Truth and Comfort in the Wake of Tragedy – repost

I originally wrote this post in the wake of the Jessica Ridgeway tragedy in October of 2012. But yesterday, I received news that the daughter of the man I mention in paragraph six had not woken up. She’s with her dad now. So I’m re-posting this in hopes that it might bring some sort of comfort to those who are mourning the loss of our dear, sweet Kaylee. Please remember as you read that the original context of this post was Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. When I mention justice and evil, I am in no way insinuating that Kaylee’s death is in any way a result of her own sin or that of her family. Those portions deal specifically with tragedy that can be traced directly to the actions of individuals, as was the case with Jessica.

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If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will get neither comfort nor truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. – C.S. Lewis

Five times I’ve been shocked out of my routine by a phone call telling me that someone I loved had died, and strangely, all five times those calls have come on a Saturday.

The first call came during the summer between my first and second years of teaching. A student who had been in my class – my first class – had fallen out of the back of a truck and died instantly.

He’d approached me halfway through the season the previous year to ask if he could join my football team, but it was too late for that season. He’d have been a great addition to our team, but we told him he’d have to wait until the next year.

He didn’t make it to the next year.

The second call came while my wife and I were out on a photo shoot – she was taking senior pictures for one of my students. The father of a beloved family in our community had not woken up that morning. He left behind a wife and four children who still needed him. They still need him now.

The third call woke me up early to tell me there had been a fatal car accident only a few blocks from my house. We found out later that day that one of the people killed was a teenage girl who had been in my Bible class for several months during her sophomore year of high school. When she arrived at our school, she didn’t own a Bible, so my wife and I bought her one to use in my class. In the days following her death, her mom told me how she’d been baptized in the ocean in the Philippines, the home of her ancestors, and I gave her parents a letter she had written to herself about what following Jesus really meant to her. I had planned on giving the letter back to her later that year.

The fourth call interrupted a drive home from a youth retreat to tell me that another of our students, a precious, joyful, intelligent little girl who had been a light every day she walked through the doors of our school had finally lost her battle to the brain tumor that had been ravaging her body for years. She never made it to her sixteenth birthday, and though it was “expected,” her death was no less tragic for not having been a surprise.

And the fifth was the worst of all for me personally. The fifth was the closest to home, because that call woke me up to tell me that a young man who had been in my class for four years, who I had seen on weekends at youth group, who had been to my house to record a video project for my class, who had shared with me some of his deepest pain and the dreams closest to his heart, and who had once helped me push a car out of the snow for a person neither of us had ever met, was dead.

He was strong. So strong, in fact, that I called him a rhinoceros when he walked by my classroom. He was young and healthy, and he loved God. But one morning his heart just quit working.

In April of my Junior year of high school, two students at Columbine high school took the lives of thirteen of their classmates and teachers. When baseball practice started that day we didn’t know the extent of the massacre, but we brought a radio to the field with us and listened to the news as we took batting practice. But when we started hearing about bodies being carried out of the school, we ended practice early to go home to our frightened and weeping parents.

I remember seeing an interview of a student who was wounded in the shooting. He was a baseball player – a pitcher, just like me. We played Columbine the next summer, and even though it was months after the massacre, seeing him walk on to the field that day was surreal. It’s not easy to play a baseball game against a kid who got shot in his school cafeteria.

About two and a half years later, my college classes were cancelled when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

A few months ago a highly-anticipated movie premier turned horrific when it was interrupted by gunfire.

And over the past two weeks our community has ridden a roller-coaster of shock, fear, hope, and horror as the details of the abduction and murder of a ten-year-old girl have come to light.

In each of these situations, in addition to dealing with my own grief, I’ve been the recipient of countless questions about God’s goodness and power, and particularly about how that goodness and power can still be asserted in the midst of such unthinkable evil. I’ve been a friend, teacher, counselor, coach, and pastor when these events have taken place, and I’ve learned over and over again that much of the real work of healing takes place in the aftermath, when the wounds of the past are re-opened by the death of someone else’s dad, or son, or brother. And in those conversations, the ones that take place a year, two years, or five years down the road, I get to see the real impact of the answers we give on days like today, when the questions are fresh and the wounds open for the first time.

A number of responses to such tragedies keep popping up in my conversations with people far removed from their own tragedies and still trying to heal. They’re answers that have been given by well-meaning, wise people who have a deep concern for the hurting. They’re given in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort and understanding in the midst of confusion and pain.

The problem is that they’re just not true.

At least not in the ways they’re received by a person who is overwhelmed by pain and searching for answers.

I don’t pretend to have answers that will bring healing to the hearts of those who have been directly affected by tragedies like the ones I listed above. No amount of truth will ever “fix” a tragedy, nor should we try to make it “fix” a person who is hurting. Often, our biggest mistakes in situations like these come from trying to explain away someone’s pain, or from trying to convince them that they should be “ok” by now. Let’s be clear that grief doesn’t work on a predictable timeline, and the acceptance of truth about a situation does not remove the emotional fallout of encountering evil.

But if we’re going to give answers (and we are, at some point, going to try to give some kind of answer), let’s give answers that will help rather than hurt. And let’s remember Jesus’ claim that the truth sets us free.

If our responses to tragedy result in more bondage and guilt than freedom, then we need to honestly evaluate whether or not those responses are true, both propositionally and systematically.

Here are a few examples of responses that, when given without explanation or clarification, I’ve seen do a great deal of damage in the lives and hearts of the hurting:

1. “God has a plan.”

Is God in control? Absolutely. Does He have a plan? Undoubtedly. But in the midst of severe emotional pain, the distinction between God’s plan and his desire becomes quite difficult to keep straight. Telling a hurting person that God has a plan is roughly equivalent to telling the parents of a stillborn child that God wanted their baby to die because He didn’t have any better ideas about how the day might go. We present God as the kind of dad that throws a four-year-old boy into the ring at a UFC fight to try to make a man out of him and then yells at him for crying about his broken leg.

What we’re probably trying to say when we give this response is that someday, somewhere, God is going to sort everything out, but in the moment it tends to feel like telling people that God is an abusive monster who they should trust just because He says He loves them. There’s really no other way to hear this one than “God wanted your dad to die, and if you can’t accept that, then you really don’t have much faith.”

2. “God will bring good out of this.”

Often, this response quotes or nearly quotes Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The principle of the verse is, of course, true, and we must always assert God’s omnibenevolence – all things He does are good and He is able to bring good out of even the most horrendous evil. But as we saw above, the application and interpretation of truth must be tempered by wisdom. And in the wake of tragedy, telling people that God brings beauty from ashes sounds more like excusing a cosmic villain than explaining the actions of a benevolent God.

Here’s a rough translation of what this response sounds like to a hurting person – “I know you’re hurt by the fact that your baby only lived for three months, but now you appreciate your other kids more, so it’s ok.”

