LCN Article
When Tragedy Strikes: How Will You React?

May / June 2005

Douglas S. Winnail

In recent years, terrible tragedies have again and again struck suddenly and without warning around the world. Terrorist attacks in the Middle East, the United States, Kenya and Tanzania, the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, hurricanes in Florida and the Caribbean, earthquakes in Turkey, massacres and civil wars in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia—all have killed or injured hundreds and thousands and have left trails of destruction. Shootings in public places—schoolyards, churches, quiet suburbs and noisy streets—have shocked and stunned communities and left many dazed with sorrow.

In the wake of these sudden and unexpected calamities, individuals have reacted in a variety of ways as they have struggled to cope, to rebuild their shattered lives and to understand why these events occurred. Some have seen these tragedies as simply "natural" disasters that happen from time to time, or as the regrettable actions of people driven by ideology or despair. Others have wondered why a loving God would let such things happen— if such a God even exists.

Sudden and unexpected tragedies pose a particular dilemma for believers, especially when the victims appear to be decent and righteous people. Severe trials and tragedies can cause some to question or even give up their faith, because tragic afflictions do not fit with their conception of God. Because religious people often equate tragic events with punishment from God, many search for reasons why God has allowed such terrible events to occur. Some look to shortcomings in their own lives, and see a need for renewed strength and faith. Others look for problems in the lives of those affected by the tragedy—seeking a place to put the blame. When this happens, diverse and often contradictory opinions begin to emerge, as individuals draw their own conclusions about why God allowed a particular tragedy to occur. Today, more than ever, the Internet lets anyone share their opinions and conclusions with the world—whether those opinions are correct or not.

When tragedy strikes, how should we react? More specifically, how should Christians react when suddenly faced with a calamitous event? Where can we go for guidance about what to do and how to understand why tragedies occur? Thankfully, God has provided important guidelines and vital perspectives in the Bible to help us prepare for, understand and navigate through difficult and tragic situations.

Basic Guidelines

It has been said that the Bible is a "handbook" for learning how to function effectively in this human life. King David, who had to deal with many trials and tragedies in his life, understood this basic principle, and long ago wrote: "Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). Jesus stated, during a severe trial: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4; see also Deuteronomy 8:1–3). The Apostle Paul, well-acquainted with trials, made a similar observation: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). He urged his listeners: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Paul also advised against becoming involved in endless discussions and vain speculations about why things happen; he reminded Christians instead to focus on what is revealed in the word of God (2 Timothy 2:16).

Although many in today’s world consider the Bible out of date and obsolete, Scripture reveals otherwise. Paul told the church at Corinth that "all these things [the biblical accounts of historic events in Israel’s past] happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Corinthians 10:11). Paul encouraged his listeners to learn valuable lessons from these biblical accounts, and to remember, when trials and tragedies strike: "God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able to bear, but with the temptation, will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). Scripture clearly reminds us that no matter what happens, God is in charge and there is hope for believers who face trials and tragedies.

A Specific Example

But what do we find when we look into those scriptures that relate to the personal trials and tragedies we encounter? What can we learn from the Bible’s ancient accounts? Does the Bible explain why bad things happen to good people? The book of Job provides instructive insights and helpful perspectives. Job was a wealthy and influential man, considered "blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1). God had blessed and protected him. However, in one day, his flocks and herds were stolen by enemies, his herdsmen were murdered and the remaining livestock were killed by lightning. A sudden windstorm destroyed the home where his children had gathered, and took their lives (Job 1:13–22). Job then developed a painful, disfiguring disease.

In the midst of these sudden and devastating afflictions, Job’s wife told him to "curse God and die"—basically telling Job that his faith was worthless (Job 2:9). Job’s friends then took turns trying to explain why these trials had descended on Job. He had sinned (Job 4:7–8). He had forgotten God and needed to grow closer to Him (Job 8:1–13, 20). He had done evil and needed to repent (Job 11:14–15). Yet, through all the trials, Job’s faith remained unshaken (13:15). He knew he was innocent of these false accusations, and he persistently proclaimed his righteousness (Job 27:5–6). During these severe trials, Job experienced a full range of human emotions. He sought relief and wondered why he was experiencing such trials (13:20–24). He rebuked his friends (16:1–2), blamed God (16:11–12), felt sorrow (16:16), became depressed (17:1) and even became nostalgic about a more pleasant past (29:2).

