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A Tragedy in London: What’s a Christian to Do?

By most people’s standards, I have a short commute to work. Short enough that my wife occasionally reminds me that walking to work wouldn’t be a bad idea. And she’s not wrong. As the car drives, the distance is only 1.5 kilometers. If I get the right lights, which I rarely do, it is a matter of a minute or two from my driveway to the church parking lot.

But this morning, I chose a different route to travel to work with this morning’s overcast skies and steady rain portending the emotions behind the changing of my regular habits. The circuitous route I chose would take me past the location where a heinous crime was perpetrated, just a little over a week ago, a mere 4.5 kilometers from my church.

Huddled piles of flowers have replaced the huddled masses of mourners that paid homage: their currency primarily being grief, shock, and anger. This is the location where three generations of a Muslim Canadian family were attacked leaving four family members dead and a nine-year-old child orphaned and in the hospital. Our city mourns this tragedy that has befallen the Azfaal family: father Salman, mother Madiha, daughter Yumna, and grandmother Talat, survived only by son Fayez.

I make no attempt to put into words the pain, horror, and anger that this heinous act has elicited. The details above are enough for the reader to have a sense of the emotions involved if they haven’t been experienced yet. As I pass the site, I hope the rain preserves the tokens of mourning a few days longer even as I contemplate the question that generated this side-trip on my way to work: What’s a Christian to do?

What is a Christian to do in response to evil and suffering of this magnitude?

The rest of the trip to work contains other memories of suffering and evil in this world. I pass the retirement home where we would hold monthly services to bring the gospel—along with hope and fellowship—to some elderly people in our community. We have not been able to meet with these lovely men and women for well over a year due to the pandemic. This, too, is evidence of a world broken by sin.

So is the roadway from which I turn into the church parking lot. More than a couple of pedestrians have accidentally been hit here trying to circumvent crossing at the lights a mere 50 yards away. In the parking lot, I walk by the bushes in the garden where, in the past, someone used needles—someone taking a break and getting a fix.

The examples of evil and suffering due to sin and to sins are numerous. However, these latter examples—an isolated retirement home, accidents resulting in bodily harm, illegal drug use—do not evoke the same gut-wrenching questions and confusion that the racially-motivated murder of four and attempted murder of another does. The others evoke compassion and frustration in their own ways, but the confusion and heartache of these pale in comparison to that of a tragedy such as the Azfaal family has suffered.

What’s a Christian to Do?

What follows is an attempt to answer that question from my perspective as a pastor who leads a congregation that gathers just a few kilometers from the site of this tragedy. In no way can this issue be dealt with exhaustively, and I am the first to admit that I am not qualified to adequately address each of the problems associated with events such as these.

I simply offer a few pastoral suggestions that address the question by which this article is titled. My answer to this question, incomplete as it is, is summed up with three simple words: pre-empt, lament, repent.

Pre-empt

When considering what a Christian is to do in navigating tragedies like that one that took place in London, Ontario, my first answer pertains to the sovereignty of God. In light of horrible events like these, Christians must pre-emptively come to terms with the sovereignty of God over evil.

Why must this be done pre-emptively?

The reason this doctrine must be engaged and embraced beforehand is because, for most people, the hardness of this truth is too much to reckon with in the midst of pain, grief, loss, and suffering. Hard truths are exponentially harder to wrestle with in the middle of sorrow, fear, and trauma. Most people will not have the mental and emotional capacity to navigate this in the middle of the storms of life. We do not know when next we will experience the grief, trauma, pain, and heartache of suffering and evil. So, it is imperative we settle this now.

God’s sovereignty and how it relates to evil is a hard truth we must settle in our minds and our hearts.

God’s sovereignty and how it relates to evil is a hard truth we must settle in our minds and our hearts. It is a hard truth because it is hard for us intellectually to understand what the Bible teaches, and it is hard for us to emotionally accept this truth. From my perspective, it is not hard to induce from scripture the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over evil, but it is difficult to understand it with our minds and to embrace it with our hearts.

The best summary of this doctrine that I have come across, and the quote I encouraged my congregation with this past Sunday, is proposed by D. A. Carson in his book How Long, O Lord?: Reflections On Suffering And Evil:

To put it bluntly, God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yet the evil is not morally chargeable to him: it is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary causes. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to him, and only derivatively to secondary agents.[1]

My first answer to the question proposed by this article is to come to terms with the quotation above. I am not going to present to you the proofs from Scripture that make this difficult doctrine true. That is for you to do. I am not going to explain the nuances of this truth; that is also for you to discover. There are many godly men and women more able than I who can help you with this.[2] I simply suggest this is something you could do (or should do) as a believer in response to the tragic events that interrupt our lives with pain, fear, and suffering.

Though I want you to wrestle and come to terms with this truth, here is Carson’s follow-up explanation of what he means:

In other words, if I sin, I cannot possibly do so outside the bounds of God’s sovereignty (or the many texts already cited have no meaning), but I alone am responsible for that sin—or perhaps I and those who tempted me, led me astray, and the like. God is not to be blamed. But if I do good, it is God working in me both to will and to act according to his good pleasure. God’s grace has been manifest in my case, and he is to be praised. If this sounds just a bit too convenient for God, my initial response (though there is more to be said) is that according to the Bible this is the only God there is. There is no other.[3]

Coming to terms with the sovereignty of God over evil is also significant because it is a doctrinal foundation on which the practice of lament depends.

