What Does God Have to Do with Tragedy?

Gregory S. Clapper

One of the most common reasons that people refuse to be a part of Christianity, or decide to leave it, is the reality of tragedy. Specifically, what dispirits them is the thought that whatever happens must be “God’s will.” “If God wanted that plane to crash and kill all those good people,” these disillusioned people say, “then I want nothing to do with God.” While strict Calvinists in the Reformed tradition hold God responsible for everything that happens, our Wesleyan/Methodist tradition of Arminian theology rejects that mindset.

The Arminian theological tradition does not lay the cause of all events on the doorstep of God. Wesleyans believe that humans are created with free will, and a lot of tragedies can be directly traced to human misuse of freedom.

For instance, many students in my courses know of someone, perhaps back in high school, who was killed in a drunk driver accident. When they blame God for that, I ask, “Did God pour a twelve-pack of beer down that driver’s throat, or did some human do that?” The Wesleyan/Arminian view takes human responsibility seriously. What we do in this life makes a difference.

Does that mean that all tragedies are directly attributable to human actions? Thoughtful Christians say “no!” to that extreme viewpoint as well. While some tragedies are clearly of human doing, some are clearly not, while others remain deeply mysterious. But we humans do not like living with mystery. So, unfortunately, we sometimes settle for the easy answer and either assign God or humans the blame in a vain attempt to escape the discomfort of living with mystery.

True mystery shatters the illusion that we have total control over our lives. Things are not as we would have them be, and there is no changing that. When we are in the midst of mystery, our mouths are stopped, and we have to retreat to the childlike impotence that we were born into. We can behold, but we cannot comprehend. The encounter with true mystery is not so much a new or radically intense kind of “experience” or “feeling”; it is more a lack of feeling, a kind of numbness. Such numbness does not leave easily. Some of it, for some people, perhaps, never entirely goes away.

But it is not necessary to remain forever dominated by this numbness. We can start “coming to,” and begin the frustrating but necessary task of finding our way around in the mystery that has engulfed us.

Jesus Christ stood in the midst of the mystery of human life and death and neither repressed this mystery nor pretended to answer it. In Luke 13 Jesus is asked to explain a tragedy, and he responds by asking, “Were those who had the temple of Siloam fall on them any worse than anyone else?” He dismisses such hateful speculation about the victims of tragedies by simply saying, “No,” then goes on to call for repentance among all those who hear him.

Jesus, then, acknowledged the reality of, and mystery of, tragedy and saw it simply as one more occasion to be called back to living a God-centered life. Tragedy neither drove him to despair nor elicit a long philosophical explanation. Jesus simply lived the mystery of a grace-filled life of love in the midst of tragedy, and called his followers to do the same.

To think that the faithful life will not have heartbreak is to be blind to the message of Jesus, but it also ignores the mournful outpourings found in many of the Psalms, as well as the whole broken history of the Jews throughout the OT. The Christian who has read and understood the book of Job and the passion narratives of Christ will know that the faithful ones in the Christian tradition are no stranger to the mystery of tragedy and the heartbreak that it brings. Christians are not unfeeling Stoics. As Paul said, we are to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).

The tears of a broken heart, then, need not repel one from Christianity. On the contrary, they can, for Christians, function as a kind of wordless prayer that professes our humility in the face of heartbreak. Our tears confess that we are not in charge of all that matters.

Sooner or later, though, we are beckoned out of our tears and the spiritual numbness that tragedy brings. For Christians, it is often gratitude that begins the beckoning.

While circumstances do not always elicit gratitude, eventually Christians see that life itself is the most profound gift to cherish, the deepest reason for thankfulness — in the midst of whatever circumstance. The Christian humility that tears can lead us to can also help to form in us a gentleness and hopefulness of spirit. When our hearts are so formed, we can take our next, halting steps into the uncertain future, knowing that we have the Holy Spirit as our guide and companion.

Posted Oct 22, 2018

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