The Bible reveals that neither Job nor his friends really understood why these tragedies had occurred. Job did not see his own self-righteousness (32:1), and was wrong to conclude that God had afflicted him. His friends, however, were equally wrong in saying that Job’s own sins and faults were responsible for his troubles. God had allowed Satan to afflict Job—to test his faith and to help him learn important lessons (1:12; 2:6; 36:10–12, 22). When Job learned vital lessons about himself and about God, God again blessed him (see Job 42).

One reason Job was able to endure these terrible trials was that he knew God was working with him and was molding something within him (Job 14:14–15).

All this may sound strange today; yet, the Bible reveals that the wish to lead a trouble-free existence ignores important dimensions in what God is doing in our lives. God is developing faith and molding character in those with whom He has chosen to work in this age—and He uses trials as part of the "refining" process as He prepares individuals for the Kingdom of God (see Proverbs 17:3; Zechariah 13:7–9; Malachi 3:2–3). Daniel even prophesied that "some of those of understanding shall fall, to refine them, purify them, and make them white, until the time of the end" (Daniel 11:35). Malachi calls those who are successfully molded by this challenging process God’s "jewels" or "special treasures" (Malachi 3:16–18). This is why David adds: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes" (Psalm 119:65–72). Isaiah uses a different analogy to describe the same process: "But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand" (Isaiah 64:8).

When trials come, and tragedies strike, it is normal— and often helpful—to look for corrections that can be made. But the Bible reveals that God also uses these same events to accomplish His overall purpose of creating more perfect faith and spiritual character in future members of His family. This is an important lesson we can learn from the book of Job.

Christ’s Instructions

Like Job’s friends, Christians often assume that if trials and tragedies erupt in our lives, we must be doing something wrong. However, Jesus Christ emphasized repeatedly to His followers that the way to eternal life is "narrow" and "difficult" and that few would find it (Matthew 7:14). Jesus plainly taught: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:10). Christ said that truth of the gospel message would divide families, and would bring opposition; He asked each of his followers to "take his cross and follow after Me (Matthew 10:34–38). Christ warned his followers that they would face arrest, persecution, hatred, betrayal, and death—even at the hands of friends and relatives—as a result of their religious beliefs. Yet He also emphasized that "he who endures to the end" will be saved (Matthew 10:22; 24:13). Speaking to the apostles on the night before He was crucified, Jesus said: "In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Scripture warns us that trials, tragedies and difficulties will be part of the Christian experience, which is why Jesus taught that we must "endure" to the end if we want to be in the Kingdom of God.

The New Testament account of early Church history not only reveals how Christ’s warnings and promises were actually fulfilled; it also provides a perspective on how God and His church viewed trials and tragedies. John the Baptist was called a "just and holy man" (Mark 6:20) whose mission was to prepare the way for Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:7–11; 17:10–13), yet Herod murdered him because he told the truth and angered Herod’s wife (Matthew 14:1–12). Jesus, the Son of God who was without sin, was arrested, beaten, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem and publicly crucified to please an angry mob incited by religious leaders who felt threatened by His ministry (Matthew 12:14)—yet endured all this to fulfill God’s plan for the salvation of humanity (Matthew 16:21). Jesus’ miraculous resurrection demonstrated the power of the real God; it focused attention on the apostles’ preaching, and was a major factor in the growth of the Church (Matthew 28:6–7; Acts 2:22–41). Peter and John were arrested, imprisoned repeatedly and beaten, merely for preaching the truth and working miracles (Acts 4–5)—yet their miraculous release and powerful preaching demonstrated God’s supernatural power (Acts 5:17–21), greatly increasing the number of believers (Acts 5:12–16).

Stephen was a man "full of faith and power… [who] did great wonders and signs among the people," yet he was killed for preaching the gospel and publicly recounting Israel’s past transgressions (Acts 6–7). Before his conversion, Paul was a leader in fierce persecution of the church, "entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison" (Acts 8:3). Paul had persecuted these people merely for believing the gospel, yet in spite of such persecution the Church grew and many rejoiced as they learned the truth (Acts 8:4–8). During another government-driven persecution, James was killed and Peter was again imprisoned because of their preaching, yet the Bible records that "the word of God grew and multiplied" at that time (Acts 12:24).

