On Sunday, March 26, Reverend Chad Scruggs faithfully preached God’s Word from John 12:36-50 to Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, extolling 1) God’s plan in the Jews’ rejection of Jesus and 2) Jesus’s subsequent glory. On Monday, March 27, his nine-year-old daughter Hallie was one of six people shot dead at the church’s Christian school by a 28-year-old former student.
The shooter carried out a horrific act of evil. Sudden, devastating loss is hard to process at any time. But, under such circumstances, it can cause us to doubt the goodness of God or provoke us to respond in sinful anger. Thinking through three questions can help us to shape a more biblical perspective on tragedies like the Nashville shooting.
1. Why did it happen?
The Bible teaches that all evil and suffering in the world is a consequence of mankind’s sin. When God created the world, he declared all that he had made “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, he cursed creation and drove them out of the garden (Genesis 3); when mankind commits evil, God justly dispenses suffering as a consequence. Mankind quickly multiplied their sin, even committing (Genesis 4:8) and then boasting about (Genesis 4:23) murder. This general truth is foundational to a biblical understanding of suffering.
However, it does not follow that every bit of suffering in the world can be directly tied to a particular sin. The Bible supplies different categories, with numerous examples for each. People can suffer because of their own sins, because of the sins of others, or because of no discernable sin at all.
This often means that we suffer, or know others who suffer, without being able to identify a reason. Even if we can identify a proximate or instrumental reason — such as a school shooter — we often don’t understand why God allows the suffering, or why a trial afflicts a particular person.
Unexplained suffering is a thread that runs throughout the Bible. Joseph was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:28) and thrown into prison (Genesis 39:20) for no discernable reason. Only later, after his imprisonment led to his preventing a seven-year famine and saving his family from starvation, did Joseph clearly see God’s purpose behind his suffering (Genesis 45:5-8). The man born blind (John 9:1) lived to adulthood without receiving an explanation for his lack of sight. Jesus said the reason for his blindness was not any particular sin, but “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). His years of unexplained blindness led to his believing in Jesus unto eternal life (John 9:38). We read that the reason for Job’s suffering was that God was holding him up to Satan as an example of righteousness (Job 1:8). But, as far as we know, even after God restored Job to health and prosperity, he never told Job the reason for his suffering. David complained, “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause” (Psalm 69:4). Even as a prophet, he could hardly comprehend how his words looked forward to his greater son, Jesus Christ (John 15:25).
The Bible teaches that God is working out his good purposes even amid seemingly senseless suffering. We have God’s promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). Paul lists some of the things he had in mind, “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” (Romans 8:34). God even turns the evil purposes of man to the ultimate good of his people. Joseph told his treacherous brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). Peter reminded his readers that their trials were “now” — not later — “for a little while” — not forever — and “if necessary” — not pointless (1 Peter 1:6).
2. What should I think about this?
The Bible teaches that God will only give his children trials that are necessary for them. At the same time, it teaches that they will face trials. “In the world you will have tribulation,” said Jesus, “but take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The conclusion to draw from these two teachings is that sufferings and trials are necessary for us.
One purpose of the trials we face is “so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). Like pure gold, pure faith is tested and proven genuine in the fire of affliction. Job’s trials revealed his faith, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25).
Another purpose of our trials is our sanctification. Trials produce steadfastness, making us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). Our sufferings produce endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-4). Our humiliation conforms us to the pattern of Christ Jesus who, “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
One particular trial Christians should expect is persecution. We don’t know yet whether the Nashville shooter targeted the school because of its Christian beliefs; if she did, it would be entirely consistent with the Bible’s teaching. We do know that terrorists in Nigeria killed 27 Christians in two attacks this month because of their beliefs. “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” Jesus told his disciples the night before is persecutors put him to death (John 15:20).
Remember, too, that other word of Jesus, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
3. How should we respond?
Christianity is no abstract religion; its doctrines resolve into action. So, given the truths about sin, suffering, and trials presented above, how should Christians respond in action?
For starters, we should “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). The communities of Covenant Presbyterian Church and The Covenant School must be devastated right now. It’s appropriate to feel compassion for them, mourn with them, and take time just to bear that grief. By the way, that includes the shooter’s mother, who made the financial sacrifice to enroll her daughter in the Christian school and presumably earnestly desired her salvation.
At the same time, let’s be careful how we respond to the perpetrator. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them,” said Paul in the same place (Romans 12:14). It can be tempting to let our minds run to angry, evil thoughts, or at least to let our mouths run to name-calling or condemnations of a whole class. But those aren’t Christlike responses. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
That raises another way in which we should take Jesus for our model: trusting God. “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). This means continuing to worship God, adore his character, and look to his providential care even when he fills our days with bitter sorrow. It means continuing to believe that God “exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
This trust in God entails an acknowledgment that God can order all things as he pleases. “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Or, as Job put it, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Such a response is neither easy nor natural. It’s only possible if we are more convinced of the reality and worth of God’s character and promises than in our own circumstances. But it’s the type of supernatural response that God-given trials are designed to reveal in us to his glory.
Finally, when suffering touches us, we should endure obediently. “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God,” wrote Peter (1 Peter 2:20). Scripture gives several practical reasons to encourage us in obedient endurance.
First, humility is the path to honor. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted,” Jesus repeated (Luke 14:11, 18:14). “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).
Second, all our striving against God’s mighty hand can accomplish nothing. “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). In his book, “The Crook in the Lot,” Puritan pastor Thomas Boston explained that, instead of squirming and striving against the trial, a wiser approach is to consider what work God is doing through the trial. If the infinitely wise God has appointed this trial for you, and nothing you can do can make the trial go away until God takes it away, then the way to make the best of your circumstances is to consider what God is doing and submit yourself to his plan.
Third, God uses trials to sanctify us. The preacher said, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecclesiastes 7:8). The proud in spirit has yet to be humbled by God, and God will most certainly bring him down. But the patient in spirit can say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound” (Philippians 4:11-12).
These biblical doctrines and instructions for holy living are difficult to accept — even more so when intense suffering besets us. But often, times of suffering are what God uses to change our hearts so that we can accept them.
The goal in trials should be to acknowledge God’s eternal plan and Christ’s eternal glory, as Reverend Scruggs preached on Sunday.
What is God doing through this Nashville shooting? Perhaps he intends to grow that church’s understanding of the truths preached to them just before this horrific tragedy. Perhaps he intends to display his glory through the supernatural responses of Christians struggling through unimaginable bitterness and sorrow. Perhaps he intends to confuse his enemies and advance his kingdom by converting the souls wandering furthest from him.
God has many good purposes in every good and bad thing that happens. Some we know. Some we can reason towards, based upon what we find in Scripture. Some we will learn about someday. But some purposes of the infinite, eternal Creator we will never know.
Of one thing we can be certain: all of our suffering will one day dissolve into insignificance when God himself will dwell with his people and “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). No stranger to suffering, the apostle Paul reasoned, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.
EDITORS NOTE: This Washington Stand column is republished with permission. ©2023 Family Research Council.
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