Broadman & Holman
AS POWERFUL AS WE ARE, we have no control over God’s hand.” That’s all the sheriff could say to explain why Stan and Beth Jones and two of their three children died in a freak accident. Given the circumstances, what else could he say? The odds against a ten-ton, one-hundred-year-old tree suddenly uprooting itself at the precise moment a family of five drives by in their Lincoln are astronomical. And for the tree to strike neither the hood nor the trunk, but to land squarely on top of the passenger compartment crushing four of the five people inside defies imagination, especially when the car was traveling forty miles an hour. Standing on the scene, watching rescue workers struggle for over an hour just to move the tree off the car, one could only say, “We cannot control God’s hand.”
As I sit in the quiet of my study, typing out these words two weeks later, my mind still struggles to believe Stan is gone. Attending the funeral didn’t help. I keep expecting a chime to sound on my computer, and I’ll click the envelope on the corner of the screen to find some lame joke from Stan in my e-mail inbox. Half the time I found these quips and quotes a little annoying. I don’t like forwards. At least, I didn’t.
I guess when I go out next week with the surviving members of our group of pastors who eat lunch together on a regular basis to encourage each other, it will sink in because Stan won’t be there. He was always the steady member of the group. The highs and lows of life didn’t knock him off balance. Perhaps raising an autistic son kept things in perspective for him. He and Beth worried about the day they would not be there for their son. But that day will never come. They died together because they could not control God’s hand.
The question of why they died reverberated through the funeral home last week. Why would God take the life of a pastor and his wife and their ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter? And why would he leave a four-year-old girl to grow up with nothing but fading memories of her family? Thankfully, no one offered any answers. Four caskets lined up across the front of a room made any answer seem insignificant and thoughtless.
One of my friends told me the devil had to be pushing hard on that tree to make it fall as Stan and Beth drove by. Holding Satan responsible when bad things happen is always a popular option. Jesus called him a thief who comes to kill and steal and destroy (John 10:10). And it was Satan himself who caused Job to lose all his flocks and his herds and his children and his health. If the devil pushed the tree onto Stan’s car that helps me understand why this all happened. Satan must have been angry because of the good work Stan was doing in his church on the east side of Indianapolis, and Satan wanted it stopped.
But Stan’s church was small. Why would Satan target him? Other people actively work to extinguish the power of darkness in our world while holding up the light of Christ. Will trees drop on them soon? A renowned pastor in Dallas passed away a few days after Stan at the age of ninety-two. He never had to dodge any trees. Why didn’t Satan take his life years ago if he is indeed in the business of snuffing out the lives of anyone who poses a threat to his kingdom of darkness?
Even if Satan is to blame for Stan’s death, something still troubles me. According to the first two chapters of the Book of Job, Satan had to receive God’s permission before he could unleash his nightmare on Job. Isn’t the one who gives permission as culpable as the one who carries out the deed? Insurance companies understand this better than most believers. They classify events like trees dropping on cars as “acts of God.” So did Job. “The Lord gave me everything I had, and the Lord has taken it away,” he cried out as he fell to the ground after hearing his ten children died together in a tragic accident, “Praise the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
I keep thinking about Job because during the funeral the pastor in charge compared Stan and Beth and Tyler and Lauren’s deaths to the tragedy Job endured. In one day Job lost everything. Raiding bands of thieves rode in from the desert, carried away all his oxen and donkeys and camels, and killed his servants. Later that day fire fell from heaven and burned up his flocks and his shepherds. At the same time a windstorm knocked down Job’s oldest son’s house, killing everyone inside including Job’s seven sons and three daughters. As the pastor recounted the story of Job he added, “Sometimes bad things happen to good people and we never know why. God doesn’t offer any explanations. All we can do is continue to trust in God and his goodness and grace.”
But Job wasn’t four and a half, I kept thinking. Job wasn’t four and a half.
Emily is. Emily cried in the dark, pinned in the back seat of the car, unable to move because of the tree. Sounds of rescue workers scrambling to do something surrounded her, while one firefighter held her hand and reassured her that everything would be OK. Two days later she was released from the hospital. She keeps asking where her mother and father are. “With Jesus in heaven,” her aunts, uncles, and grandparents reply.
“Can I go home?” she wants to know. The answer is always, “No, you’re going to stay here for awhile.”
“Why? Is my house with Jesus too?” she asks.
Emily’s world will never be the same because she has no control over God’s hand.
At this point many of us feel compelled to defend God’s honor. “God’s hand didn’t cause the tree to fall on Stan and Beth anymore than God’s hand caused calamity to fall upon Job,” we say in his defense. He didn’t cause these tragedies, but in his providence he allowed them to occur to accomplish his greater purposes. I grew up hearing a lot about the difference between God’s permissive will and his causal will. It makes tragedy more palatable while keeping our image of a good God intact. A holy God will not, and cannot, do something evil.
But what if accidental deaths are not evil in the eyes of God? What if total financial ruin is not tragic in his estimation? What if all of the calamities we dread—the nightmare scenarios that keep us up at night worrying—and all the worst case outcomes are not worst case but best case to God? If somehow, and God forbid it be true, that which I fear is the very thing God not only allows but causes, do I really want to follow a God like this?