God mightily used the Apostle Paul, who wrote 14 of the books in the New Testament. Yet Paul’s personal life was filled with trials and tragedy. His ministry began after he was struck with temporary blindness (Acts 9:1–19) and because of his initial preaching he had to flee from Damascus by night to escape being murdered (Acts 9:23–26). He apparently suffered from a debilitating eye problem, and wrote of a "thorn in the flesh" that God did not heal (2 Corinthians 12:7–10; Galatians 4:13–15). During his ministry, Paul was imprisoned, beaten numerous times, stoned, shipwrecked several times and had to flee for his life (2 Corinthians 11:22–33). Yet Paul—even after being stoned by a mob and left to die—encouraged fellow Christians: "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Even on the eve of being martyred for his beliefs, Paul remained confident and focused on his promised reward (2 Timothy 4:6–8). These are just a sampling of the trials, tragedies and difficulties that struck the lives of those who chose to believe and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles, demonstrating remarkable examples of faith and trust in God.

Apostolic Advice

Against this background of early Church history, we can see deeper meaning in the apostles’ admonitions about how to respond to trials. Our modern secular world urges us to seek immediate physical comfort. The Bible’s perspective, however, differs significantly in its perspective on trials and tragedies. Paul explained to Christians in Rome that trials can help us grow, noting that "we glory [are thankful] in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3–4). Paul urges us to be "patient in tribulation" and reminds us to trust in God because "we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 12:12; 8:28). Paul told the Corinthians that he was able to remain joyful during his tribulations because he recognized God’s comforting actions (2 Corinthians 7:4–7). He told the Ephesians: "Do not lose heart at my tribulations" (Ephesians 3:13) as they are all part of God’s "eternal purpose" (v. 11). He reminded the church in Thessalonica that "no one should be shaken by these afflictions [Paul’s imprisonment]; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation" (1 Thessalonians 3:3). Paul also commended that same church "for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure" because "your faith grows exceedingly" (2 Thessalonians 1:3–4).

Peter urged his readers to focus on the "lively hope" available to us through the resurrection of Christ, and on the "sure inheritance" reserved for us in the future: "Though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested [refined] by fire, may be found to praise, honor and glory at the revelation [coming] of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:6–7). Peter also warned Christians: "Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you… but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s suffering, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy" (1 Peter 4:12–13). He went on to explain that Christians should not incur suffering as the result of breaking the laws of God, but that "if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter" (v. 16). He also revealed that "those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator" (v. 19). David obviously understood the emotional pain of personal tragedies, yet he also knew: "Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of His saints" (Psalm 116:15). David’s words remind us to remain focused on the "Big Picture" and the purpose that God is working out on this earth—and in our lives!

The Apostle John records that various eras of the church "will have tribulation" (Revelation 2:10, 14, 22–23; 3:19), but that if we "persevere" in living God’s way and doing His work, God promises: "I also will keep [protect] you from the hour of trial [the great period of tribulation at the end of the age] which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth" (Revelation 3:10). John reveals that those who are "called, chosen, and faithful" will be with Christ when He returns to set up the Kingdom of God on this earth (Revelation 17:14; 11:15–18; Daniel 2:44–45; 7:27).

When trials and tragedies strike, it is natural to become distraught and to focus inwardly on our personal pain, to look for something or someone else to blame or even to consider giving up. Yet the Bible reveals that we must resist these tendencies, and instead focus on God and what He has revealed in His word: His plan and purpose for human beings, His prophecies and His promises. When trials and tragedies erupt in our lives and in the world around us, we need to review and hold on to the basic instructions and vital perspectives that God has recorded in His word. Only in the Bible do we find a "Big Picture" that makes sense out of the chaotic and calamitous events that occur in this world. Scripture provides important insights as to why tragic events occur, and offers reasons for hope when things around us seem hopeless. The words of God were a source of strength for Job, David, Peter, Paul, James, John and countless others through the ages. When trials come and tragedy strikes, the Bible can also be a source of strength and understanding for us—if we will study and believe what God has revealed.