How do we respond to tragedy? These are the thoughts I have been wrestling with and the string of Christian faith to which I have been clinging through my sorrow.
Recently, my sister lost her unborn child, Liam, at 20 weeks pregnant. Around the same time, my 32-year-old cousin, Ashley, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and died within two weeks. This was not my family’s first encounter with deep and unexpected tragedy. In 2002, Ashley’s younger brother, mom and unborn baby sister died in a car accident on the way home from a family vacation. This was my introduction to grief. I was nine years old. Ashley’s brother who passed, Jonah, was not only my cousin but my best friend at the time.
I remember when they told us that Jonah had died in the hospital following the accident. My aunt had been declared dead at the scene with her baby. Jonah was in critical condition but was flown to the hospital. We all had converged on my grandparents’ house to pray and comfort each other. The next morning after the accident the kids were called down to the kitchen. They told us that Jonah didn’t make it, he was dead. There was palpable sorrow in that kitchen. The bright yellow walls did nothing to brighten the pall that hung over us. The only consolation in that moment was the comfort found in my dad’s arms as I wept.
Why? At some point, the question wells up in our soul as we process our pain. If God is good, if He really loves us, then why would He allow us to experience the overwhelming grief of losing a beloved friend, family member, child…? Why would He allow the incomprehensible suffering that we struggle to understand as we observe the weight of tragedy in the world? Answers abound. Some are good and true, some are false and depressing. None are satisfying. I mean this in the way that we all know we are not yet truly Home. There is no answer to grief that satisfies in this fallen world. We must live with the tension between faith in the truth and life in the pain. Hope remains.
I have found comfort in Job, in the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, and in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. As Job cries out against the unjust tragedy in his life, God holds it not against Him, but listens and then arrives in the midst of Job’s suffering. He does not explain away Job’s grief, He does not give reasons for Job’s loss. God shows up and demands that Job trust Him. God is worthy of it all. God is over it all, His timeless perspective redeems all our pain. He sees the order of the universe and, by His very being, He defies the totality of our pain. Job’s encounter with God is enough to bring him back into trust with God. This encounter does not alleviate or take him out of his suffering, but it returns him to trust. We need to encounter God in our suffering.
At the tomb of Lazarus, we get another glimpse of God’s response to our tragedy: Jesus wept. Here we see the further revelation of God’s response to Job. He shows up in our pain and He participates in our suffering. Jesus has enough knowledge of God to know the theological answer to suffering, the idea that God is worthy of it all, the idea that God will resurrect the dead and redeem all things in the end, but he does not use that knowledge to attempt to shield himself from the reality of tragedy. Jesus responds in His divinity and humanity as we respond in the face of death, with tears of sorrow. He had felt the same gut-wrenching pain that I felt when my best friend died. But He goes beyond this and calls forth God’s resurrection. I’ve heard some great sermons at funerals. I’ve been blessed in the midst of my grief to hear from preachers who have tapped into the heart of God for me and my family in those times of loss. The best sermons share that God is the enemy of death, that God takes no glory from man in the grave. They appeal to the fellowship of Christ with us in our suffering. They proclaim that death itself has been conquered and overcome; that death is now the pathway to life; that our fallen brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters are now more alive than we can imagine as we look through a mirror dimly.
At the cross of Jesus, we get the full unveiling of God’s ultimate word on our suffering. God does not merely empathize, God enters into and transforms our suffering. The mystery of the incarnation is not merely God clothed in flesh, but the embrace of our humanity so total that it finds its truest expression in the crucifixion. The moment that the incarnation completes its embrace of humanity is in the suffering and death on the cross. By the cross, our suffering and death are transfigured into fellowship with God and with His divinity. Then the resurrection proclaims our eternal answer: All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. There is not the slightest pain or disappointment that shall not have its answer in the resurrection. God has done what God does. God has embraced our suffering in His love and has made all things new. And so we cling to the fellowship of Christ in our suffering, we glimpse the hope of time that shall lead us to eternal resurrection, and we release our need to answer the question of “why.” He is worthy of it all.
These words do not solve the problem of grief. An intellectual understanding of these concepts doesn’t go one whit towards holding our pain at bay when we encounter tragedy. We need to meet the reality of these words. Only an encounter with the God who is love can bring us consolation in our trials. The only consolation in those moments is the comfort found in my Dad’s arms as I weep.
So we live through grief. We speak with muted tones and the world looks grayer for a while. We gather and give what comfort we can (remember we are to represent Christ to the world). We avoid platitudes and answers, we listen and sit with each other. Compassion calls for silence, for diversion, for conversation all at different times. Listen, be sensitive (in the sense of the word that is closer to “be discerning”) and grieve. Never try to excuse or diminish the tragedy. It sucks. Food helps, music helps, friendship helps, hugs help, just being around people who are in it with you helps. Memories resurface and stories are told. It is good that we celebrate and honor those who have passed on. It is right that we should grieve at our separation from those we love. Throughout the process of grieving remember foremost that this is not the whole story. What looks like the end is actually a beginning. Wherever you are in the process remember: God is faithful, God is present, all shall be well.