Responding to Tragedy

(Since this article was written following September 11th terrorist attack, it is somewhat dated.  However, the substance of the article remains relevant.)  

The horrifying events of September 11, 2001 should be a cause for concern and sadness for us all.  As I watched these things unfolding on the newscasts feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty welled up in my gut.  How could such a terrible thing happen?  Someone must be held accountable.  For religious and non-religious alike, the finger pointing starts.  People are certain to ask these questions.  How could a loving God allow such a thing to happen?  Is this the work of the Devil and his imps?  Or is the answer more rational, more worldly – simply the work of some radical terrorist group?  And as our nation searches for answers, we also search for comfort.  So, as is always the case, many turn to God.  But do they really? 

Religion has always responded to tragedy.  Of course they open their buildings and invite us in to participate in their prayer vigils.  They offer comfort and encourage us to experience their religious rituals and symbolic gestures, all designed to make us feel better.  Let’s all join hands and sing a hymn, observe a moment of silence, light a candle or wear red, white and blue ribbons on our chest.  Let’s listen to the sermons of religious leaders telling us that it’s OK, a kind and merciful Lord is watching over us, and all the victims of this terrible tragedy are with God now. 

But is this the response God is looking for?  Does He really want us to feel better and believe that everything is OK?  I propose that it would be good if we all felt bad for a while.  In fact, the religious response to tragedy is for everyone to get together, comfort one another and draw strength from one another.  In religion it’s important to go to the meetings and memorial services where you can listen to someone tell you what you want to hear.  Yet, the correct response is to allow the feelings of fear, insecurity and, possibly for some, even grief to cause us to get alone with God and allow Him to deal with us, provide for us or comfort us according to His purpose.  Religion wants us to overcome our negative emotions through the things we can do for ourselves.  God wants us to learn to trust Him in the midst of those emotions to do those things He has determined to be in our best interest according to His plan, not ours.  Most people will never see a distinction between the two.      

Just what is the motivation that causes us to seek God in times of trouble?  Isn’t it because the comfort and security of our lives have been threatened?  We worry about our children losing their innocence.  We want them to grow up in a trouble-free, Disneyland kind of fantasy, protected from the realities of death and destruction.  We worry about gasoline prices and whether or not the events that surround us will affect our freedom to go where we want, do what we want, when we want.  We worry about the stock market.  We worry about how this will change security procedures in our airports and how much of an inconvenience it might be to us when we want to travel.  Some are even worried about food shortages.  The idea of actually having to wait in line to get what we want is of great concern; it’s un-American. 

In other words, our thoughts are not about any spiritual implications this might have for us personally and individually.  They’re not particularly for the victims; even though we do see many, especially those in close proximity to the disaster, rise to heroic heights in their acts of compassion and self-sacrifice (good for them).  No. Mostly, we worry about us.  We worry about our quality of life.  And we turn to God for somewhat selfish reasons; we want Him to protect our possessions and preserve our happiness.  We want the situation to be resolved as quickly and as painlessly as possible.  We want things to be like they were before the tragedy struck.  Let’s get back to “normal”.  There’s no eternal perspective.  Our self-centeredness runs deep.

And is there anything hypocritical about political leaders and others who never mention God and never quote a Scripture verse unless a national tragedy requires it?  Is there something superficial about news networks never televising a public prayer, except in difficult times when it seems to be acceptable all of a sudden?  And on top of all this, when public prayer is offered, is there anything hollow-sounding in the carefully prepared prayer that is certain to contain all the familiar emotional buzzwords and religious catch phrases as it is read in measured, pious tones?  When things are going well, we don’t need God.  When things get ugly, it’s fashionable, even patriotic to give lip service to God.  Our arrogance runs deep, as well.

Who are we kidding?  The truth is that in times of trouble, people don’t turn to God; they turn to religion.  They turn to their own concept of what they want God to be – the One Who bails them out when things get uncomfortable.  In reality, they turn to their own deception, because that’s not Who God is and that’s not what He does. God does not exist to make our lives on this earth what we want them to be.  His purpose is to prepare us for what comes after this life and that is the essential point that has to be understood in all this.  And so our self-delusion runs deeper still. 

For those who have some understanding of God and of His eternal purpose, now is not the time to give in to the religious hucksters.  What we need now is not simply a resolution or outlet for the emotions we feel; we need a strengthening of spirit to discern the times in which we live.  We must have the willingness to follow the plan and purpose of the Almighty God Who directs the course and direction of the ages.  We must be willing to go beyond the simple boundaries of our own personal comfort and security in this life.  Is it possible that God Himself is testing us?  Is it possible that He is trying to prepare us for things that are yet to come, things that are possibly even more frightening than even what we have seen thus far? 

