verify it’.
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. And when the last had finished pronouncing sentient, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already serves his sentence.
4. God brings good out of evil
The fact that God allows evil doesn’t mean he isn’t passive in the face of it. He doesn’t let evil have the last word. One of the questions we are so quick to ask in such situations is why? Without a God who redeems there would be no why? The atheist or the agnostic asking the question “why?” doesn’t make sense. For the atheist it would simply be senseless suffering with no meaning at all. For the agnostic – the answer is unknowable.
For the Christian though, God brings purpose, we might understand some of the purpose in this life and one day we will understand fully. We will get the answer to the question “why?”.
One Bishop of Durham was visiting the relatives of 170 miners who had been killed in a mining accident. Wondering what to say to them, he picked up a bookmark on his desk. The first side he looked at was the back – a senseless mass of apparently tangled threads. There was no rhyme, no reason, no pattern – nothing. But on the other side was crocheted – “God is love”.
The most powerful demonstration of this truth is Jesus’ death on the cross. An act of evil in itself, yet the one act that has brought humanity real hope that death is not the end.
How good will God bring out of this situation?
It is too early to say but it might bring the US to reform its gun laws, in the process saving 1,000s of people in the coming years, from being shot and murdered. It will no doubt inspire people to make sacrifices when they hear of the teachers who gave their lives for the sake of their children.
The point is that for the Christian, God promises to bring good out of evil. Evil does not have the last word.
5. God offers to comfort us.
Jesus was known for his compassion for the hurting and oppressed. Jesus promised when he departed this earth to leave another comforter – the Holy Spirit. It is the testimony of many that God does comfort in distress.
As the gunman, Adam was killing, some of the teachers will leading the children in prayer. God was comforting those who turned to him. We need to pray that those who are hurt and bereft don’t miss the comfort God can bring them in their pain today. He won’t take it away, he will be with them in it, he will hold them and give them hope.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, lost his first child at seven months in a car crash. A Christian, his world crumbled but he testifies to the fact that he held onto a verse from Romans Chapter 8:28 like a drowning man clings to a rock.
If that is you, then reach out to God and let him come alongside.
6. God offers life after death
Death is, literally our mortal and greatest enemy. Before Jesus, we had nothing but pure speculation about what lies beyond death, if anything. Many have speculated and hypothesised – coming to many different conclusions. Euripides wrote this in 428BC
But if any far-off state there be,
Dearer than life to mortality
The hand of the Dark hath hold thereof
And mist is under and mist above.
And so we are sick for life, and cling
On earth to this nameless and shining thing.
For other life is a fountain sealed,
And the deeps below us are unrevealed
And we drift on legends everywhere!
The greatest favour God could do us, is to break the power of death over us and tell us about it. In fact what we need is for someone who has gone through death to return to tell us more. Not a near-death experience but an after death return. We couldn’t ask for anything more. The extraordinary truth of the Christian story is that He has! We now have reasonable grounds to believe there is life after death and have a good idea what it is like. Jesus has done that. Someone has likened it this way:
In the Middle Ages there was great debate as to whether there was a sea route to India. Was there a way to the rich land of spices and perfumes around the southern tip of Africa? No-one really knew. All attempts to round the Cape of Storms as it was known then had failed. One man, Vasco da Gamma one day did it. Ever since he sailed back to Lisbon in triumph it has been impossible to doubt that a way to the Orient exists around the bottom of Africa. That Cape is now known as the Cape of Good Hope.
The enigma of life after death is like that for the Christian. Up to the time when Jesus died and rose again, death was like that Cape of Storms, littered with wrecks. Until his successful rounding of that Cape and return, we had nothing to go on but speculation about the after life. His resurrection has turned it into the Cape of Good Hope. He has opened up for his people the way to a new and rich land which he has shown exists. And because he has satisfactorily rounded that perilous Cape, he is well equipped to act as pilot to others. Michael Green.
Christian optimism about the future life is not built on fairy tales or speculation, but on the solid basis of the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.
So that is what God has done in the face of evil and suffering – without taking away our moral self-determination, I don’t know what more he could have done.