Please forgive my bluntness – I know that we’d never say such things, especially to parents who have just lost an infant, but when we tell them that “God is going to bring good out of this” in the midst of their pain, how can we expect them to hear anything else?

And where in the world did we get the idea that if good comes from tragedy, it justifies the tragedy?

I can think of a few people in history who have acted out a belief that tragedy was worthwhile if the end result was good. The most famous one is Hitler, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting his name on the same list with God’s and pretending that, even though their methods are the same, God is good and Hitler is evil.

Let’s keep Romans 8:28 within its context of an ultimate, cosmic restoration of all things through the redemption of both human beings and the creation itself and not try to make evil look like good just because God doesn’t give up hope when bad things happen.

3. “It was their time to go.”

This oft-repeated response to death has a measure of truth to it, because God certainly knows the exact time and location of every person’s death, but in the moment it can come across as more than a little trite. The primary weakness of this response in tragic situations is that it tends to completely ignore the glaringly obvious element of human choice by reducing the complex web of the divine-human relationship to “God’s timing.” And in the case of suicide, for example, such a response comes quite close to a deterministic justification of evil by implying that, had the individual in question not taken his own life, he would certainly have died that same day and time by some other method. Thus, the means of death becomes meaningless, and we become pawns in God’s cosmic game of chess.

So how do we respond when evil interrupts our lives? What can we say to people who have come face to face with the unthinkable and are unable to reconcile an unstoppable flood of despair with the claim that God’s goodness has invaded our world and forever transformed the human experience for all of us?

The Bible teaches us a few truths that, though not so “tidy” as those above, may in the long run prove much more helpful and effectual for those who must certainly face tragedy again.

1. God hates death.

It has for some time been my conviction that the primary reason for Jesus’ tears in John 11:35 was His deep pain over the presence of death on Earth. We say that death is simply a part of life, but it was never meant to be. In the perfect world that God created in the beginning of all things, there was no death, no pain, no suffering. Its presence among us now is a constant reminder that we are not home, that things are not as they were meant to be, that the very foundation of our existence is broken and torn.

In Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb we see God Himself mourning the pervasive consequences of the sin that He warned Adam and Eve to avoid. And though God is unceasingly joyful, He is also unceasingly aware that the great pain of the human condition and the immeasurable devastation of sin in the lives of every man, woman, and child who has ever been born never had to be. Had we trusted Him enough to choose His way in the beginning, no one would ever have died, and our intimacy with Him would have remained unbroken from the very first day of our existence.

From Abel forward, every death that has ever taken place has been a reminder that the very best plan of God existed in reality only until Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the serpent instead of the voice of God.

Every death is a reminder that, by default, we are at war with the God who has loved us enough to shed His own blood on our behalf.

We do not mourn like those who have no hope; nevertheless, we do mourn. We must, for our pain need never have been possible.

2. God is making all things new, but He’s not finished yet.

We simply do not have to act like we’re already at the end of the story. God has won, but the loving law of God does not yet fully reign in our cities and towns. The blood of Jesus has torn the veil of separation between God and man and in so doing has forever conquered the power of sin and death, but God’s choice to be a benevolent King rather than a tyrant guarantees that so long as men choose to rebel against Him and He chooses to delay His return to earth, we will continue to experience the devastating consequences of sin.

The refrain of the Psalmists – “How long, O Lord” – can and should be our cry as well when we experience the evil of a broken world. And the presence (in various forms) of such a refrain throughout not only the Psalms but the Scriptures as a whole should tell us that God not only understands but commends the kind of honesty that says, “God, I know that you’re going to fix all this, but I can’t help but wish the fixing process was over, because the pain I’m feeling right now seems like it’s going to paralyze me forever.” God asks us for faith, of course, but He also asks us for honesty. In the midst of our own tragedies, let us join with the Psalmists in crying out to God, full of honest pain and full of faith that the long road He has chosen is the best road possible, even if we can’t see around the next bend.

3. God brings beauty from ashes, but the ashes are still ashes.

I think the book of Lamentations may be the most comforting book in the Bible, but most of it is spent in meditation on suffering, and a basic reading could easily leave us with little hope for the future. But right in the center, in the section that the structure of the book points us to as the central and most important passage, we read these words:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

For his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness.

-Lamentations 3:22-23

Lamentations never ignores the ugliness of the ashes that Jeremiah sits in while he writes the book. But it doesn’t let him (or us as we journey through the book with him) stay in those ashes.

The point is this: We shouldn’t mourn forever, but we don’t have to lie about the devastation we’re facing. And sometimes the best prayer we can pray is, “God, I hate this.”

Jesus wept. And then He woke Lazarus up and told him to get out of his grave. Let’s join him in both.

4. God is able to simultaneously seek both justice and forgiveness.

Understanding the theological paradox of God’s simultaneous desire for both justice and forgiveness will help us avoid the kind of false dichotomy that says we can either forgive and love our enemies, as Jesus commanded us to do, or we can hope for the perpetrators of great cruelty to be caught and punished.

The truth is that God wants justice more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone has felt and experienced every detail of the suffering of countless victims of countless tragedies stretching back to the beginning of human history.

And He wants mercy more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone knows the crushing weight of guilt experienced by those who bring horror into the lives of others.

We need not try to choose between justice and forgiveness.

Tragedy, and our ability to deal with it honestly, proves the necessity of hell, and the necessity of the horror of the cross for its escape, for only in the cross do we fully see God’s simultaneous passion for both justice and mercy. Only in the cross is there any hope of forgiveness for the grievous evil that invades our lives, and for the grievous evil that we ourselves commit. And only in the cross do we see a God that does not keep Himself distant from our pain, but chooses instead to join us in our deepest tragedy and our deepest mourning. Not only does He join us there, but through the cross He conquers that pain and that mourning so that someday we will never have to face death again.

5. God will never lie to us, either by word or by experience.

God’s primary method of teaching us truth is His Word, but He has designed our universe to teach us truth as well, and when appropriately interpreted, the events of our lives, and the consequences of those events, can be trusted to tell us what God is really like.

He does not deceive us, and there are many things that we desperately need to know.

We need to know that evil is real, and powerfully destructive. For God to soften the effects of our sins or the sins of others would be to lie to us about the true ugliness of rebellion against His laws.

We need to know that the consequences of some sins are permanent and irrevocable. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences of sin here on earth. It never has, and for God to make it otherwise would be to deceive us.

We need to know what a world without His moral guidance actually looks like. Despite the pain we must experience in learning what happens when we live our lives in rebellion against God’s intended way of living as expressed in His moral laws, and despite the pain that He experiences when He sees us rebelling against those laws, God chooses not to stop us from living as fools. He chooses to let us see what happens when we reject the moral truths He has so graciously revealed to us.

And finally, we need to know that the consequences of our personal sins are never only personal – they will always impact those we love, those we have only just met, and those we don’t even know. We cannot escape the communities in which we live our lives, and for good or ill, our actions affect those communities. As we are confronted by the suffering and horror one person can cause by evil deeds, let us remember also the great good that one person can do by righteous deeds.

