“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” ~ John 16:33
“But Jesus called the children to Him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’.” ~ Luke 18:16
I have a lot of atheist friends. And the absolute biggest argument I hear against the existence of God is this: “If God exists, how does He allow so much pain and suffering to be in the world?” During my time as an agnostic and early on as a believer, this question was often on my heart. Didn’t God notice how many bad things were happening? Didn’t God care?
These questions are out in full force every time we hear of anything horrific. We heard this question after 9/11, we’ve been hearing throughout every war we’ve been involved in, and it comes to us like a cry from every war-torn nation or poverty-stricken area. And these same questions were out in full force yesterday, as a 20-yr-old – barely beyond childhood himself! – went into an elementary school in Newtown, CT (about an hour from NYC where I live, but a small town nonetheless) and shot to death 20 children between 5-10 years old, and 6 adults. Prior to going into the school, he shot and killed his mother at home.
The only solace I can take from such a tragedy is that I know where the children are. They are walking with Jesus, embraced in His loving arms, and living for eternity in a place where heartache and grief do not exist, and where they will never again have to be exposed to such horror.
Yet I can’t fully bring myself to condemn the shooter, either. How much pain and brokenness does a soul need to contain before it snaps in such a horrific way? I can only imagine his state of mind. I can’t say whether he is in hell or heaven, as only Jesus knows that, but I pray that in his last moments he knew the peace and mercy that he could never quite get from the world – a peace and mercy that comes from God alone.
Which brings me to the crux of this post. If God is peaceful, how does such horrific and violent tragedy occur? If God is merciful, how does He allow so many parents to go through such pain and grief?
God certainly moves beyond our comprehension, and there may never be black-and-white answers to these questions. And they are good and valid questions. What we do know is that God is all-powerful, but when He created the earth, He placed one limitation upon Himself. That one limitation was that He would never force people to act a certain way. He would give them a choice to side with good or evil in any given moment. We first saw this with Adam and Eve. Adam was essentially earth’s caretaker, and lived in Eden with Eve. God would show up and they’d walk together in the cool of the day, and they weren’t to eat the forbidden fruit ‘lest they die’. Along came the serpent – temptation and evil – who essentially said ‘of course you won’t die; it’s fruit’. And so he tried the forbidden fruit, knowing he shouldn’t. Sure enough, it brought death. But not a physical death. It brought a death of his innocence. He was no longer sheltered from bad things in Eden; he was now exposed to everything. By siding away from God, even for a moment, he gave just enough control to Satan to allow this constant good vs evil battle to begin. Evil still exists today. So does suffering. It’s the nature of the world and has been since the time of Adam and Eve.
Why doesn’t God strike down all the evil? Because if there was no Satan, and only God, how could it be our choice to follow Him? He is there, and can do miraculous things, but we have to let Him. He may well have been walking beside Adam Lanza screaming ‘Don’t do this!’ in his ear….but it was up to Adam Lanza to listen. To whatever end, God will not cross the line of free will that He drew Himself. And that’s a good thing, because to get to heaven we have to believe. Truly believe, in our hearts, in Jesus Christ and the salvation He gave us….true belief comes from our journeys – journeys of happiness and pain, mistakes and successes, celebrations and tragedies. It doesn’t come, and never would, if our actions weren’t our own. And so He stays true to that stipulation. He always has and always will.
So what does it mean when the Bible verse I quoted says Jesus overcame this world? Well, think about it. People go through tough times, but as long as they are still here, they’re thankful. You know the saying: ‘any day above ground is a good day’. When it comes down to it, the worst thing the earth can throw at you is death. Jesus died. He was essentially murdered, in a painful and horrible way. But Jesus didn’t stay dead. He overcame death and found life, in His true Kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. Overcoming the world doesn’t mean that free will is lost and bad things stop happening; overcoming the world means that death – the worst thing the world can give us – is no longer the end of our lives but the beginning of them. In Jesus’ conquering of death, we too can have eternal life. That’s the meaning of that verse, and we can take great comfort in knowing that no matter what happens here, even when the worst happens here, we have an eternity of peace and love to look forward to.
But the good thing is, once we get to heaven we’re in God’s kingdom. There’s no evil there. There’s no suffering. God has absolute power there, and God is love, compassion, kindness, and peace. And that’s how it is for eternity. Our time on this earth is but a blink of an eye compared to eternity. And no matter how many bad things happen here, no matter how difficult life gets…..it doesn’t make our time on earth stretch any longer. It doesn’t make our amazing eternity any shorter, or salvation any less real. Someday the suffering will end and this will be but a distant memory.
God wants us to have that eternity. And so He takes things like the inherent suffering on this earth, and uses them. He uses them to bring us closer to Him. Maybe 20 children were called home too soon….but who knows how many people who would never have found salvation are now seriously thinking about life after death and seeking answers? How many people might now be saved? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the death of so many innocents is a good thing. What I’m saying is, because God placed a stipulation on Himself, He couldn’t force Adam Lanza not to shoot those people. What He can do is ensure those children didn’t die in vain. He, and only He, can take a tragedy like this, and use it bring more salvation. And in the end, salvation is way better than happiness here on earth. A lifetime on earth is an eye blink compared to eternity. Would you rather have eternal peace and rejoicing, or happiness for as long as it takes to blink your eye? In that perspective, it’s a no-brainer. The amazing thing about God is that even though time is so short, He makes it count – the good and the bad, He makes it count and He moves mightily to save His children.
And that is exactly what He’s doing now. And we can help. How? Through prayer and through fasting. Prayer for the grieving and mourning and prayer for the souls of every person watching the story. Prayer for the responders, prayer for the young children who don’t quite understand what happened, and prayer for everyone who faces such tragedy – even when their stories aren’t featured on our news stations.
Even when it seems like the devil is dancing unchecked, it is not beyond God to shed light in the darkest corner and work good in the most evil of situations. And so today I ask you to pray. Because prayer can move mountains, and our God – stipulation or not – is mighty. He is mighty, able, good, and here. And no matter how bleak the story, it is not beyond Him. And through our tears, we can rejoice in that. So take heart, and take a moment to feel the peace in His presence.