I can (and I really wish we were in the same room so you could hear my best pastoral tone of voice) because God has a purpose in all trials. This is our favorite defense of God’s honor. The Lord has a reason for everything that happens to those who love him and call upon his name. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, God isn’t playing dice with the universe or with his children. All things work together for his ultimate plan. Good will result from evil. It did for Joseph.
I love the story of Joseph, especially as images of that crushed Lincoln flash in my mind. Joseph was his father’s favorite son. Although he was the second youngest of twelve brothers, he was the first son born to his father Jacob by Jacob’s one true love, Rachel. Rachel later died giving birth to Joseph’s brother Benjamin. Grief made Jacob even more protective of his favorite son, but no one could protect Joseph from his brothers’ jealousy. One day when they were all far from home taking care of the family herds, the ten older brothers seized Joseph, threw him into a hole, and sold him as a slave to the first caravan that happened by. His misfortune did not stop there. As if being a slave wasn’t bad enough, Joseph was unjustly accused of rape and thrown into an Egyptian prison to rot away, forgotten.
A few years later the king of Egypt had two recurring dreams. No one in the kingdom had a clue what they meant, no one but Joseph. His explanation of the dreams not only won his release from prison but secured for him the position of second in command over the entire nation. Seven years of drought would soon descend upon the entire region, and Pharaoh entrusted the nation’s survival to the former slave ex-convict.
Drought also fell on the land of Canaan where Joseph’s brothers and father lived. When they heard Egypt had food, the brothers set out at once. In a great twist of fate, the ten who sold Joseph as a slave now cowered before him, begging for enough food for their survival. Eventually Joseph revealed himself to them. Like any thinking person, they immediately feared for their lives. “Don’t be afraid of me,” Joseph told them, “as far as I am concerned, God turned into good what you meant for evil”_(Gen. 50:19–20).
God turned into good what you meant for evil. Surely the same principle applies to the tragedies the rest of us endure. No matter how evil it may appear on the outside, God intends to accomplish something good. Romans 8:28 turns the principle into a promise: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” If not for this promise we could do nothing more than shiver under the covers, afraid of whatever calamity will strike next.
I think I’ll keep repeating Romans 8:28 over and over in my head until I feel better, until I can drive down a deserted country road and not wonder if a tree will strike my car, killing four of my five family members. But the more I repeat the verse, the more I am struck by what it does not say. It does not say God has a purpose behind every event that happens in my life, at least not a purpose I will ever see or understand. Nor does the verse tell me to look for the good in every bad event. I cannot control God’s hand, and when I try to force some good purpose onto tragic events, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. God may work for the good of those who have been called according to his purpose, but that doesn’t mean you or I will ever see it.
And that’s the dilemma I really do not want to face. I can accept tragedy when I see God working through it. But will I when I cannot? Job posed this question to his wife: “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” Will I accept bad things from the hand of God, without demanding an explanation, without seeing any tangible results, or ever knowing why God would possibly want to inflict pain upon me? The question is not whether I will try to understand it or rejoice in it in the hope that spiritual maturity runs through the valley of the shadow. Will I accept bad things from the hand of God as readily as I accept the good?
Can I take the question a step further? I daily ask for God’s guidance. I want his favor and his mercy and his grace and his presence. One of the most popular Christian books told us how to ask God to bless our lives. That’s what I want. That’s what you want. We want God to bless us and cause his face to shine on us. But am I willing to ask him for hard times because in those times I must exercise real faith? I want his presence, but am I willing to ask for feelings of distance from God in order that I might walk by faith and not emotion? Am I willing to pray, “God, send tragedy into my life, allow me to suffer, in order that I might share in the sufferings of your Son”?
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll save those questions for the last chapter of this book not the first. For now it is enough to ask, will I continue to believe in him and follow his Son even if doing so never resulted in any blessings in this life? Will I believe when believing only makes life harder not easier? Will I accept bad things from the hand of God and keep trusting in him even if the bad so overwhelms the good as to make it invisible?
Do I want to explore such questions? Are you kidding? Believe me, this is one aspect of the Christian life I would rather leave untouched. All of us would. Unfortunately, we can’t ignore it because it doesn’t ignore us. We don’t seek tragedy and heartache and tears and asking God why. They seek us. It is not a question of if our lives will be turned over by grief but when. And when tragedy strikes, when everything around us screams, “God has forgotten you,” what will you do?
Before we dive into these questions, I need to warn you: the pages that follow do not address the question of why trees fall on families traveling down country roads or why an eight-year-old boy dies alone on a hill when his four-wheeler flips over on top of him or why a sixty-one-year-old wife and mother has to suffer with cancer for three years only to lose her fight and die. These things happen. In fact, they all happened in the span of six days to people I knew and loved. Trees fall on the just and the unjust. The world in which we live teems with death and despair. It has since the moment Adam and Eve chose sin over life—bringing about the “Fall” of the world—and it will until Christ returns. God could prevent suffering from hitting close to home, but he doesn’t. We cannot control the hand of God, nor can we explain why he does everything he does. Because he is God, he never feels compelled to explain himself to creatures made of dust.
“‘Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?’ So in all this, Job said nothing wrong” (Job 2:10). I want to be like Job. I pray for protection from the trials that struck his life, but I long to be able to accept whatever God gives me, good or bad, without pointing an accusing finger in the face of God.
Shall we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad? We cannot control God’s hand, but will we follow him when his hand strikes rather than caresses?