6. There is no good that can make a tragedy “worth it.”

We know that God can redeem even the worst of circumstances. We know that He brings good out of evil. But no amount of good can justify tragedy – and God never attempts to justify tragedy.

After 9/11, our nation came together in unity in a way that I had never seen. After Columbine, students cared for one another in ways they never had, and they joined together to pray for each other. During the search for Jessica Ridgeway over the past couple of weeks, countless parents (including me) have renewed their commitment to love their children well, and an entire community has left aside its many political, religious, and socio-economic differences to join together to look for a lost little girl.

These are all good things. They’re things we should be thankful for, and I believe with all my heart that they come from God.

But they don’t justify the evil.

They don’t erase the terrible things that have taken place among us.

God does not send tragedy so that we will grow from it. He does not beat us up so that we’ll get stronger.

Good comes out of evil because God doesn’t get discouraged and give up when sin seems to be winning. And good comes out of evil because we carry His image, and deep down, we know that evil can never win.

The question is, will we allow the tragedy to continue to triumph in our lives by allowing it to paralyze us, or will we take our places as God’s image bearers and, like Him, work to bring beauty from ashes?

Will we move forward in a way that honors the lives of those we’ve lost, or will we spend our days in a disheartened stupor and effectually make ourselves one more casualty?

“Why?” will never yield a satisfactory answer, because even the best answer will never bring back what’s been lost. But if we’re honest, and if we’re courageous enough to move forward into hope, we’ll honor both those we’ve lost and the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I had the privilege of attending Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. Among the many things I experienced was a profound sense of hope, not particularly because of anything that was said, though the things that were said were stunningly powerful and captivatingly true. I felt hopeful there because, though the evil we remembered last night was gruesome, it was hidden in shame and darkness, but the beauty of the Body of Christ, the truth of God’s Word, and His great love for His children were proclaimed in the light among a crowd of thousands and were broadcast to countless more.

You see, light never hides.

Truth never flees in fear of evil.

Good never shies away from a confrontation with evil.

When good men and women stand together in unity under the authority of a good and strong God who refuses to lie to us, who refuses to let the story end before the good guys have triumphed, who refuses to take shortcuts to avoid the pain and struggle of justice, evil slinks away in inglorious defeat.

So God, let us not lie about the pain and evil we experience. Give us the courage to stare long and hard at the bleeding wounds we carry. And give us the hope not only to stand in your truth, but to move forward as you encourage us, challenge us, and sometimes even carry us, knowing that the wounds are real, but knowing also that in the light of your profound goodness and grace, those wounds shrink away to shadows and dust.

May we stand with God in triumph, not because we’ve excused away the pain of our tragedies, but because we’ve taken them to Him and let His strong and gentle hands heal us. And because the future is worth it.

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When Work Gets Weird: Or, Is Groveling A Christian Virtue?

For the first time, I am experiencing what most of you have experienced before: a vengeful boss, bizarre job expectations, and the oppressive feeling of powerlessness.

Currently, I teach at a private school in South Korea, where the system is infamous for its flaws. Still, my situation is probably well-known to most people back home in the West.

Aside from the stressful environment and sense of paranoia at work, my work struggle strikes me right where it hurts the most: my pride. No employer has ever called me a bad worker before, and I have felt wounded, as if my skills were betrayed and unappreciated. Still, in the midst of all this frustration, I’ve had amazing coworkers to share their own horror stories (hidden nanny cams, thieving bosses), and offer me seasoned, measured advice.

So, at the end of the day, I can feel two things: one, a huge sense of relief as I check off my calendar of rapidly shrinking time left in Korea (twenty or so days), and two, the personal satisfaction of knowing that I can exchange simple, unmediated pain for a transformative suffering. Every day is another struggle to forgive, and another blow to my pride, and that’s a good thing. To loosely paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the layers of happy childhood, amiable personality, and good digestion are being stripped away, revealing the bones of the matter: Capital-F Forgiveness is . . . not easy.

As a person prone to mysticism, I’ve found this education interesting despite its practicality. As an ode to this comforting practicality, I’ve made a list called “Reasons I Should Be A Tiny Bit Grateful For My Horrible Bosses.” Some points are counsel shared by friends, others are my own; knowing that I’ve been forced to ferret out wisdom and advice is, in its own way, a reason for paradoxical joy.

Reasons I Should Be A Tiny Bit Grateful For My Horrible Bosses

  1. I am not as forgiving as I thought I was. Good to know, because now I have the opportunity to really “seize the day,” and forgive some unlikeable people who will probably live their entire lives thinking I am in the wrong . . . and I have to, without resentment, accept that they will never understand.
  2. I can be gracious without groveling. Groveling is still self-serving because it’s about trying to relieve myself of pain. Right now, trying to smile in the hallway is good enough, even when they don’t smile back.
  3. I am not powerless. To quote a friend, I have the power to be a bigger person, and even beyond that, I have God’s power of peace, love, and a sound mind. As of a few days ago, I’ve stopped having nightmares, and while work can still be tense and miserable, I’m trying to remember–stamp-on-my-heart-Awana-style-remember–that no one can can tear power from God, the ultimate director of my life.
  4. In this situation, where I’ve become a school scapegoat for every minor infraction against a cloud of unwritten rules, my fellow teachers (who are also my dear friends) could have distanced themselves to salvage peace of mind and reputation. But they didn’t. When I go home in 24 days, I’m carrying more than an unfortunate end to my year of work; I’m going home with friendships that have already been tempered and strengthened by fire.

But, more than anything, and more than ever, in the tension of every day, Praise Him. So blessings to whoever forces me to remember.

On the Death of Judas Iscariot, and Why it Matters to Me

In the weeks leading up to Easter, the church where I work dedicated four weekends to an examination of four characters who encountered Jesus. I was tasked with writing monologues for Nicodemus, James, Peter, and Judas, with the goal of giving people a chance to identify with each character’s very human response to Jesus.

The Judas monologue, as you may be able to imagine, proved challenging. So many portrayals of Judas demonize him, and perhaps rightly so, because he is the quintessential arch-villain. But he’s also a man who lived in a context not altogether different from ours, and my job was to show that context so that people could connect their lives with his. My job was to humanize him.

In a world of complex religious and political strife, Judas’s theology visibly identified him. Kind of like a profile picture of the cover art from your favorite band’s new album. Or Kony 2012. Or a red equals sign. Or a red equals sign with a cross through it…

I can almost hear Judas quoting the once-again-familiar, tweet-friendly quip from Isaiah 7:9 – “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”

This may sound odd, but I love the story of Judas Iscariot.

I love it because it’s human. Because it’s so deeply true.

And when I say it’s true, I don’t mean only that it’s historical. It is that, but it’s also a very real story. It’s a story that I can believe because I’ve seen it.

