How do we respond to this latest most unspeakable eruption of evil in our midst? What do we do? What do we think? How should we feel?
In the church service I attended last Sunday, the minister quoted this line from a poem: “There is no bottom to evil.” We’ve all been reminded again of the truth of that statement in the most graphic way possible. There really is no bottom to evil, no limit to the horrors that evil men and evil powers are capable of unleashing upon the world. So how do we respond to this latest, most unspeakable eruption of evil in our midst? What do we do? What are we to think, how should we feel now in light of the atrocities we have witnessed?
I’m going to describe four reactions, four things to do. The first three of them are common, almost unavoidable. We all experience all of them without even thinking about it. The last response is specifically Christian, and we have to decide whether or not we will choose to make it.
Our initial reaction is shock and horror, the instinctive human response to sudden death. But shock is not really an emotion; it is the absence of emotion. That’s why we say, when we are in shock, “It really hasn’t hit me yet.” After the shock comes grief. That is the first emotional response. We weep and we mourn. Many people all across America have been turning to the Bible to help express their sense of sorrow. Psalms of lament are now taking on a new meaning; collectively we hear and feel their words as we never have before.
“My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’” – Psalm 42:1
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because of the oppression of the enemy? – Psalm 43:1-2
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications! – Psalm 130:1-2
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me. . . .
my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints. – Psalm 77:1-3
For those of us whose ears are tuned to the pitch of scripture, it is inevitable that we should turn to passages like these. Suddenly we realize how full of lamentation the Bible is. In fact, there is a whole book called Lamentations, a book that now has an almost uncanny relevance.
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations. . . .
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks. . . .
she has no one to comfort her. . . .
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress. . . .
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter. . . .
the foe looked on mocking
over her downfall. . . .
“O Lord, look at my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed!” . . .
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
From on high he sent fire;
it went deep into my bones. . . .
the Lord handed me over
to those whom I cannot withstand.
For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevailed.
The prophet was speaking here in the first chapter of the book of Lamentations about the city of Jerusalem, when it was attacked and destroyed more than 2,500 years ago. But he could have been a television commentator describing New York City today. So the first thing we need to do in the face of atrocity is to sit down in the dust with suffering people everywhere and lament. We need to weep for the pain; we have to cry out in anguish for the devastation that sin wreaks upon our world, upon our neighbors, upon ourselves. “O, come and mourn with me a while,” sings an old Negro spiritual; and so we do. The temptation is to look away from the sorrow and rush back to “business as usual.” We can’t wait for football and sitcoms to return to television to divert us so we don’t have to think about all the suffering or feel the pain. But let the mourning continue for a while. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” The apostle Paul told us to “Weep with those who weep.” For many thousands of our fellow citizens, the mourning is going to last for the rest of their lives.
Inevitably, though, when something so monstrously evil strikes us, our next reaction – after shock and sorrow – is to start questioning. We want someone to blame. That’s easy; blame the despicable people who did it. But someone else must bear some responsibility as well. Where were those who should have been guarding against this sort of attack? How could it have not been discovered and prevented? Who has failed? Where was the security breakdown? On and on the questions go. And before too long, we get around to questioning God. After all, doesn’t he bear ultimate responsibility? Isn’t he ruling the world? “God . . . How could you . . . Why did you . . . Where were you . . .?”
Once more we find that the Bible speaks our questions for us.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? – Psalm 89:46
So the psalms ask, which is to ask: Where is God in all of this mess? Has he changed? Did he disappear? Is this unimaginable catastrophe the final conclusive evidence that God as we understand him really is an illusion; that there is no omnipotent, loving heavenly Father watching over us? That we are simply alone? Many people have been raising and responding to questions like these in recent days. As the passages I just read from the book of Psalms show, there is nothing new about questioning God. The problem of reconciling evil events with the presence and care of a great and good God has been around forever, and it’s not likely anyone’s going to solve it for us in a television sound bite. I’ve heard people saying in recent days that God had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, that he was as much a victim as the rest of us. I’ve heard others suggest that God is ultimately responsible for the attacks, that he is using them to judge America for its sins. I’ve heard Christian leaders assert that the solution to the problem of evil is simple: God made us free to choose good or evil, and some people choose evil. Well, I don’t think it’s that simple. I’ve been hearing a lot of explanations. I’m just not too sure about any of them. That God is in control both of our lives and of our world, I still believe. That all of our questions do have answers and that we’ll understand it all bye and bye, I do not doubt. I just don’t have any specific answers right now. The Almighty has not seen fit to confide in me just exactly what he is doing, or how he will bring good out of this tragedy.
The third reaction we all experience is the desire to act. Soon enough grieving and questioning are joined by anger. We want to do something, we want to strike back, we want to make those who are guilty of murder and atrocity pay for their crimes against innocent human beings. And we are right to feel this way. Action is demanded. The desire to see justice done is one of the deepest and strongest instincts in human nature; it is one of the ways in which we reflect our creation as human beings in the image of a holy God. But there are difficulties here for Christians. It is perilously easy to confuse our desire for justice with a lust for vengeance. “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good,” urges the apostle. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” That’s not the absolute final word either because people can and will be used by God as instruments of his justice and vengeance. God usually does his work in the world through human agents. Just as he feeds the hungry and heals the sick by using our gifts and labor, so he punishes evildoers and protects innocent lives through the agency of legitimate governments and their armed forces. The Bible declares that the state does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13:4). So those nations who will come together and cooperate to bring these terrorists to justice and to prevent further attacks on the innocent will be functioning as the ministers of God himself.
But this is still no simple matter. May God preserve us from unholy wrath and arrogance. May we not harm the innocent in our zeal to punish the guilty. May we never unthinkingly assume that those whom we identify as our enemies are always also God’s enemies. Is not that exactly what the terrorists themselves have done? How to fight evil without becoming ourselves the very thing we are attacking is the problem. And it has no easy solution.
