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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
October 28, 2012
When Tragedy Strikes – Answering the “Why?” Questions
This morning I was going to give my election sermon and apply some of the principles of good government we learned last week from Proverbs to the upcoming election. That is still a very important subject, and I may get to it next week. We have placed some materials in the back of the church to help you figure out the positions of the various candidates and vote accordingly.
However, in view of the tragic death of Ray Marchetti on Wednesday, I thought it best that today we deal with some of the hard questions that arise when such a tragedy happens. The shock of the news numbs our minds and it is hard to even comprehend it. We question that the news is even true. We can’t believe it. We don’t want to believe it. We want Ray to walk through the door and sit where he usually does. We want to hear his booming voice again. It cannot be true. Yet, it is.
There might not even be an emotional reaction at first, but soon the mind does start to comprehend it and as the reality sinks in, the flood of emotions come followed by all sorts of questions which often fuel the emotions even more. What happened? How could this happen? Why did this happen? Why did this happen now?
As the mind regains control to try to make sense of what has occurred, some of those questions are answered. What happened and how did it happen are usually the easiest. In this case, Ray was involved in a tragic traffic accident in which he was hit by another car and died quickly. The other questions, the why questions, are harder to answer. Some of them may not have an answer this side of eternity. But they are real questions and they need real answers. I want to address them this morning.
The Opportunity of Why?
If you are familiar with Ray’s testimony, you know that his quest to understand the truth began with the tragic death of his friend, Kevin, in a car accident in 1996. In Ray’s own words, “He left behind 3 young boys and wife helpless. I was so mad at God. How could He take my friend from them and me? That is when I began to ask questions.”
Prior to this, though Ray had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, he did not have much interest in religion. Again in his own words, “When going to church, I would go through the motions not really caring or knowing what I was doing. I knew there was a God, and I had heard about Jesus, but I never put the two together.” After getting married and having children of his own, he would send his daughters to CCD as he said, “to further them along in the faith I wasn’t ever sure about or cared about. I knew nothing about what God said about sin. I lived my life the way I wanted just for me. I thought that to get to heaven, I just had to be good and that pretty much if you were, you were in.”
It is blasphemy to accuse God of evil. For as Psalm 5:4 states, “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; No evil dwells with You.” It is wrong to falsely accuse anyone. Therefore it is proper to correct someone who is doing that, but remember that we are to be gentle in correcting people, even those in opposition, with the hope that God will grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth and escape the snare of the devil (2 Timothy 2:25-26). And when someone is making such accusations in the midst of their despair, then we need to be even more gentle. How do you do that? By pointing them back to the question that underlies the accusation and assure them that it is okay to ask God questions.
I recognize that some people think it is blasphemous to ask God questions, but the book of Habakkuk assures us that it is not. We may not like the answers we get, for they may not fit our preconceived ideas about God or our personal desires for what He should do, but it is permissible and may even be good to ask questions. Habakkuk was a prophet during King Josiah’s reign which was near the end of the Judean kingdom. In answer to Habakkuk’s prayer concerning the wickedness he saw in his nation, the Lord revealed He was going to raise up the Chaldeans to punish Judah. This shocked Habakkuk.
In Habakkuk 1:13, the prophet recounts what he understands about the nature of God and then begins a series of questions. “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, And You can not look on wickedness with favor. Why do You look with favor On those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up Those more righteous than they?” Habakkuk recognized the sin of his own people, but he considered the Chaldeans far worse. How then could a good God tolerate such evil much less use such wicked people for His own purpose? Or if we can expand that to the more common and broad form of its expression, how can a good God allow bad things to happen to good people.
Some will point to Isaiah 45:9 or Romans 9:20 and say that the clay should not question the potter, “What are you doing?” From that has come the idea that it is wrong to ask questions of God. Yet, we find Habakkuk asks tough questions and is not rebuked for it. Therefore it is important at this point to note the nature of what Habakkuk is after. It is very different from both Isaiah 45 and Romans 9 which both have the questions asked in a context of rebellion in which the questions are challenges against God.
In Habakkuk 2:1 we find the prophet saying, “I will stand on my guard post And station myself on the rampart; And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved.” Habakkuk was not challenging what God was doing. He simply wanted to understand it. He longed for God to reveal to him what was needed to make sense of what he did not understand. He was well aware that something was wrong in his thinking which is why he was actually looking forward to God reproving or correcting him.