The story starts with a young man looking for significance. He wants to make a dent in the world. And like many young men, the first place he looks is for a fight. He finds a fight he can believe in, and he joins the cause. He’s a revolutionary. His life is going to make a difference, and people will remember him, because he’s joining a revolution that will change the world forever.

But his revolution doesn’t work out the way he planned it to. His hero – the guy he signed up to follow – betrays him. He changes the rules and decides it’s not going to be a revolution after all. It’s going to be a martyrdom instead. But not the glorious kind.

Understandably, the kid with the dream of making a dent in the world is beyond disappointed. Then he realizes he can do something about it. He can give a little, motivating push. He can remind the guy why they all joined up with him in the first place. He can make sure he sees the enemy face to face and remembers what they’re all fighting for.

So he tells the cops where to find him, thinking he’ll pull out all the firepower when things hit the fan. When push comes to shove, he won’t let the tyrants win.

But the guy doesn’t fight. He just lets them take him away. And worst of all, he calls the young man a traitor.

And that’s when the young man realizes he’s been wrong from the beginning. A bloody revolution was never the plan. Which means he really is a traitor.

He tries to get rid of the money he was paid for making the deal that he thought would spark a revolution, but the creeps that gave it to him won’t take it back. They don’t want anything to do with him now – he’s already done what they wanted him to do. And now he’s not just a traitor – he’s also a pawn.

So, he goes out into a field and kills himself.

I wish it wasn’t such a true story. I wish I didn’t know that this is how a young man like Judas really would respond. I wish I didn’t know that the shame of being wrong and of being used as a pawn by people you hate is enough to drive a man to suicide. But I’m guessing you know as well as I do that the story of Judas is true. Whether it actually happened in history or not, it’s exactly the kind of thing that teachers and professors all over the world see every day. Or, as Rob Bell once said about the beginning of the book of Genesis, the point is not whether or not it happened, but that it happens.

In literary study, some people call this a mythic element in a story. This means that there’s something so true, so powerfully symbolic, and so human about a story that it gives us the ability to understand and talk about ourselves or our experiences in a way we may not have before we read the story. We call it myth because it’s what the myths of nearly all ancient cultures did for people. Romeo and Juliet is one of our culture’s most recognizable myths. It’s a story that’s so true to our experience of complicated romance that we use it to describe and interpret real life.

Now, I’m aware that by this point a number of you are quite upset with me for suggesting that the story of Judas is a myth. But before you skip the rest of this post and go straight to blasting me in the comments section, let me explain something. In literary study, and particularly the literary study of the Bible, the terms “myth” and “history” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the Judeo-Christian worldview affirms quite strongly that it is stories that most profoundly define meaning in our lives and experiences. And in literary terms, a story that defines meaning in this way is called a myth, regardless of whether or not it is historical.

When I was in elementary school, some younger kids from my neighborhood decided it would be fun to start a snowball fight with my sister and me as we walked home from school. It started out fun, but when they ran out of snow, they started throwing rocks. Being older, and being a baseball player, I had little trouble keeping them at a distance without actually hitting them with any rocks, but as we rounded the last corner right in front of my house, one of them proved a bit stronger than I thought he was and tossed a rock that hit my sister right in the nose. Being the protective older brother that I was at the time, I started crying and ran into the house.

As my dad cleaned the blood off her nose, he asked me what had happened. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the hot tears burning my face as I watched her cry. She wasn’t just crying because of the pain in her nose. She was also crying because I had failed to protect her.

I remember the empty feeling in my stomach, the feeling of wanting to crawl in bed for days and never walk to school again. And I remember when my older brother talked to me about it, when he explained to me what I could, what I should have done. He was gracious. He did exactly what an older brother should have done. He told me how I could have stepped in, and even if I couldn’t have kept it from happening, I could have made sure it never happened again. I was older, bigger, stronger. I could have made sure they knew that next time I would not be so gracious with them if they messed with my sister.

My brother handled it perfectly. So did my dad. But they were too late. As soon as I turned away from the fight and ran home instead of defending my sister, that story, that history, became myth for me. I had chosen weakness. I had chosen not to protect her. And for years, that story would define me. Even into marriage and becoming a father, I knew for a fact that I wasn’t a protector.

I’m guessing that you have similar stories – events in your life that were once just events, but have grown to become myths that define who you are. You know as well as I do that C.S. Lewis was right when he said that myth and fact work side by side to shape us into who we become.

Like the historical stories of the Bible, the histories of our lives become mythic for us when they take on significance beyond just the facts of the events.

There’s a second reason I love the story of Judas’s death. I love it because it contains two clear contradictions that remind me that the writers of the New Testament, and the people who edited it and put it together later, were very honest people.

Yes, you read that right. I said there are two contradictions in the story.

But maybe you know me well enough by now to know that I think contradictions in the Bible are simply wonderful, because every time I find a new one, it teaches me how trustworthy the Bible really is.

I guess I should explain…

Matthew 27 tells the story of Judas’s suicide, as does Acts 1.

In Matthew, we read that Judas threw the money he’d received from betraying Jesus into the temple and then went out to a field and hung himself. The priests couldn’t legally put the money into the temple treasury because it had been used to fund an illegal bargain that led to a very sketchy conviction of an innocent man. As you can imagine, the accounting ledgers would have had to have been quite creative. So, instead, they bought a field with it, which happened to be the field where Judas died. It makes sense for them to do this, because by using Judas’s money, they were in effect buying the field in his name.  The official record would then show that Judas himself bought the field where he committed suicide. Not only would this logical connection dampen questions, it would also benefit them in the end, because in ancient Israel, when a man died with no heir, his property was surrendered to the state, that is, the temple, that is, the priests who bought the field in the first place. They couldn’t put the money directly into the treasury, but they could buy a piece of property that they knew would immediately be surrendered back to them because the man who owned it was already dead. Today we call this money laundering.

Luke (the writer of Acts), however, tells us a significantly different story. He says that Judas bought the field and fell on some sharp rocks there, where his guts all gushed out onto the ground.

So we have two problems. Luke and Matthew can’t seem to agree on who bought the field, and they can’t seem to agree on how Judas died.

Before I tell you what I think really happened, I want to call attention to the fact that this problem is still in the Bible. I certainly think it can be reconciled, as I’ll show in a minute, but it’s a real problem, and it’s a problem that’s clearly evident to anyone who can read. It’s a problem that has caused a large number of Christians to question whether or not they can trust the Bible. It’s a problem many of us would rather do without, in fact I can be quite confident there are a whole bunch of Christians, and even pastors and teachers, out there who wish this one would just go away.

But I’m glad it’s there.

In fact I’m really glad it’s there.

Because it means that Luke and Matthew weren’t in on this thing together. They never sat down and compared notes to make sure their stories matched up. Apparently, they were more concerned with telling the truth than they were with making sure that the Bible was free from errors and contradictions. Their goal does not seem to have been to start a new, easy-to-swallow, theologically airtight religion. Their goal seems to have been to tell the story of Jesus as they had seen it and heard it and then let us decide what to do with it.

