Tragedies happen every single day, both in our own country and around the world. Yet most of the time when we hear about them, we think to ourselves, “That is so sad!”… and then move on. A couple of weeks ago, however, tragedy came to our city and to a setting we could all relate to personally, and now we may have a harder time moving on. We find it more difficult to push away the pain when it is so much closer to us! So how do we deal with the emotional pain we all feel and the inevitable questions that arise in our minds in the wake of the Charleston shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church, or for that matter, any traumatically negative event?
Fortunately for Christians, we have both our faith and theology and our Comforter and Counselor–the Holy Spirit! As we seek to make sense of the senseless, we may rest assured that God will fulfill His promise to guard both our hearts and minds with His peace (Phil. 4:6-7). But in order for this to happen, we need to seek Him and remind ourselves just who this God is that we claim to worship. We do so by calling to mind what He has revealed of Himself in Scripture. There are many attributes of God that we could name, but I want to focus on just three. Think with me for a moment about how our knowledge of God as a sovereign God, a loving God, and a just God can help us through such trying circumstances.
When we first learn about a traumatic event (e.g. the unexpected horror of our AME brothers and sisters being gunned down by a stranger they welcomed into their Bible Study), our first reaction is shock. We are psychologically knocked off-balance as our illusion of personal safety and control is shattered. Fear results when we realize just how vulnerable we actually are! We are not in control of our lives and that can be a very scary thought. It puts a dent in our God-complex. (Yes, even Christians forget who’s really in charge!)
Next, fear turns to anger, a more powerful-feeling and less psychologically-threatening emotion. We want justice and we want it NOW!! The fight-or-flight response kicks in, motivating us to action. We skip church the next Sunday, thinking maybe it’s not a safe place. After all, we have young children to protect! Or we go on a rampage about racists and the place of guns and flags in our society, because after all, we have to do something! But God says something entirely different to us. He says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps.46:10) So what is it we know about this God?
- Our God is a sovereign God. Nothing happens in this life apart from His sovereign will, including disaster in a city (Amos 3:6b), good and bad things (Lam. 3:38), or well-being and calamity (Is. 45:7). Yet, while never compromising His holy character, He uses the evil deeds of men and Satan in this fallen world to accomplish His good purposes (Gen. 50:20a; Prov. 16:4).
- Our God is a loving God. We know this because of the extreme lengths He went to in order to restore our broken relationship with Himself (John 3:16; II Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:5-8). In addition, God is not only our sovereign Creator, He is also our loving Father. We are not cosmic orphans left alone to wander the universe, but we are deeply loved children of our Heavenly Father. As a Father, He tenderly comforts us when we are afraid. In fact, it would surprise you to know that His most often repeated command throughout Scripture (>300 times) is “Don’t be afraid!” (p. 59 of Running Scared by Ed Welch). Furthermore, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit that He would send to be with us after His ascension, the Counselor or Comforter (KJV).
- Our God is a just God. He tells us to leave vengeance to Him (Rom. 12:19-21). Our part is to forgive, His to render justice! We are promised that one day all will be made right and the guilty will pay (II Cor. 5:10) and pain and mourning will be a thing of the past (Rev. 21: 1-4). Praise God for that!
King David does a good job of putting these three attributes of God together in Ps. 62:11-12:
Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For you will render to a man
according to his work.
Repetition serves to emphasize the veracity of what David is saying here, as he highlights the same three characteristics of God: His power and sovereignty, His steadfast love, and His justice. The background of this Psalm appears to be David’s enemies’ desire to topple him from his throne through lies and treachery, yet David is able to entrust his soul and his fate to God, because he knows his God!
Peace only comes in the storms of life when we acknowledge God’s sovereign rule over all that happens–both the good and the bad; trust in His great and enduring love for us (I say trust because it takes faith to look past circumstances that may lead us to think otherwise); and hope in God’s final accounting of all human behavior. Meditation on the first two attributes can help to alleviate our fear. Meditation on the third can help assuage our anger. In addition, we need to remember that apart from Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection for us, we, too, would stand just as condemned as those we condemn! Humbly recognizing our own sin and the forgiveness we’ve been granted enables us with the Holy Spirit’s aid to forgive and extend mercy, leaving vengeance to God…where it belongs!
So I encourage us all, in the words of King David in Ps. 62:8
Trust in Him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us.
May we all imitate the fearlessness and forgiveness modeled so graciously by the families of the AME 9. And may we, like David, call on God alone as our rock, our salvation, our glory, and our refuge! (Ps. 62) Amen!