There is a huge difference between asking God questions and questioning God. One comes to God in humility desiring to understand how to reconcile what they know is true about God’s character with the realities of life they are experiencing. The other is not really a question in the sense of inquiry desiring to gain additional information, but rather a challenge that objects to what God is doing. Asking God questions is founded in humility while questioning God is founded in pride.
One of the great opportunities we have is the fact that our God, the sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient Creator welcomes those who desire to know Him. The idea of going to God to inquire of Him or to seek Him occurs throughout the Old Testament. That was often done trying to discern the Lord’s will, but it was also done in just trying to understand God. As Psalm 27:4 puts it, “One thing I have desired of the Lord, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord All the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord, And to inquire in His temple” (NKJV). The Lord desires us to seek Him out and understand Him. He even promises that those who seek Him will find Him when they search with all their heart (Jeremiah 29:13).
The Patience of God
That is all good news, but
there immediately arises a serious problem. There is no one that will do that on their own. Romans 3:11 declares, “There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God.” At first glance this problem would seem insurmountable. How can anyone enjoy the privilege of asking God questions and gain knowledge and understanding of Him if no one actually seeks for Him? The answer to this question actually answers an additional related dilemma. There are none that start out in humility asking questions of God. We start out in pride questioning God and challenging what He does according to our own values of what we think is right and what we want.
Remember that I already mentioned in Ray’s testimony that he was mad at God for his friend dying tragically in a traffic accident. Ray was not even seeking God. His plan was to go to psychics until his sister-in-law gave him an appropriate and loving rebuke to turn God. This brings us again to the incredible nature of the sovereign God, Creator of heaven and earth. He is also loving and incredibly patient and longsuffering. As Psalm 86:15 declares, “But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, Slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth.” It is because of these attributes that God does not judge and condemn us immediately. As Psalm 103:10 expresses it, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.”
Being mad at God, blaming Him for the bad things that happen and challenging what He does do only adds more sin to the great catalog of sins for which an individual is already guilty. Yet, God in patience and mercy, withholds the just punishment in order to call us to repentance. The apostle Paul expressed it this way in Acts 17:30-31, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” God is merciful and patient, but man must repent of His sin and rebellion against God. Too often man takes God’s patience for granted instead of recognizing that it, along with his kindness and tolerance, should lead to repentance (Romans 2:4). It was not until Ray repented of his sin, that is, he changed his mind about being good and recognized he had been rebellious and disobedient toward God, that he actually started seeking God. His questions changed from accusations to inquiry, from blaming God to striving to understand life from God’s perspective.
That is the foundation for understanding the answers to the “why” questions that come upon us in this life. Without that humility, man’s pride will always cause him to reject the truth though it is laid out plainly before him even in defiance of just simple logic. An example of this is how often people blame God for the evil that occurs in this world and on that basis reject that He has any claim on their life or that he even exits. That is completely illogical. Whether God is good or evil has no relationship to whether He exists or is all powerful. In fact, if they thought God was responsible for all the evil that occurs in the world, then they should be even more afraid of Him and concerned to find a way to appease Him lest He bring evil upon them. That God tolerates the existence of evil is not evidence of any weakness in Him, but an expression of His mercy and longsuffering which allows people the time to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
When a person is humble, then they rejoice in what God has revealed about Himself and His working in this cursed world. They recognize their sin, repent from it and rejoice in the forgiveness God grants them based on faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He became the sin sacrifice, the substitute payment for us so that we might be redeemed, sanctified and adopted into God’s family. It is easier, therefore, for a Christian to properly ask God questions without reverting to the old sinful pattern of questioning God in the sense of a challenge and objection. But Christians do at times revert to those old habits, and the reality is that when someone like Ray is killed in such a tragedy, it is easy to go back to a sinful mindset.
So the first thing that needs to be done in trying to answer the why questions is to be thankful that even when we ask improperly with wrong motives, God is patient, longsuffering and merciful to withhold the punishment we deserve for the blasphemy, and that He is also gracious and kind to work with us, even while in a sinful state, to come to the truth. Second, we need to humble ourselves before our Creator and honestly seek Him out with the desire to know Him and His will in the midst of our perplexity in trying to understand the events that occur around us and to us.
