Just over a week ago, an EF-5 tornado cut a mile-wide furrow through Oklahoma leaving death and devastation behind. Monday night, over 1100 miles away, I tucked my eight-year-old daughter into bed. As we normally do, we prayed together before she fell asleep. She wanted to continue to pray for “the tragedies in Boston and Connecticut” and then innocently asked if there were any more tragedies that we needed to pray for.
As I struggled to find words to tell her that, yes, in fact, there had been a tragedy just that afternoon, I realized how quickly she was losing her innocence. How quickly she would have to learn that tragedy is a recurring theme of this life; how quickly she would learn that some weeks you feel like you’re being pummeled again and again by the brokenness around you.
And yet, learning how to engage tragedy is one of the defining marks of maturity.
When tragedy occurs, it’s easy for us to respond in one of two ways. We either try to ignore it entirely—to shut ourselves off from the pain—or we use it to further our own agendas. After a tragedy, politicians show up in plaid shirts and hard hats to express solidarity and promise relief while posing for photo-ops that will run nicely in future campaign ads; journalists rush to report the facts and jockey for titillating details, seemingly immune to the grief unfolding in front of their very cameras and microphones. And those of us in the church? Well, we’re tempted to craft sermons and build entire eschatological paradigms on the backs of those who suffer. Every disaster, every crisis, every pain can easily be interpreted as judgment against a nation that condones ____________. (Fill in the blank with your sin of choice.)
And while I most certainly believe that God can use natural disasters to get our attention, I think we’re missing something when we respond this way. In Scripture, when a disaster was a direct result of God’s wrath toward sin, He took credit for it. He sent His word through His prophets and expressed in meticulous detail the specific reasons for the tragedy. So when God exercises His judgment, it is no capricious, half-hearted attempt—be sure that He will make His reasons known, even if He has to enlist a whole passel of major and minor prophets to do it.
And yet, every tragedy—every heartbreak, every pain—is an opportunity for us to repent. Every tragedy is an opportunity to take one step away from our sin and one step further on the path of obedience. And we must be careful not to miss this opportunity in our eagerness to prophesy against the sin of others. We must also be careful not to miss this opportunity in our eagerness to avoid the cliché of doomsday prophesying.
Because even if we don’t know the specific reasons for suffering, that same suffering can be redemptive.
Even for those who watch from afar, tragedy can be a time of drawing us back to Him if we let it. Tragedy can draw us back to Him because it can humble us in a moment and strip us of all that we were relying on instead of Him. Tragedy can draw us back to Him if only because it reminds us that the only safe place in this broken world is in His arms.
And so when tragedy comes, we must repent.
We must repent of not remembering the fragility and brevity of life.
We must repent of not cherishing every good and perfect gift that comes from above.
We must repent of the complacency and self-righteousness that convinced us that we could care for ourselves.
We must repent of valuing material things and consuming them in our own lust.
We must repent of making ourselves the center of our own existence.
We must repent of ignoring the pain of others until it finally smacks us in the face with the horror of its Technicolor details.
And ultimately we can do this—we can repent—not because He is an angry God who targets small school children if we don’t get our act together, but because He is a merciful, good God who is our only hope in a world that is this devastated and this broken. We can repent because we are confident that when we finally draw near to Him, He will draw near to us because His judgment was poured out when the earth shook and the sky went black 2000 years ago.
So when tragedy tears into our safe, hermetically sealed lives, while we must not use it as a way to condemn others, we must allow it to humble us and bring forth the fruit of repentance in our own lives.
A repentance that takes shape as we gratefully hold our little ones close even when they whine and make messes and consume every ounce of our available strength. A repentance that takes shape as we willingly and joyfully return to the to-do lists and housework because we finally understand the blessing of having a house to return to. A repentance that takes shape as we intentionally free ourselves from the talons of materialism and offer our resources to those who suddenly have none. A repentance that takes shape when even in the face of the unthinkable, we proclaim with Job that we know that our Redeemer lives (Job 19:25), and that one day He will stand upon the earth.
A repentance that knows that because He lives, nothing can separate us from Him. Even tragedy itself.