And it also means that they people who actually compiled the New Testament – the people who edited the final version and decided which books to keep in and which books to leave out – didn’t edit out the difficult and contradictory parts either. They seem to have been more concerned with preserving the words that had been written than they were with making sure their own religious agenda survived. It would have been very easy for them to change one of the records of Judas’s death, and they could certainly have justified doing so – such a glaring difference would most certainly cause many to question, and perhaps even cause some to fall away from the faith entirely. But they chose faithfulness instead. They chose to pass on the books just as they came to them.

Despite this confidence in the integrity of both the writers and the compilers of the New Testament, we still have to deal with these stark differences in the two records of the story. And unless we’re going to throw out the claim to biblical inerrancy, which is a major tenet of orthodox Christianity, these discrepancies are a problem.

Historically, most scholars have explained away the problem of how Judas died by saying that he hung himself, and then some time later the rope he was hanging from broke and he fell onto the rocks below him. Without any further explanation, such a story seems possible, but likely little more than an attempt to excuse the problem.

We have to remember, however, that when Judas disappeared, there are no logically defensible reasons to think that anyone would have gone looking for him for at least three days. And the day after he went to the field to hang himself was a Sabbath, which means that any law-abiding Jew would have spent the day counting his steps to assure he didn’t go over the allotted number and transgress the Sanhedrin’s interpretation of the law against work on the Sabbath. Such strict adherence to the law, which was quite common then, makes it unlikely that anyone would have been wandering aimlessly through someone else’s field that day. There would likely have been no one around to stumble upon the carcass of Judas hanging from a tree. And even if they did, two other regulations barred them from cutting him down – first, to do so was defined as work, which would have defiled the Sabbath, and second, to come into contact with a dead body made a person unclean, which would have kept him or her from participating in Sabbath worship at the temple or local synagogue. Most likely, even if someone did find Judas that Saturday, his body would have been left hanging until at least the next day. And when a dead body hangs from a rope in the sun, it bloats. The skin thins and dries, and it becomes a putrid balloon that would certainly “pop” if it happened to fall on sharp rocks.

So let’s say we accept that Judas really did hang himself, and then some time later he was cut down or fell down and his guts really did spill out all over the rocks. Why wouldn’t either Matthew or Luke give us the whole story?

Matthew, as a Jew writing to a Jewish audience, chooses the image of Judas hanging from a tree. Like his fellow Jew Paul (see Gal. 3:13), Matthew knew the importance of Deuteronomy 21:23 – anyone who dies by hanging on a tree is cursed by God. Matthew also knew that the people who would be reading his book knew this curse. So Matthew chooses the strongest image available to him – the image of a man hanging from a tree.

And so does Luke, who, being a gentile, has no connection to Deuteronomy’s curse. Like him, his audience will not be overly moved by such an image. So instead, Luke chooses the grisly image. He shows us Judas’s body splattered all over the rocks. And I’m guessing that unless you’re a Jew with an intimate understanding of Deuteronomic law, you, like me, connect more strongly with Luke’s image than Matthew’s. You’re his target audience, and you respond exactly how he hoped you would. Apparently, Luke was a good writer.

The point, though, is that each writer chose to portray Judas’s death by giving us the most shocking image available to him.

Our second problem is the purchase of the field. Did Judas buy it, or did the priests buy it?

Though I’ve already given myself away somewhat on this one, we haven’t accounted yet for the importance of source material.

Where Matthew was writing his own eyewitness account of these events, Luke was dependent on the retelling of others, and would certainly have consulted public legal records to build what he intended to be a full-fledged historical account of the events surrounding the life of Jesus and the birth of the Christian church. Matthew’s book is based primarily on his own observations, whereas Luke’s books are built upon his research of public documents and the compilation of multiple eyewitness interviews.

Luke’s examination of public records would have shown Judas as the owner of the field, because legally, he did buy it. But Matthew knew better. Matthew chose to expose the corruption of the religious leaders by showing how they worked the loopholes in their own system for the sake of financial gain.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Think of it this way. Let’s say that Jason and I are going to have lunch together at the office. I give him a $20 bill and ask him to go pick something up for both of us because I’m swamped with work and don’t have time to leave. While he’s gone, Peter comes in and asks me if I have lunch.

“Jason’s out buying it,” I say.

When Jason returns (most certainly with two Quizno’s subs) and we’ve begun to eat, Steve pops his head in. Seeing our delicious sandwiches, he inquires, “Who bought lunch?”

“Paul did,” Jason responds.

We’ve both told the truth, even though we’ve given different, and seemingly contradictory, accounts of the same event. I bought lunch because it was my money, but Jason bought lunch because he went to Quizno’s to get it.

In the same way, Judas bought the field because the money was still legally his when it was purchased in his name, but the priests performed the transaction.

So, why do I love the story of Judas so much? I love it because it gives me everything I need from the Bible. It gives me myth – a story that touches my soul because of its sheer, human honesty. And it gives me fact. It gives me a presentation of history that stands strong the face of my most vigorous skepticism and proves itself to be far greater than what I hoped it would be when I first began wrestling with its logic and its claims. It could have been a weak link, but proves instead to be the strength of the entire chain. It proves to be one more addition to the breathtaking marriage of philosophical profundity and gritty, concrete fact that is the Bible. Surely such a blending of art and instruction can only be the gift of God to us who so desperately need both.

***If you’re interested in pursuing the topic of myth and history and how they interact with the Judeo/Christian worldview, start with the C.S. Lewis essay linked above. And if you’re really ambitious, pick up a copy of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. Part II of that book deals with the interactions referenced above in full-fledged academic detail.

Monasteries, Missing Legs and the Rubber-laden Road – Thoughts on Incarnated Spirituality

I’m intrigued by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, not so much for their respective philosophical ramifications, but because of the way that they tend to polarize people.

Here’s what I mean: When I say that I want a spirituality that “works,” the idealists around me start thinking I’ve fallen off the “truth train” and begun defining purpose and destiny solely by what makes me happy in a given moment. And when I appeal to ideas like revealed truth and fundamental ethical norms to describe the foundations upon which I’ve built my life, my pragmatist friends worry that I’m preparing to escape to a mountain monastery in fear of the violence real life might do to my ideas.

In graduate school one of my professors told a story about a group of engineers who were tasked with figuring out how the Egyptians built the pyramids. They each came up with a theory about how it could have been done using the technology available at the time the pyramids were built.

Then a billionaire called their bluff – he agreed to fund a pyramid re-build using only the materials available to the ancient Egyptians. Each engineer (I think there were three of them) was promised all the resources he would need in order to test his theory of how the pyramids had been built.

Two of the theories failed miserably. One worked passably. But that’s not the point. The point is that the two engineers whose theories failed – and they were masters of their craft, giants in their field – categorically refused to admit that their theories might be flawed. They blamed the builders, the workers, the tools – anything but their theories. Their logic was perfect, they knew all the rules, and they had played the scenario out in their heads hundreds of times.