Why then does such a tragedy as Ray’s death occur? Or again, in the more common phrasing, why do bad things happen to good people? There are actually many reasons. Some are easy to comprehend. Some are not and require and understanding of God’s perspective and faith. Let me begin with the bigger picture and then work toward some answers that may fit Ray’s particular case.
First, going back to Habakkuk, people are not as good as we think they are. The tragedy that befalls them is actually God’s just punishment for their sin. This was what God revealed to Habakkuk. The prophet was at a loss to understand how a God too pure to approve evil could be silent when wicked people would swallow up those more righteous than themselves (Habakkuk 1:13). He humbly sought an answer to solve his dilemma. The answer was that God is against those who are proud and He brings upon them His wrath for their various sins. Chapter 2 points out the punishment He would bring upon those who practiced usury (vs. 6), looters (vs. 8), the greedy (vs. 9), murderers and the violent (vs. 12), voyeurs (vs. 15), and idolaters (vs. 18). Remember this all began with Habakkuk’s prayer concerning these same types of sins among his own people.
The reality is that God’s judgment is against all the wicked. Romans 1:18 describes this saying, “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .” We are the ones that tend to try and separate people into various grades of evil and then twist that around to seeing those the least evil as somehow being relatively good. Being less wicked in action does not equal being good in any sense. It is just for God in His sovereignty to allow the wicked to be an instrument of His wrath against other wicked people, though justice demands they also be punished.
To illustrate, if a serial killer slays a convicted murder, that is easily understood as an act of justice with the serial killer now under condemnation for the additional murder. If one con artist defrauds another con artist, no one weeps for him, though both are still liable for their lies and crimes. If one liar deceives another liar it seems just, unless of course we are the one who was lied to – but that illustrates the problem. We evaluate good and evil according to our own standards instead of God’s. To ask questions of God means to be humble and consider if what is being considered an evil may not be a just moral retribution upon someone that was actually wicked.
Second, we need to consider that many things that are tragic in the sense that they bring extreme distress or sadness are actually the result of the activities of an individual. If those activities include what is sinful or recklessness, then tragedy does not come as a surprise. For example, tragic events befall thrill seekers that engage in all sorts of risky sports and adventures because they place themselves in peril. It does not surprise us nor does it cause us to question God’s goodness if a motorcycle racer or a bungee jumper gets broken bones or even kills themselves. It also does not
surprise us nor cause us to question God’s goodness when a drunkard gets cirrhosis of the liver or when a chain smoker gets lung cancer. Sin and risky behavior have consequences.
We need to remember that every one of us engages in risky behavior every day. When you cook, you expect to get burned once in awhile because you were not careful enough or some accident happens. Everyone that works with tools knows that sooner or later something will not go as planned and you will get hurt. The wrench pops off the nut, your aim is off with the hammer, the saw will kick back, the knife will slip. There is risk every time you get in a car. A moment’s inattention, and unexpected road condition, a mechanical failure can all quickly cause an accident. People do not tend to blame God when such things are minor, but it is a common reaction when something is tragic.
Related to this is taking God’s mercy for granted. I would expect each of us could identify something every day in which an accident or tragedy was avoided, and sometimes in such away that it clearly demonstrates divine intervention. The Scriptures are full of such interventions by God into the lives of people. Ask Jim Pagones sometime about how an angel must have driven his car for miles after he had passed out at the wheel due to his diabetes. Should we presume upon God’s merciful intervention to the point that we blame Him for a tragedy because He choose not to intervene?
To ask questions of God means to be humble and consider if what has occurred is the result of that person’s own actions or failure to act. Since none of us were in the car with Ray, we cannot know this side of eternity if something may have distracted him so that he was not as defensive in his driving as he normally was.
Third, bad things happen to good people because other people do sinful things. One of the rules for the road that John Halpin gives to our young men as they get old enough to drive is, “drive as if everyone is out to kill you.” Sadly, many tragedies of all types are directly related to this truth, not just in automobile accidents, but in every act of crime and in war. God is often blamed for the actions of sinful people, and that is blasphemy.