Let’s see if we can put all this into perspective.  This is only one of the many passages we could find in Scripture to help us understand what we are seeing in our world, not just today, but in the past and in the days to come.  The following is found in Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 24:4-14.

“Be very careful and see that no one deceives you.  For there will be those who will misrepresent Me, even claim to be the Christ, and will lead many into error. And you will hear how many are destroyed and rumors of many others being destroyed; but don’t be troubled, these things must happen.  Yet this is not the end.  Nation will come against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be disaster and widespread hunger in many different places.  But this is only the beginning of the distresses that will follow.  Evil men will hand you over to those who will persecute and kill you, and everyone will hate you because you’re committed to Me.  And many will fall away and betray one another and pursue one another with hatred.  And the false prophets will come and lead even more into error.  And lawlessness will prevail, so the devotion of many towards Me will grow cold.  But those who refuse to give in to these difficulties will be delivered.  And the truth concerning the Kingdom and of deliverance through Christ will be proclaimed throughout the world as a final testimony to all nations.  This, then, is the beginning of the end.”      

Here Jesus is telling us that events like what happened in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania are going to happen, and in fact, are necessary.  Our human nature demands that we seek comfort, security and the means to satisfy our own lust for wealth and power.  Our tendency is to always condemn the lawlessness and greed of others, but find endless ways to justify those same things in ourselves.  And don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here, I’m not excusing the actions of the terrorists or minimizing what they have done.  I’m only saying that man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man has always been a readily accessible tool in the hand of God to reinforce the fact that we are not in total control of our lives and that we all desperately need Him.  And He is trying to make us realize that our need goes beyond this life.  There is an eternity for which we all must prepare.

And it is precisely here that I have to make the point that there is a vast difference between realizing that you need God and simply following the herd into religion anytime trouble comes.  If you think God and religion is the same thing, then think again.  Religion is a man-made institution.  It consists of man’s concept of who he wants God to be, what he wants Him to do and how he wants Him to do it.  And when you look at all the different denominations and groups, it’s clear that opinions vary.  It’s a result of man’s rational, selfish thought and has little or nothing to do with the invisible, yet real, Sovereign of the Universe.  In fact, it is the unchanging character and nature of God that makes Him a reality.  How then could you ever find the real God amid the religions of the world that portray Him in so many different ways? 

I’ve made this argument in the past and I need to make here, again.  Abraham didn’t belong to the First Baptist Church.  Moses didn’t go the big Presbyterian Church downtown.  David didn’t go to the so-called “spirit-filled” Charismatic Church in the shopping center and follow all the phony miracle meetings that came through town. Jeremiah definitely didn’t get his training in organized religion; he had some pretty nasty things to say about it.  And Isaiah wasn’t the president of a seminary or the leader of a denomination.  The men and women you read about in the Scriptures who knew and experienced God were not involved in religion.  They had a real relationship with God that was the result of their submission and obedience to Him and His personal, active involvement in their lives.  Try to forget everything religion has ever taught you, read your Bible and tell me I’m wrong.  Religion was never a part of the deal. 

And so I’ve said all this to make this one not-so-simple point: if by any chance you’re feeling a need to go to God, please don’t make the mistake of going to religion instead.  Regardless of what religion tells you, there is only one mediator between God and man and His name is Jesus.  You don’t need a priest, a pastor or anyone else to go to God.  All you need is desire and determination.  If you continue to read the articles in this website, and I hope you will, you’ll find that God’s purpose is to conform you to the image of His Son and prepare you for an eternity with Him. You’ll see that He deliberately exposes you to suffering and other distresses to reinforce your dependency on Him.  And, you’ll also come to understand that He does this through an intimate, personal relationship with you that has absolutely nothing to do with religion. 

 I know of no other passage in Scripture that is any more pertinent to our situation today than the following.  This is Isaiah 55:6-9.

“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts.  Let him turn to the Lord for mercy, and to God for forgiveness.  For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord.  Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

 It will do you absolutely no good to worry about how the rest of the world responds to this disaster, or to those that surely must follow, for that matter.  There is a personal, individual responsibility that goes beyond any group or collective one that must be taken seriously.  You will see the world run to religion.  Make sure you run to God instead.  That is what He wants.  That is what you must do.  And that is what is to be learned from this terrible time. 

If you want to understand what I mean when I say there is a difference between going to God or turning to religion, click on the following link.

Going to God or Religion