Hatred is a powerful emotion but it is always dangerous. We may want “an eye for an eye,” but as has often been pointed out, a world where that law is rigidly followed will eventually be populated entirely with the blind. In the end, the permanent solution to the challenge of terror is not going to be found through more bombs and guns. It will take change: social change, political change, and most of all, spiritual change. The only real answer to human hatred is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So we come to the final reaction, one that Christians are called to make. In response to this atrocity, we must recommit ourselves to the task of witness. We must bear witness to the gospel. The one thing I have missed in all the endless hours of analysis and commentary following the terrorist attacks is a recognition that the fundamental problem in the world today is not political or economic; it is theological. As one of my old teachers, Lewis Smedes, has said, “Bad theology kills.” Now we all understand how. There are people in the world today who believe that God is pleased when they slaughter unbelieving infidels. There are people who think that if they sacrifice their lives in a suicide attack that murders innocent men, women and children they will by this act earn their salvation and go straight to Paradise. What a shock they are in for!
We must say otherwise. We must speak the truth. Jesus Christ is the world’s true hope. In his death he has dealt sin and evil their own death blows. By his resurrection he has destroyed the power of death and brought life and immortality to light. In him alone we have eternal life. He is the only way to God. Through him we are shown how to pursue here and now “a more excellent way,” the way of love. Our only comfort, strength and hope – in life and in death – is not that we have the world’s most powerful military, or that we are taking extra-special security precautions, or that our advanced technology gives us a decisive edge in the battle against evil. As we have been so cruelly reminded, none of those things is a sure defense against sudden death. No, our only security is rather that we are not our own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who has paid for all our sins with his own precious blood, and who watches over us in such a way that not a hair can fall from our heads without his permission, and who promises to make all things – bad things as well as good things – work together for our salvation.
This is the gospel. This is the message to which we bear witness. We have always known that lives depended upon our sharing it with everyone. But now we know that the future of the world depends upon it too.
INTERVIEW WITH WESLEY GRANBERG-MICHAELSON
And now this special edition of Words of Hope continues as David Bast speaks with an American church leader, Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who is the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. He speaks to David over the telephone from his office in New York City.
Rev. David Bast: Having had time to reflect for several days, what are your thoughts right now?
Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson: You’re in, first of all, a state of shock and where you really need God’s presence and consolation, even those of us who haven’t lost anyone. You have to experience just the weight and grief of this loss that has affected thousands of people, probably 5,000 people right here in the city. I think it’s driven all of us to deeper levels of prayer and feelings of really calling on God’s sustenance and help and presence to bear the weight of this.
Dave Bast: It seems like from afar, watching what’s unfolding in New York in particular, there’s almost an incredible turning to God. Churches are packed now and also people turning to each other.
Dr. Granberg – Michaelson: I think that’s very true. Karen (my wife) and I, and our daughter, went down to one of our churches in Lower Manhattan at Middle Collegiate and this is a church on the lower east side. It’s maybe 25 blocks from the sight. But it was absolutely packed, and they had had a candlelight service there on Friday night and had hundreds of people coming in all through the week, many people with immediate needs and others who just wanted a pastoral presence. I think in the midst of a tragedy like this, people ask spiritual questions and they want to connect to God. And they definitely want to gather with one another; they want to be together.
Dave Bast: The media have been full of religious references and stories and interviews of religious leaders, many of whom have been making claims and assertions about what God is up to or isn’t up to. How do you respond to all that?
Dr. Granberg – Michaelson: I think first of all the society at a time like this wants to know how to make sense out of such evil in light of our belief in a sovereign and a loving God. And even those people who don’t have any real personal faith, those same questions arise in their hearts at a time like this. And I think it’s very important how the church responds. I’ve read, as have you probably, a couple of responses suggesting that while this action must be God’s judgment on the U.S. because of the ways in which we are falling short of God’s standards and God’s ways, well, I think that is a lamentable and very damaging thing to suggest. Those who committed these actions were evil. You see the face of evil and the presence of evil in the world that we know is a reality because of sin. We also know that God in Jesus Christ has ultimately triumphed over the power of this evil and it’s in that that we have faith. God’s victory over evil is assured in the end, but it is still in process, and while we believe strongly in God’s sovereignty whenever a tragedy hits, where pain is inflicted, we stand back and say, “It’s not that God intends this. God intends for such evil to finally be overcome.”
I’m driven back, frankly, to the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve been saying that here in the office and it takes on new meaning when we say, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done.” This isn’t the kind of world that God intends. We pray for that will to be done.
Dave Bast: We’re really led by something like this to cry out in recognition that evil is bigger than we are, and we are not going to solve it with another policy conference or, for that matter, we’re not going to solve it with a military campaign.
Dr. Granberg – Michaelson: I think that the kind of evil and fanaticism that we’ve seen here which makes people martyrs, it’s not going to be eliminated with cruise missiles. We need as a country a well-focused response that’s military and diplomatic and economic, that’s very clear to me, but I think we are up against a broader face of evil, yes.
Dave Bast: Let me ask you as the leader of the Reformed Church: Is there a word from the Lord?
Dr. Granberg – Michaelson: I can say the word I’ve received in my prayers is: Deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Deliver us from evil. And that means: Don’t allow the terrorists to change our hearts and to finally allow that evil to inflict itself into our hearts, but rather draw deeper into our knowledge of God in Christ. That word keeps coming back to me that in the midst of this, we have to cry out to God to be delivered, not only from the external threat but from its ability to damage us internally in our hearts.
Dave Bast: And create evil in our own hearts.
Dr. Granberg – Michaelson: Precisely. Yes.