Trials: Finding Meaning in Tragedy


Scripture tells us that God can be trusted to take good care of those who put their faith in him. But the Bible makes no bones about the fact that it takes faith, because the actual path of  human life, even for the faithful, as we know so well, is regularly filled with trouble, trial and pain.

Woman reading Bible in hospital bed

Often, when we look back on a dark period of suffering in our lives, we begin to discover that the awful journey we had to make led us to a place of peace and maturity — a sense of intimacy with God and security in him we could never otherwise have known. And some journeys of faith are the kind in which that discovery lies only on the other side of death.

Experience has taught us that life sometimes becomes a raging, stormy ocean of pain, grief and depression, dragging us into its dark and merciless depths. In the swirling confusion, we cling with sore, tired arms to a ragged plank of faith, a faith that whispers in our drowning ears that somehow God is there, somehow he knows and somehow he won’t leave us. It is all that gets us through, this flickering little flame of trust in an invisible God who promises deliverance and security and hope.

When the storm finally ends and a bright sun warms the calm sea, we begin to see, maybe for the first time, the ways in which the gentle hand of a loving Father was holding us the whole time. But it is not easy. No one ever said it would be. That is, no one who knew what they were talking about.

Trusting God’s love

God loves us, the Bible says. But when the doctor informs us our five-year-old has cancer, or we find out our abusive spouse has also been molesting the children, or we wake up in a hospital to learn we lost our legs in a car wreck, or our mother is killed in a tornado, or someone we love is burned and crushed to death trying to rescue others, all this talk of “God’s love” can seem terribly hollow, if not downright offensive.

Who is this God who lets trauma and disaster devastate the hearts and hopes of people who love him and trust in him? Who is this invisible, silent God who claims to never leave nor forsake us? Where is he when we really need him?

“What terrible sins have you committed?” we have heard some Christians ask of hurting people, “that such punishment has come upon you?” Some Christians can’t imagine that God would allow bad things to happen to “real” Christians. But — aren’t we all sinners, even “real” Christians? So why are some of us “punished” with disaster while others, guilty of the same sins or worse, seem to “go scot-free”? Thank God the people who think every human tragedy is “God’s judgment on sinners” are not God, and do not speak for God.

Still, it does raise a troubling question. We do know we are sinners, and we do know we don’t deserve anything from God, and sometimes that makes us wonder whether the reason God hasn’t delivered us is that he doesn’t really care about us. After all, why should he? We know we are sorry excuses for godly people. We know it and God knows it. So why should God bother himself with our problems?

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul explained it like this: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8, NASB).

God loves us sinners — so much that Christ died for us to bail us out of our sins. And he was raised from the dead for us, too — to establish us in a new life in him. So the sin argument holds no water. In fact, it raises the ante, because if God went to all that trouble to save us from sin and spiritual death, why does he so seldom lift a finger to save us from the here-and-now tragedies and traumas that constantly rip us apart?

Suffering in hope

As Christians, we believe that God does rescue us. But we believe he rescues us from what we actually need rescuing from, not from what we think we need rescuing from. Still, when our child is dying, we rightly want rescue from that, not some invisible, spiritual thing. And if that rescue does not come, how are we supposed to continue trusting in God’s power and love?

The Bible tells us that our lives — our families, our health, our fortunes — are indeed important to God. It tells us that God is very concerned about our here and now circumstances, but he is also concerned about far more than our present circumstances — he is concerned about us
— forever. We are assured that he made us, and that he made us because he wanted to, and that he loves us because we are his.

When it comes to life and death matters, the gospel assures us that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life; he takes care of restoring our lives. The gospel also assures us that God is making us into the image of Christ (Colossians 3:10) — a whole, strong, together person, a person who is everything we were made to be and ought to be and wish we could be, but never, in this life, actually seem to be. That may be invisible, but it really does happen as God works within us — from the inside out (Colossians 3:1-4). And suffering plays an important role in that process.

The gospel assures us of an unassailable inheritance of salvation that awaits us in heaven (1 Peter 1:3-4), and it assures us that God protects us through faith, not necessarily from the trials and traumas of this life, but from whatever might attempt to wrest from us that salvation (verse
5). It is in the hope — and assurance — of that eternal salvation that we can take joy in this life, despite the evils that might befall us in the meantime (verse 6).

Peter calls our faith, that is, our trust in God’s faithfulness to keep his word to us, a faith that is forged in difficult, or “fiery” trials, “more precious than gold” (verse 7). Peter admits that we are asked to believe in a Savior we cannot see (verse 8), but assures us that our trust in and love for our invisible Savior gives us a present joy that is beyond description. And he assures us that it will climax in glory and honor and salvation (verses 7-9).

Suffering God

Who is this God who lets his people suffer even though they cry out to him for deliverance? He is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God — the one with the nail holes and the spear wound. You’ll recognize him by the bloody gashes and lacerations and the crown of thorns. He’s the one they ridiculed and lied about. The one they spit on, beat up and murdered.

He is also the one who stays right by our side in all our pain and anguish. He suffers along with us through our every grief and heartache. He doesn’t leave us — not even in our darkest nightmare (Deuteronomy 31; Hebrews 13:5). But his presence is invisible. Instead of bailing us out of our here-and-now catastrophes, he walks through them with us (Matthew 28:20). He cries with us; he aches with us (Hebrews 2:18).

Our hope, as Christians, is in the resurrection. It is this hope — a hope fueled by trust — that makes life worth living and gives us what it takes to keep going when everything in us wants to give up. That is why we can, even in the midst of our pain, trust in our invisible Savior and reach out to help, support and encourage one another (Ephesians 4:31-5:1). The inspiring stories of heroism and courage we hear in the aftermath of many tragedies are a testament to the invisible inner strength, love and fortitude of humanity that is rooted in the humanity of our risen Lord in whom we all live and move and have our being.

Because Christ suffered for us, our tragedies are not meaningless, but are part of the fodder, the raw material, of our spiritual wholeness (Hebrews 2:14-15). We emerge from them stronger and wiser and lovelier, and as we keep our trust in our God who promises to be our salvation,
we are, in his love, forged into unity with Christ and with one another.

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6-9)

Author: J. Michael Feazell

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