The Thistle

Is There Meaning in the Madness? Seeing Human Tragedy Through Gospel Eyes

In December 2011, when news that a police officer had been shot and that the suspect was somewhere on the campus of Virginia Tech (VT), many immediately dreaded a repeat of the April 2006 shooting there that left 32 people dead, including 26 students.

Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) Campus Minister Andy Wood (MDiv ‘05) remembers, “When the shooting happened in December, I was in Dallas at RUF training. The text messages started rolling in. RUF staff training stopped. We prayed for whatever was going on. The event provoked the same fears over again in many of the students, and even in us as the staff.”  In December 2011, when news that a police officer had been shot and that the suspect was somewhere on the campus of Virginia Tech (VT), many immediately dreaded a repeat of the April 2006 shooting there that left 32 people dead, including 26 students.

Far beyond the initial reactions, the age-old uncertainty pressed many to ask, “Why would God allow something like this to happen? How could it happen to one of our own?

In the widespread preponderance of ease, comfort, affluence, provision, and sufficiency of our modern world, there is something marked in the questions that dominate life. What does it say about us that we often presume the absence of God (or at least his benign non-interference) in the good, while arguing his willful neglect (or worse) in tragedy? The prevalence of blessing with the absence of gratitude generates a mentality of entitlement—and entitlement requires no thankfulness. There is little, perhaps, that prods the comfortable life as much as tragedy and loss, which can either lead people to ensconce themselves in spiritual disdain or cause them to open up to the comfort of Christ.

Andy reflects, “These shootings—even difficulty in general—are a bridge to talking about Jesus. There’s a reality our students would relate to. They have witnessed death, and experienced the pain of loss and grief. Such events make the gospel more tangible. Some of our college students have experienced great loss. But for many of them, this tragedy is the first they’ve known, giving them opportunity to connect with the gospel, with Christ, with forgiveness.”
Our humanity always seeks the meaning behind events, especially tragic ones. Some Jews once told Jesus about Galileans whose blood had been mixed with sacrifices, as if demanding that he  declare the purpose behind these deaths (Luke 13:1). Jesus’ contextualized response is, rather, a call for repentance (Luke 13:5).

Ample evidence points to the narrowness of our interpretation of tragic events, as seen in our too-often presumptive narrowing of God’s purposes. While there are times when tragedy, suffering, and hardship may well be God’s judgment upon a specific sin or city or nation, a host of biblical passages provides reason to believe that he may have other purposes in mind. In John 9, the disciples saw a man blind from birth and asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” They, like we, naturally assumed that all tragedy was judgment.

Jesus expands their understanding by saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned . . . but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:4). Furthermore, Jesus himself expressed a wide range of responses to loss, suffering, hardship, and tragedy: he cried, was encouraging, rebuked, forgave, and restored. Jesus’ responses are, in musical terms, harmonic.

By comparison, the biblical explanation of tragedy, suffering, and the like is much broader. Joseph’s explanation for his suffering was that “God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). The apostle Paul says that such events can have the purpose of providing the opportunity to experience divine comfort, elicit prayer, provoke generosity, and fill up the sufferings of Christ, to name just a few. Whereas our initial response to tragedy often sounds like  “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played with one finger on the piano, the biblical response is more like Mozart’s Requiem. The purposes of God are surely both as broad and as specific as the lives they impact. For many, these purposes include repentance unto life.Many times, the human response to such things is monotonic, as in the days following the April 2011 tornado that ravaged much of Alabama. Some pastors (of varying denominational affiliations) declared that the tornado was God’s judgment upon the area after the repeal of Blue Laws in Tuscaloosa a few months earlier.

Andy tells about one girl who became a Christian after the April 2006 shooting. She later wrote, “The Lord chose to use the deaths of 32 to bring me to a place where I could accept the death and resurrection of one, and for that I’ll never forget.”

Andy says, “That isn’t unique, that the Lord would use tragedy to bring people to himself, even personal tragedies. This year, we had a student whose mother’s house burned down. We got to walk through that with her.” And look to God for answers to otherwise unanswerable questions.
The challenge for us all—particularly for pastors—is to know when to speak for God and when, in human frailty, not to. Perhaps the greatest damage is done when one presumes to speak for God and shouldn’t, and when one—by nature of the pastoral office—should, but doesn’t.
Andy is completing his first year as an RUF minister at Virginia Tech, after 6 years as an assistant pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also a 1999 graduate of the school. Currently, about 80 students attend RUF, but Andy is thankful for the large freshman class.

Regarding the many one-on-one meetings that he and RUF intern Mary Katherine Dempsey have with those students, and the five small groups that also meet, Andy says, “We’re excited about seeing the gospel expand on campus.”

He concludes, “I’m thankful that the PCA loves college students enough to put us in places like this so we can walk with them  and bring the gospel to bear in the midst of such experiences.”

See the Summer 2012 issue of Covenant magazine to read how RUF campus ministers Chad Brewer, Ryan Moore, and Lanier Wood have dealt with personal and community tragedies in their lives and ministries.