God is not the author of evil or the cause of it. His very attributes such as holiness (1 Pet. 1:16; Isa. 6:1-7), righteousness (Acts 17:31; Gen. 18:25), love (1 John 4:8; Eph. 2:4-7), goodness (Mark 10:18; Acts 14:7; James 1:7) and truth (Jer. 17:3; Num. 23:19) preclude Him from being the origin of the antithesis of His own being. It is God’s sovereignty and righteous attributes that restrains evil and sin. Do not blame God for man’s intentional evil against other humans, and man has been doing that since Cain murdered Abel. Also, do not blame God for the unintentional consequences of the actions or failures of humans. Remember that sin is a failure to meet the perfect standard of righteousness. It does not have to include the intent to do evil.
To ask questions of God means to be humble and consider if what has occurred is the result of another person’s sin. No one else was in the car of the person that hit Ray, and so we do not know the degree of his contribution to his tragic death.
Fourth, tragedy happens because we live in a fallen world. Adam’s sin brought a curse upon the world as well as upon mankind.
Many disasters occur because nature is taking its course in following the laws of physics. Earthquakes and volcanoes occur when the pressures within the earth are released. Weather patterns develop because of the differences in the heating and cooling of the earth’s surface. Fire will spread as long as it has fuel, oxygen and heat. Most of the worst disasters that have ever occurred in the history of mankind have occurred simply because nature follows the laws of physics and man was in its path. Hurricanes will go through Florida. The mid-west will have tornado watches in the Spring. Blizzards occur in the North East. The Alaskan interior gets extremely cold in the winter. Houses built on a flood plain will get water in their living rooms occasionally. Volcanoes episodically erupt. Earthquakes shake things up.
There is also the reality that corruption occurs following the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Metals rust, wood rots, stone chips and breaks. Tragedies occur all the time due to mechanical failure as the materials they are built with stress, rust, rot and break.
To ask questions of God means to be humble and consider if what has occurred is due to living in a sin cursed world in which nature follows the laws of physics. Things break and natural disasters occur.
In a very real sense all of these things are natural causes of tragedy. Bad things happen to good people because A) they are not really good, B) the actions or failures of the individual himself, C) the actions or failures of others, D) we live in a fallen and sin cursed world. But there are two other causes of tragedy that are supernatural.
Satan is the first. The book of Job tells us that the devil does have power to bring havoc on man. His power is limited by God, but the devil is the source of many disasters. In the book of Job, we find that he is the instigator of theft, murder and even a supernatural wind that destroyed the house Job’s children resulting in their deaths. He was also the source of Job’s physical afflictions.
To ask questions of God means to be humble and consider if what has occurred is due to Satanic or demonic activity. However, we must be careful of the trap some have fallen into that blames nearly everything on Satan and the fallen angels that follow him, for man and living in a sin cursed world cause a host of tragedies without any supernatural aide.
God is the last source of tragedy I want to discuss. In the Scriptures we find that the Lord Himself has struck individuals, entire nations, and even the whole world. Miriam grumbled against Moses and God struck her with leprosy. Korah rebelled against Moses and God had the earth swallow him and all those who joined in his rebellion. Egypt refused to let Israel go and God sent ten plagues against her and then destroyed her army. The Canaanite tribes allowed themselves to descend into debauchery and utter evil resulting in God destroying them in different ways to make way for Israel. The world Noah lived in had become so wicked that the Scripture describes mankind of that time by saying that “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” God sent a flood that wiped out all of mankind except for the eight people God preserved on the Ark.
This actually brings us back to the first cause because all of these are God’s actions of judgment for sin. We must humbly consider if a tragedy may be the intervening hand of God in judgment.
But there is one final and extremely important answer to the question of why that we must acknowledge and seek to understand. It is the one that is the most difficult to understand for it does not give us clear answers in the present. I personally believe that this is at the heart of understanding Ray’s death. A death which, I will admit, I have personally struggled. It is the eternal purpose of God.
The Eternal Purposes of God. What do I mean by that? God has purposes for us in this life that have much more to do with eternity that with the present reality of life on this earth. The eternal purpose of God has its hand in all the other reasons there is tragedy, not as the cause, but as something that works despite those causes and overcomes them to bring about something of eternal value – eventually a praise to our Creator.
