“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
This year has been tough for south Texas Baptist churches. We have gone through two major tragedies that caused many apparent senseless deaths.
- On March 29, 2017, fourteen Seniors from First Baptist Church in New Braunfels were on their way home from a weekend retreat. Before they could get back to their church, an erratic driver under the influence of prescribed medication and texting on his phone, crossed the center line and hit the church bus they were traveling in head-on. Thirteen of them lost their lives.
- On November 5, 2017, twenty-six members of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs are killed and 20 more were injured when a gunman who entered the Sunday morning service opened fire on the congregation.
Thirty-nine lives all taken at a moment’s notice. Twenty-one of them carry injuries that will scar them for life. How can anyone find joy in all that has taken place?
Where is your God?
Some people think that Christians would be protected from these types of disasters. They see us go through a disaster like this and ask, “If God was so loving, then why did he allow this to happen?” or, “Why would a loving God allow that kind of evil to exist in this world?” The answer is complicatedly simple. It is simple to us who believe, yet complicated to a world who sees our belief as foolish.
Let’s begin with these three reasons:
- The bad exists because sin exists. -The truth is that no one is guaranteed protection from the bad things that happen in this world. Christian or not. John 16:33 tells us we all will face troubles. Jesus was speaking to his disciples in this passage.
- The bad exists because we have free choice. -In the latter half of Deuteronomy 30, God lays out our choices; Choose God and have life and blessing, or choose to turn away and be lead to death and cursing. Amazingly enough, people do choose not to follow God.
- The bad exists to draw us to Christ. -Romans 5 reminds us that suffering produces endurance, endurance leads to character, and character gives way to hope. This hope draws us to Christ, and will not fail us because of God’s love.
So, sin exists, as does free choice, but why does someone who chose life end up suffering to the point of death?
Throughout the Bible, we are given countless stories of Christians suffering. From the beginning when Cain killed Able. We read of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, Job lost everything, and the apostles who preached the name of Christ died horrific deaths. Speaking of Christ, according to Romans 8:31-39, God did not even withhold suffering from his own son.
If God allowed these faithful men, and even his son, to go through suffering, does that mean he did not love them?
“Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”)
No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.
Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8:35-39 NLT
The Truth of God’s Love
The saints of the Bible endured suffering, but God had a plan in every disaster. Joseph went through his trials, never forsaking his belief in God’s plan. This put him in a position to save many. Job faced complete loss, yet never turning his back on the Lord. This led him to gain so much more. The apostles all lived and died knowing the greater gift was choosing to follow Christ. They never believed for a second that these temporary trials separated them from Christ. Especially Paul, the author of the above passage.
Paul continues in his letter to the Romans:
“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” –Romans 14:7-9
Since Christ is the Lord of the living and the dead, he is over us even when we die. While we live, our lives are to be lived for his glory. And when someone in Christ dies, it is also for His glory. Paul knew it all too well. He spent most of his post-conversion life in prison, subject to torture, and left for dead twice. Through it all, Paul was ready and willing to live his life for Christ, and to give his life for the cause of Christ.
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
— Philippians 1:20-23
To Live is Christ
Paul knew that as long as he had breath in his lungs, that his life had a purpose in Christ. He accepted what God had for him; he found the joy amid his suffering. He understood the importance of God’s process and that we are all going to experience suffering to some degree in our lives. And he chose to rejoice through it all.
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”
–2 Corinthians 5:6-9
We know that when our earthly bodies cease to function on this earth, our inner being is released and we are joined with Christ in heaven. Every Christian has this promise, this hope, of eternal life with our Lord. Our lives here are temporary. Our job while here, is to live those lives for the One who saves us and to share the free gift God provides to all.
We can share this gift with our life, shining God’s love through our words and deeds. AND we can share this gift through our death, being that we have achieved the ultimate reward, eternal life with our Savior.
To Die is Gain
We don’t know when our number is going to be called. While all of our days are numbered, each one of them is ordained by God. He knew our birthday, and he knows the day when each of us will be called home. We cannot choose how we will meet our end, but know that God has a purpose in it. Even if that death at face value seems senseless.
So, what is God’s purpose for the dozens of lives afflicted by these tragedies? Does God really have a plan for his children?
It is true, we will feel empathy for those suffering. We will experience firsthand the pain of loved ones lost. Our hearts will hurt, but our hearts will heal. And we will move on. The choice is ours in how we will handle the sorrow we are given.
And about those who have died? Think about it. What are they doing right now?
They are home. They have punched their ticket on the homebound train. They are celebrating the realization of Christ’s victory over death and the grave. They are forever singing praises to God right now as you read these words.
Should we mourn over those we lost? Of course. Our love for them causes our hearts to be weighed down by their sudden departure. But would our loved one want us to continue in our despair? Of course not, they would want us to be rejoicing, just as they are rejoicing.
The Final Lap
Our lives are a race. While we are here on earth, we continue to run this race in pursuit of the prize at the finish line. We struggle and battle as we make our way around the track. There are obstacles we face; and overcome. There are setbacks; we press through. There are choices we make and are rewarded.
Paul knew it, and he proclaimed it to his death. Just as his life was rewarded with the promise of God, so will ours.
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” –I Timothy 4:6-8
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…who wouldn’t want that on their epitaph?
Our loved ones are in Heaven with the Lord right now. We may not fully understand why they were taken, but the Lord’s reasoning is just. We should not feel sadness for those lost; their work here is done, their race is complete, their faith was rewarded. Their purpose on this earth has been fulfilled.
Know this: Nothing surprises God. He knows all. He knew that on March 29th, and on November 5th that his saints would be called home. Each of us has our own race we are running. We may not know where the finish line is, but we know it is there. And our hope is in the completion of our race, because at the end of it, whenever that may be, the reward we receive will far outweigh anything we leave behind.
Our joy found in these tragedies should be that our brothers and sisters have achieved the status of faithfully completing the race.