But real life has a way of crushing even our best logic.

C. S. Lewis once said that “idealism can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived.”

He’s right, but I’m not sure it’s because the world is broken and sinful. Many things, perhaps even most things, can be traced back to original sin and the fact that its presence in our universe has altered the fundamental makeup of how things work. We experience evil, pain, and death because sin once entered the world and continues to infect it. And one day, all these will fade away as God makes all things new by bringing the power of the resurrection of Jesus to bear on every corner of existence.

But the conflict between idealism and realism isn’t like evil, pain, death, and sin. It’s not a reminder of the fundamental brokenness of our existence. It’s a reminder that we don’t make the rules, and neither do we know all of them. It’s a reminder that no matter how much we learn or plan, we may not be able to predict the outcome of a given set of events.

And I think that’s a good thing.

Our idealism needs to run head-first into the brick wall of reality once in a while.

I think part of the reason Jesus came to earth and lived among us was to show that our ideas and our lives (or you could substitute “theory” and “praxis” if you’d like to be a bit more technical) need not be isolated from one another when we make our decisions and build our values.

Jesus unapologetically offered a spirituality that “works.”

He also offered a spirituality that stands up to the most rigorous philosophical scrutiny.

I love Hebrews 6:1-3 because, after discussing some of the most complex ideas in the entire Bible (specifically, the glory of Jesus and his superiority over angels, Moses, and Aaron; prophetic revelation; the interaction between God’s mercy and His justice; the prophetic symbolism of the Sabbath; final judgment; the mystery of prayer as an approach to the throne room of God; and the mysterious priesthood of Melchizedek, to name just a few things) the writer of Hebrews says, in essence, “enough of the simple stuff (he uses the word elementary to describe everything he’s talked about so far in the book) – let’s talk about what really matters” (my paraphrase). And then he tells us exactly what moving away from the “elementary” looks like – behavior. A life of righteousness.

Romans is the same way – Chapters 1-11 are all theology. There’s barely a command to be found anywhere in those 11 chapters. But when we get to chapter 12, we read at least eleven commands in the first eight verses. The whole rest of the book is praxis – what do we do with all these ideas?

We’re not built for monasteries, because when we hide away in a world of ideas we forget why those ideas are important. We forget the power that truth has in the real world. We forget that even God jumped into the mess to get his point across, and He meant what he said about light and darkness.

Darkness cannot overcome light, but we’ll never really understand that unless we actually see it happening.

A few years ago I read Jeremiah 23. In that passage, God says (and I’m paraphrasing again) that when the human leaders do a terrible job, He steps in Himself and leads the people He loves. To stick a little closer to the original terminology, when the shepherds fail, God cares for the sheep Himself.

I don’t know why the passage hit me so hard years ago, but I do know that it has always stuck with me, maybe because I knew, and know, so many people who have had different “shepherds” – parents, teachers, pastors, etc. – fail them. I wanted what God said in Jeremiah 23 to be true, and I believed it. I knew that God was that kind of God. But I hadn’t actually seen it happen.

But right now I’m watching it happen.

I’m getting to watch the lives of several people who are missing shepherds – some men whose dads have either left or failed to father them effectively, others who have been burned by irresponsible pastors, teachers, or bosses.

Just the other night I was talking to a man who has looked to God for his example of what it means to be a husband and father. For years, his father’s absence was his great weakness. As he grew to maturity and tried to build an identity, his father’s absence continually ensnared him and caused him to fail to achieve the character he desired.

But God has taken that weakness and turned it into strength.

At some point, and I don’t know exactly when, he learned that his father’s absence did not have to result in a destiny of emptiness. He did not have to continue living without an example of what it meant to be a good, steadfast, mature and courageous man. He realized that he had God. And by “having God” I mean that my friend was in relationship with someone who knew how to be a man, a husband, and a dad. And He was willing to teach him.

You see, Jeremiah 23 is true.

It’s true whether I ever see it take root in a life or not.

But seeing it…

Seeing it drives the idea – the logic – into my heart in a way that no amount of study ever could. I’ve been able to explain Jeremiah 23 for years, but only in the last few months have I been able to say that I can show it to you.

We weren’t made for monasteries, but we weren’t made just for the road either. Because when all we see is praxis, when our only questions are about “what works,” we soon find that we’ve cut off our own legs. It’s not long before we realize that we have no way to determine what “working” means. We run, but we know not where.

We have no vision, and so we perish.

We follow Jesus, who gave us the most profoundly philosophical sermon in history and chose to end it by telling us that building our lives “on the rock” meant not just knowing what He said, but doing it.

It is in the encounter, the outworking, the engagement of our ideas with the reality of the world that we most deeply comprehend God, for He is a God who has joined Himself to our reality and asked us not only to tell, but to show the world that His kingdom is among us.

Truth and Comfort in the Wake of Tragedy

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will get neither comfort nor truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. – C.S. Lewis

Five times I’ve been shocked out of my routine by a phone call telling me that someone I loved had died, and strangely, all five times those calls have come on a Saturday.

The first call came during the summer between my first and second years of teaching. A student who had been in my class – my first class – had fallen out of the back of a truck and died instantly.

He’d approached me halfway through the season the previous year to ask if he could join my football team, but it was too late for that season. He’d have been a great addition to our team, but we told him he’d have to wait until the next year.

He didn’t make it to the next year.

The second call came while my wife and I were out on a photo shoot – she was taking senior pictures for one of my students. The father of a beloved family in our community had not woken up that morning. He left behind a wife and four children who still needed him. They still need him now.

The third call woke me up early to tell me there had been a fatal car accident only a few blocks from my house. We found out later that day that one of the people killed was a teenage girl who had been in my Bible class for several months during her sophomore year of high school. When she arrived at our school, she didn’t own a Bible, so my wife and I bought her one to use in my class. In the days following her death, her mom told me how she’d been baptized in the ocean in the Philippines, the home of her ancestors, and I gave her parents a letter she had written to herself about what following Jesus really meant to her. I had planned on giving the letter back to her later that year.

The fourth call interrupted a drive home from a youth retreat to tell me that another of our students, a precious, joyful, intelligent little girl who had been a light every day she walked through the doors of our school had finally lost her battle to the brain tumor that had been ravaging her body for years. She never made it to her sixteenth birthday, and though it was “expected,” her death was no less tragic for not having been a surprise.

And the fifth was the worst of all for me personally. The fifth was the closest to home, because that call woke me up to tell me that a young man who had been in my class for four years, who I had seen on weekends at youth group, who had been to my house to record a video project for my class, who had shared with me some of his deepest pain and the dreams closest to his heart, and who had once helped me push a car out of the snow for a person neither of us had ever met, was dead.

He was strong. So strong, in fact, that I called him a rhinoceros when he walked by my classroom. He was young and healthy, and he loved God. But one morning his heart just quit working.

