I write this only three days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, trusting the lapse of time will not render it a wearying revisitation or an irrelevant afterword. Since Sept. 11--depending on your place in the body of Christ, geography, relationships or ministry role--varied demands have fallen on each of us. Ripping, rending crises not only tear apart those directly impacted, but they also shake and shatter people everywhere. Sheep-tending carries unusual requirements when any part of our world caves in.
Within hours following the events in New York and Washington and through the following two weeks, I served, as did others, in a bittersweet task. It was bitter by reason of the need, and sweet by reason of the opportunity to offer healing truth and prayer. Doors opened across our nation to speak into the lives of many--some only seeking comfort, others seeking some meaning in their torment amid the apparently meaningless tragedy.
I was invited to nearly a dozen radio and TV venues--local, regional and national. Network reporters and talk-show hosts ask hard questions in such moments. I was glad that, in most cases, they were sensitive enough to not require "sound bite"-size answers.
Reviewing the questions most frequently asked, I realized how often these same inquiries are thrown your way. Every pastor and church leader faces situations in which he or she needs to address these themes either in local news media or with individuals we serve. Be it a national or global disaster, or a car wreck maiming or killing someone in your congregation, a myriad of questions inevitably surface. What follows addresses questions asked regarding Sept. 11, but the "thought grid" involved is offered for what value it might serve in the face of any number of tragic situations.
These answers, while brief, are my effort at providing people--believers and unbelievers alike--with what I see as helpful, clear-thinking principles rooted in God's Word. I realize my responses may conflict with some, but I am troubled by the fact that even Christians often yield to ideas that, at most, are only philosophical answers flavored by theological prejudice or popular opinion.
Let me invite your consideration of the following. I hope the concepts may serve a future time and think that possibly, even yet, they might help you address issues related to the unthinkably demoniacal events we navigated only weeks ago.
Question No. 1:
Was this a judgment from God?
All sin exposes human beings to judgment, so perhaps it is always wise to inquire into this at some point. However, I do not believe this is the right question to ask first, though evil or destructive things should prompt this honest personal inquiry: To what degree is my repentance--not that of others--being called for or overdue?
Plague, famine, war, disaster, tragedy and calculated evil are constant points of vulnerability to humanity by reason of our sin, sinning or outright godless rebellion, but it is deeply troubling to me to witness the inclination of some Christians to make a rush to judgment anytime something tragic or disastrous occurs.
Jesus addressed this human disposition in Luke 13:1-5, noting two things:
**that every one of us needs to repent to avert judgment
**that no one, in God's eyes, is deemed more worthy of judgment than others.
The terrorist attack on our nation (or any other visitation of human or hellish awfulness) calls believers more to identify with the brokenness and pain present among those impacted than to seize this as a platform to issue self-righteous denunciations of sin. Yes--sin does reap a bitter harvest. Yes--America is a sinful nation. But, no--I don't believe God slashed New York and Washington apart in order to get even with America.
In speaking to a blinded, broken society, my understanding of God's present judgment relates to that which He visited long ago, on His own Son, when He dealt conclusively with all sin with unmeasured grace and redemptive power. When people are torn, I believe the church is to rise with love, comfort, service and redemptive hope. We are to demonstrate the good Samaritan's example and contribute to the healing process of the broken rather than the religionists' separatism.
This is how Jesus taught neighborliness--with a definition requiring partnership in pain, not condescension toward those apart from God. I hold no casual attitude toward sin. But I fear some sincere believers hold too casual an attitude toward God's mercy--especially at times when people need to hear of it from us who have tasted His love.
Question No. 2:
Why does God allow evil things to happen?
In the face of horror, pain or evil's apparent success, a whole Bible answer will make clear that these things are neither acts of God nor willed by Him. "Proof-texting" philosophical opinions by referencing Job's struggle or by quoting Romans 8:28 out of context only perpetuates confusion.
The error that blames God for everything that happens in this world, or the old saw that suggests, "Well, God at least 'permitted' it, so it is His will," betrays a fundamental fact of Scripture: God's sovereign will is that human beings have a free will. What a person or group does with that freedom of choice only reflects His will to the degree they choose to come under the government of His will.
Further, besides being the fruit of sinfully willful humans, so much of evil's momentary victories are spawned in and spewed from hell--they are of satanic origin. When the existence of such malignancy manifests, never concede that God is somehow tolerant of evil or standing powerless before it.
Rather, affirming that His love does grant the power to choose good or evil, proclaim the even greater love He is ready to show, ever present to work redemptively and restoringly--ultimately overpowering the ability of evil's devices to succeed.
The cross indicates the lengths to which God will go to patiently pursue breaking the flesh's and the devil's power by His love. God's present choice to not exercise His sovereign might--which could exterminate all participants in sin and evil in a split second--is matched to His sovereign love.
That love, in allowing humankind to choose its own course (including partnering with evil unto the most grotesque consequences), is neither indifferently passive nor aggressively active where horrible things happen. God is redemptively present--now and always--and He will continue to be until the day He shall consummate His long-suffering patience with demonic viciousness and human corruption.
James 5:1-8 reveals this posture toward humankind's present era, and only when Jesus will come to establish the ultimate kingdom's order shall God's ordained miseries come upon the wicked.
Question No. 3:
What should believers do in the wake of Sept. 11?
An appropriate response by believers to tragedies such as those that took place in September is vital. Two things we should do:
1. Engage in new levels of intercession. Pray for success in finding and executing the perpetrators of this recent evil.
So many believers wondered, "Is it right to want to see retribution on those who did these things?" Because of the biblical truth that vengeance belongs to God alone (see Ps. 94:1; Rom. 12:19), some mistakenly suppose this disallows human retributive action.
The Bible shows the opposite. Romans chapters 1-4 reveals that God wills human government as "His ministers" for executing His wrath and judgment upon evil. Thereby we understand 1 Timothy 2:1-3, directing the church's intercessory role for government and how God avenges evil through human instruments, and "a quiet and peaceable life" is gained in our society.
2. Intercede for hope. Intercession is the most certain means for securing hope, recovery and--by God's grace--revival and restoration in the land. Jeremiah's prophecy of "a future and a hope" was spoken to a people also surviving the ransacking of a city (see Jer. 29:11). Here is reason--beyond the ravaging of our nation's most symbolic city and the shattering of our nation's emotions--that we may prayerfully expect a visitation of God's grace across America. But it won't come without prayer's pursuit. Crises may stir desperation cries for God's help (and He mercifully answers even the most undeserving), but only sustained intercession will bring penetrating spiritual renewal.
The bottom line of Sept. 11 is a call to faith and expectation--through prayer. We who lead must interpret the moment, then call God's people to faith-filled prayer and ministry.
Beyond all questions and our efforts at answers, I see God standing in the wings --not only available to comfort and heal America, but also to save and transform her. Join me in pursuing the faith-filled conviction that God is near and ready to meet us with great grace--great grace!
Jack Hayford is founding pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California. He has edited a CD-ROM resource titled, Hayford's Electronic Spirit-Filled Life Library.