The most clear example of this is the life and death of Jesus Christ. From the human standpoint, Jesus died an unjust death at the hands of the Romans at the instigation of sinful Jews. From the eternal standpoint, God was bringing about the demonstration of His love in paying the price to redeem man from sin. Even Jesus’ disciples did not understand this unt
il after His resurrection.
We also see the veil pulled back on this in the book of Job. From the human standpoint Job suffers unimaginable loss of wealth, family and health. From the eternal standpoint we see the conflict between God and Satan through which God declares His own nature and glory and Job demonstrates his righteousness just as God had proclaimed.
We see it in the declaration of Joseph in Genesis 50:20. From the human standpoint, his brothers had acted with great wickedness which resulted in great suffering for Joseph. From the eternal standpoint, Joseph says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”
From Joseph’s story we learn that it is rare to understand the eternal purpose of God in the present. It is often only seen as time goes by and His hand is seen in the consequences of the actions, including the ones that would be considered tragic. It is the reality of this truth that Paul declares in Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” God is so powerful that He can bring about good from anything, including tragedy caused by evil.
This brings us back to Habakkuk 2:4, “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.” Paul refers to this verse in Romans 1:16 saying the same thing. The “why” questions are eventually answered by faith in our Creator who is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth, forgiving and just (Exodus 34:6-7). Because of God’s character, I can trust that He will bring about His eternal purposes which will ultimately be good even when the events of the present are tragic and caused by sin, intentional or unintentional, living in this cursed world or by Satan himself. He has done so innumerable times in the past in ways that are very clear, so I can trust He will also do so when it is not so clear in the present. This is the life of faith. It is not a blind leap. It is a reasonable conclusion based on the trustworthiness of God.
My questions of why are resolved in knowing that my God sees things from an entirely different perspective than I may be able to even conceive. Psalm 116:15 states, “Precious in the sight of the Lord Is the death of His godly ones.” From the human standpoint, death and suffering are always tragic. Not so from the eternal standpoint, for in the case of those who belong to God, He can use even death and suffering to bring about His glory and a blessing to that saint and others. If it were not so, Jesus could not say in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus could not say in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”
Why did Ray die in such a tragedy? Why have countless other believers died in similar or much worse tragedies such as missionary martyrs who left behind infant children? It is wrapped up in the eternal purpose of God. We have the privilege of asking our God questions which includes, “Lord, why did Ray die when and how He did?” Which is then followed up by the requests, “Lord, be gracious to reveal to us how you are glorifying yourself even through this tragedy,” and “Lord, draw us closer to yourself and give us greater understanding of Yourself and Your will even as You comfort us in the midst of our sorrow.”
I finished my sermon notes late Saturday night after conducting Ray’s funeral that morning. On Sunday morning whill I was getting ready to go over to the church to preach this sermon, I began to think of something and began to weep deeply. I think it illustrates our struggle with the “why” questions and how seeing things from God’s perspective brings comfort.
The timing of Ray’s death was a matter of seconds. Entering the intersection a few seconds earlier, he would have cleared it before the other car went through. Just few seconds later, then other car would have cleared it before Ray entered it. Only a second later, and Ray would have hit the other man at the driver’s door and probably killed him. I wept for those seconds, then wept even more when my own desire wished it had been the other man instead of Ray. That is the horrible nature of my own selfishness. I wanted Ray alive even if it cost the other man his life. I then had to recognize that Ray was ready for death, and he is with the Lord even now. I have not found anything to suggest yet that this other man is ready to die. Ray’s main goal in life was to prepare people for death by giving them the truth about sin so that they might repent, and the truth about Jesus that they might believe, be forgiven and gain eternal life. I am confident that Ray’s preference was that his life would be taken instead of that of a man not yet ready. It is my plan to write to the man and let him know that and tell him about Ray’s life and how he can be ready for his own time. God has used worse tragedies in similar ways. The man who helped murder missionary Jim Elliot eventually heard the gospel as did his whole village. He became friends with Jim’s widow and a surrogate father to his son.
It was a tragic traffic accident that started Ray on his journey to faith. Perhaps, in the great mercy of God, not only this man, but many, many more may come to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through Ray’s tragic death. Where is Ray? He is now at home with the Lord. Where will you be? His prayer and our prayer now is that you too will believe and one day will be there too.
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