In April of my Junior year of high school, two students at Columbine high school took the lives of thirteen of their classmates and teachers. When baseball practice started that day we didn’t know the extent of the massacre, but we brought a radio to the field with us and listened to the news as we took batting practice. But when we started hearing about bodies being carried out of the school, we ended practice early to go home to our frightened and weeping parents.

I remember seeing an interview of a student who was wounded in the shooting. He was a baseball player – a pitcher, just like me. We played Columbine the next summer, and even though it was months after the massacre, seeing him walk on to the field that day was surreal. It’s not easy to play a baseball game against a kid who got shot in his school cafeteria.

About two and a half years later, my college classes were cancelled when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

A few months ago a highly-anticipated movie premier turned horrific when it was interrupted by gunfire.

And over the past two weeks our community has ridden a roller-coaster of shock, fear, hope, and horror as the details of the abduction and murder of a ten-year-old girl have come to light.

In each of these situations, in addition to dealing with my own grief, I’ve been the recipient of countless questions about God’s goodness and power, and particularly about how that goodness and power can still be asserted in the midst of such unthinkable evil. I’ve been a friend, teacher, counselor, coach, and pastor when these events have taken place, and I’ve learned over and over again that much of the real work of healing takes place in the aftermath, when the wounds of the past are re-opened by the death of someone else’s dad, or son, or brother. And in those conversations, the ones that take place a year, two years, or five years down the road, I get to see the real impact of the answers we give on days like today, when the questions are fresh and the wounds open for the first time.

A number of responses to such tragedies keep popping up in my conversations with people far removed from their own tragedies and still trying to heal. They’re answers that have been given by well-meaning, wise people who have a deep concern for the hurting. They’re given in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort and understanding in the midst of confusion and pain.

The problem is that they’re just not true.

At least not in the ways they’re received by a person who is overwhelmed by pain and searching for answers.

I don’t pretend to have answers that will bring healing to the hearts of those who have been directly affected by tragedies like the ones I listed above. No amount of truth will ever “fix” a tragedy, nor should we try to make it “fix” a person who is hurting. Often, our biggest mistakes in situations like these come from trying to explain away someone’s pain, or from trying to convince them that they should be “ok” by now. Let’s be clear that grief doesn’t work on a predictable timeline, and the acceptance of truth about a situation does not remove the emotional fallout of encountering evil.

But if we’re going to give answers (and we are, at some point, going to try to give some kind of answer), let’s give answers that will help rather than hurt. And let’s remember Jesus’ claim that the truth sets us free.

If our responses to tragedy result in more bondage and guilt than freedom, then we need to honestly evaluate whether or not those responses are true, both propositionally and systematically.

Here are a few examples of responses that, when given without explanation or clarification, I’ve seen do a great deal of damage in the lives and hearts of the hurting:

1. “God has a plan.”

Is God in control? Absolutely. Does He have a plan? Undoubtedly. But in the midst of severe emotional pain, the distinction between God’s plan and his desire becomes quite difficult to keep straight. Telling a hurting person that God has a plan is roughly equivalent to telling the parents of a stillborn child that God wanted their baby to die because He didn’t have any better ideas about how the day might go. We present God as the kind of dad that throws a four-year-old boy into the ring at a UFC fight to try to make a man out of him and then yells at him for crying about his broken leg.

What we’re probably trying to say when we give this response is that someday, somewhere, God is going to sort everything out, but in the moment it tends to feel like telling people that God is an abusive monster who they should trust just because He says He loves them. There’s really no other way to hear this one than “God wanted your dad to die, and if you can’t accept that, then you really don’t have much faith.”

2. “God will bring good out of this.”

Often, this response quotes or nearly quotes Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The principle of the verse is, of course, true, and we must always assert God’s omnibenevolence – all things He does are good and He is able to bring good out of even the most horrendous evil. But as we saw above, the application and interpretation of truth must be tempered by wisdom. And in the wake of tragedy, telling people that God brings beauty from ashes sounds more like excusing a cosmic villain than explaining the actions of a benevolent God.

Here’s a rough translation of what this response sounds like to a hurting person – “I know you’re hurt by the fact that your baby only lived for three months, but now you appreciate your other kids more, so it’s ok.”

Please forgive my bluntness – I know that we’d never say such things, especially to parents who have just lost an infant, but when we tell them that “God is going to bring good out of this” in the midst of their pain, how can we expect them to hear anything else?

And where in the world did we get the idea that if good comes from tragedy, it justifies the tragedy?

I can think of a few people in history who have acted out a belief that tragedy was worthwhile if the end result was good. The most famous one is Hitler, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting his name on the same list with God’s and pretending that, even though their methods are the same, God is good and Hitler is evil.

Let’s keep Romans 8:28 within its context of an ultimate, cosmic restoration of all things through the redemption of both human beings and the creation itself and not try to make evil look like good just because God doesn’t give up hope when bad things happen.

3. “It was their time to go.”

This oft-repeated response to death has a measure of truth to it, because God certainly knows the exact time and location of every person’s death, but in the moment it can come across as more than a little trite. The primary weakness of this response in tragic situations is that it tends to completely ignore the glaringly obvious element of human choice by reducing the complex web of the divine-human relationship to “God’s timing.” And in the case of suicide, for example, such a response comes quite close to a deterministic justification of evil by implying that, had the individual in question not taken his own life, he would certainly have died that same day and time by some other method. Thus, the means of death becomes meaningless, and we become pawns in God’s cosmic game of chess.

So how do we respond when evil interrupts our lives? What can we say to people who have come face to face with the unthinkable and are unable to reconcile an unstoppable flood of despair with the claim that God’s goodness has invaded our world and forever transformed the human experience for all of us?

The Bible teaches us a few truths that, though not so “tidy” as those above, may in the long run prove much more helpful and effectual for those who must certainly face tragedy again.

1. God hates death.

It has for some time been my conviction that the primary reason for Jesus’ tears in John 11:35 was His deep pain over the presence of death on Earth. We say that death is simply a part of life, but it was never meant to be. In the perfect world that God created in the beginning of all things, there was no death, no pain, no suffering. Its presence among us now is a constant reminder that we are not home, that things are not as they were meant to be, that the very foundation of our existence is broken and torn.

In Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb we see God Himself mourning the pervasive consequences of the sin that He warned Adam and Eve to avoid. And though God is unceasingly joyful, He is also unceasingly aware that the great pain of the human condition and the immeasurable devastation of sin in the lives of every man, woman, and child who has ever been born never had to be. Had we trusted Him enough to choose His way in the beginning, no one would ever have died, and our intimacy with Him would have remained unbroken from the very first day of our existence.

From Abel forward, every death that has ever taken place has been a reminder that the very best plan of God existed in reality only until Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the serpent instead of the voice of God.

Every death is a reminder that, by default, we are at war with the God who has loved us enough to shed His own blood on our behalf.

We do not mourn like those who have no hope; nevertheless, we do mourn. We must, for our pain need never have been possible.

2. God is making all things new, but He’s not finished yet.

We simply do not have to act like we’re already at the end of the story. God has won, but the loving law of God does not yet fully reign in our cities and towns. The blood of Jesus has torn the veil of separation between God and man and in so doing has forever conquered the power of sin and death, but God’s choice to be a benevolent King rather than a tyrant guarantees that so long as men choose to rebel against Him and He chooses to delay His return to earth, we will continue to experience the devastating consequences of sin.

The refrain of the Psalmists – “How long, O Lord” – can and should be our cry as well when we experience the evil of a broken world. And the presence (in various forms) of such a refrain throughout not only the Psalms but the Scriptures as a whole should tell us that God not only understands but commends the kind of honesty that says, “God, I know that you’re going to fix all this, but I can’t help but wish the fixing process was over, because the pain I’m feeling right now seems like it’s going to paralyze me forever.” God asks us for faith, of course, but He also asks us for honesty. In the midst of our own tragedies, let us join with the Psalmists in crying out to God, full of honest pain and full of faith that the long road He has chosen is the best road possible, even if we can’t see around the next bend.

3. God brings beauty from ashes, but the ashes are still ashes.

I think the book of Lamentations may be the most comforting book in the Bible, but most of it is spent in meditation on suffering, and a basic reading could easily leave us with little hope for the future. But right in the center, in the section that the structure of the book points us to as the central and most important passage, we read these words:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

For his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness.

-Lamentations 3:22-23

Lamentations never ignores the ugliness of the ashes that Jeremiah sits in while he writes the book. But it doesn’t let him (or us as we journey through the book with him) stay in those ashes.

The point is this: We shouldn’t mourn forever, but we don’t have to lie about the devastation we’re facing. And sometimes the best prayer we can pray is, “God, I hate this.”

Jesus wept. And then He woke Lazarus up and told him to get out of his grave. Let’s join him in both.

4. God is able to simultaneously seek both justice and forgiveness.

Understanding the theological paradox of God’s simultaneous desire for both justice and forgiveness will help us avoid the kind of false dichotomy that says we can either forgive and love our enemies, as Jesus commanded us to do, or we can hope for the perpetrators of great cruelty to be caught and punished.

The truth is that God wants justice more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone has felt and experienced every detail of the suffering of countless victims of countless tragedies stretching back to the beginning of human history.

And He wants mercy more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone knows the crushing weight of guilt experienced by those who bring horror into the lives of others.

We need not try to choose between justice and forgiveness.

Tragedy, and our ability to deal with it honestly, proves the necessity of hell, and the necessity of the horror of the cross for its escape, for only in the cross do we fully see God’s simultaneous passion for both justice and mercy. Only in the cross is there any hope of forgiveness for the grievous evil that invades our lives, and for the grievous evil that we ourselves commit. And only in the cross do we see a God that does not keep Himself distant from our pain, but chooses instead to join us in our deepest tragedy and our deepest mourning. Not only does He join us there, but through the cross He conquers that pain and that mourning so that someday we will never have to face death again.

5. God will never lie to us, either by word or by experience.

God’s primary method of teaching us truth is His Word, but He has designed our universe to teach us truth as well, and when appropriately interpreted, the events of our lives, and the consequences of those events, can be trusted to tell us what God is really like.

He does not deceive us, and there are many things that we desperately need to know.

We need to know that evil is real, and powerfully destructive. For God to soften the effects of our sins or the sins of others would be to lie to us about the true ugliness of rebellion against His laws.

We need to know that the consequences of some sins are permanent and irrevocable. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences of sin here on earth. It never has, and for God to make it otherwise would be to deceive us.

We need to know what a world without His moral guidance actually looks like. Despite the pain we must experience in learning what happens when we live our lives in rebellion against God’s intended way of living as expressed in His moral laws, and despite the pain that He experiences when He sees us rebelling against those laws, God chooses not to stop us from living as fools. He chooses to let us see what happens when we reject the moral truths He has so graciously revealed to us.

And finally, we need to know that the consequences of our personal sins are never only personal – they will always impact those we love, those we have only just met, and those we don’t even know. We cannot escape the communities in which we live our lives, and for good or ill, our actions affect those communities. As we are confronted by the suffering and horror one person can cause by evil deeds, let us remember also the great good that one person can do by righteous deeds.

6. There is no good that can make a tragedy “worth it.”

We know that God can redeem even the worst of circumstances. We know that He brings good out of evil. But no amount of good can justify tragedy – and God never attempts to justify tragedy.

After 9/11, our nation came together in unity in a way that I had never seen. After Columbine, students cared for one another in ways they never had, and they joined together to pray for each other. During the search for Jessica Ridgeway over the past couple of weeks, countless parents (including me) have renewed their commitment to love their children well, and an entire community has left aside its many political, religious, and socio-economic differences to join together to look for a lost little girl.

These are all good things. They’re things we should be thankful for, and I believe with all my heart that they come from God.

But they don’t justify the evil.

They don’t erase the terrible things that have taken place among us.

God does not send tragedy so that we will grow from it. He does not beat us up so that we’ll get stronger.

Good comes out of evil because God doesn’t get discouraged and give up when sin seems to be winning. And good comes out of evil because we carry His image, and deep down, we know that evil can never win.

The question is, will we allow the tragedy to continue to triumph in our lives by allowing it to paralyze us, or will we take our places as God’s image bearers and, like Him, work to bring beauty from ashes?

Will we move forward in a way that honors the lives of those we’ve lost, or will we spend our days in a disheartened stupor and effectually make ourselves one more casualty?

“Why?” will never yield a satisfactory answer, because even the best answer will never bring back what’s been lost. But if we’re honest, and if we’re courageous enough to move forward into hope, we’ll honor both those we’ve lost and the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I had the privilege of attending Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. Among the many things I experienced was a profound sense of hope, not particularly because of anything that was said, though the things that were said were stunningly powerful and captivatingly true. I felt hopeful there because, though the evil we remembered last night was gruesome, it was hidden in shame and darkness, but the beauty of the Body of Christ, the truth of God’s Word, and His great love for His children were proclaimed in the light among a crowd of thousands and were broadcast to countless more.

You see, light never hides.

Truth never flees in fear of evil.

Good never shies away from a confrontation with evil.

When good men and women stand together in unity under the authority of a good and strong God who refuses to lie to us, who refuses to let the story end before the good guys have triumphed, who refuses to take shortcuts to avoid the pain and struggle of justice, evil slinks away in inglorious defeat.

So God, let us not lie about the pain and evil we experience. Give us the courage to stare long and hard at the bleeding wounds we carry. And give us the hope not only to stand in your truth, but to move forward as you encourage us, challenge us, and sometimes even carry us, knowing that the wounds are real, but knowing also that in the light of your profound goodness and grace, those wounds shrink away to shadows and dust.

May we stand with God in triumph, not because we’ve excused away the pain of our tragedies, but because we’ve taken them to Him and let His strong and gentle hands heal us. And because the future is worth it.