Lament

The Biblical concept of lament has experienced a resurgence in the last few years. This historical discipline that has benefitted so many disciples in the past is being re-discovered in many churches. Godly lament is my second suggestion for what a Christian should do in response to horribly evil events. One resource that has been extremely helpful for me in regards to lament is Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.[4] Vroegop defines this biblical practice, writing, “Lament can be defined as a loud cry, a howl, or a passionate expression of grief. However, in the Bible lament is more than sorrow or talking about sadness. It is more than walking through the stages of grief. Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.”[5]

From Vroegop, I learned that Scripture is full of laments that give a voice to the strong emotions that suffering and evil elicit. Lament helps us to reflect on difficult circumstances brought on by our own sinful actions and by the sinful actions of others, not to mention the consequences of living in a world broken by sin. In the author’s words, lament is “the transition between pain and promise. It is the path from heartbreak to hope.”[6]

I also learned the stages of biblical lament which generally contains four key elements: an address to God, a complaint, a request, and an expression of trust and/or praise. It is this final element that is so imperative if we hope to navigate times of intense suffering and evil.

Lament is intended to get us to that place of trust in spite of the difficulties, pain, and sorrow. Our trust and worship, if it is to be well-placed, sincere, and beneficial must be placed in God who is sovereign over evil, must it not? Most believers understand and avow that God is loving; there is surely solace and comfort in this. But we must also have a God who sovereign over all the terrible tragedies and atrocious acts if we are to truly trust and worship God in the dark days. Vroegop alludes to a profound truth in the title of his book; dark clouds can yield deep mercy if we lament as prescribed by God’s Word.

Lament is a godly response of a Christian to suffering and evil. It is good for us. It is helpful for those around us. It is a biblical practice for nurturing our souls and the souls of others when evil and suffering invade our lives.

The final pastoral suggestion I make in regards to the question “What’s a Christian to do?” pertains to repentance.

Repent

Anecdotally, in my experience, it does not seem that repentance is the intuitive response for Christians as they encounter evil and suffering. Actually, repentance doesn’t seem to be the intuitive response for us in any circumstance and yet, when we sin, we understand that turning from our sin, confessing it to God, and seeking forgiveness is necessary. Repentance is a necessary response to evil and suffering in our world. Making the connection between tragic events and painful circumstances and our need to repent does not come as readily for most of us. And yet Jesus clearly makes this connection explicit in Luke’s Gospel.

Repentance is a necessary response to evil and suffering in our world.

In the thirteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus makes reference to the massacre of Galileans at the hand of Pontius Pilate. The Galileans intended to bring sacrifices to the temple but Pilate slaughtered them, even mingling their blood with that of the sacrifices. Jesus engages with this grave injustice by directing his listeners’ attention to what he sees as the most crucial issue saying, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”[7]

Renowned Lukan commentator Darrel Bock clarifies, “The issue is not when death will happen or why, but avoiding a terminal fate with even greater consequences. Only repentance will prevent the death that lasts.”[8] For both unbelievers and believers alike, Jesus teaches that repentance is a proper response when evil and suffering shock us out of the monotony and daily-ness of our lives.

An elder of our church, and leader of our Arabic fellowship, set the right tone in our congregational prayer this past Sunday. Though he has already repented in the salvific sense, he recognized that responding to such tragedies by repenting was called for. In part he prayed:

“Father God, We join together this morning and thank you for the privilege to have access to the throne of grace, Lord. We thank you for your goodness and kindness. Lord, we come with troubled hearts as we have all seen and heard about the horrific act of hate that happened toward the Pakistani family here in our city, in our neighbourhood. It’s so close that for me personally this was a wakeup call, to examine myself, my feelings, and motives toward those who are different from me in faith and culture. I come to you asking for your forgiveness. I ask forgiveness for our prejudices and lack of love for those who are different in faith, culture, and colour. I ask forgiveness for not sharing the gospel faithfully because a family of four was killed in an instant and they didn’t know Jesus.”

This man is a godly brother who himself has been through much suffering at the hands of evil men. I love that given the opportunity to respond to this event as our church prefers—in prayer and preaching when the church gathers—his inclination was to repent and seek forgiveness for his own sins, for our own sins.

Whenever and however the Hydra[9] of evil, suffering, and sin rears its head, may we respond through repentance as Jesus taught.

A Fitting Example

The gospel of Jesus Christ helps us consider these three responses to suffering and evil. God’s sovereignty over evil comes to the forefront when we read Acts 2:22-23 which the ESV renders, Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

The evilest event in the history of the world was according to the plan and foreknowledge of God and it was to this event that Jesus said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”[10] The sovereignty of God over evil was settled in the mind of Christ.

The cross also demonstrates the appropriateness of lament in the face of evil and suffering. Whether it was Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane[11] or his cry of dereliction from the cross[12], the Son of God shows that lamenting in response to evil and suffering is legitimate.

Finally, the gospel is the good news that when we repent, in response to the suffering for sin that Jesus vicariously endured in our stead, and believe and trust, in the work that Jesus accomplished, we will experience God’s salvation that, in this world and the one to come, will be a reward that will recompense us beyond our imaginations for the suffering and the evil of our natural lives.

What’s a Christian to Do?

Though more, much more, could be said about how Christians ought to respond to grievous calamities and seemingly senseless suffering, I humbly suggest that one way forward that will ultimately bring glory to God and good to his creatures is to pre-emptively come to terms with God’s sovereignty over evil, to lament individually and corporately as we wrestle with evil and suffering in our lives, and to repent of that which the Spirit convicts us.

The Word of God is clear that we will experience trials, hardships, persecution, and evil trouble throughout our days—whether in our own lives, in the lives of our loved ones, in our neighbourhoods, or around the world.[13]

When calamity hits, the watching world will see what the Church does and how we respond to such tragedy. Before the next headline-making event happens, seek the Lord, wrestle with his sovereignty, and ask him to give you a heart that laments over the brokenness of this world and repents over the sin within.

 


[1] D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Baker Academic, 2006), 189.

[2] Here are a few suggestions: How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God by John Piper and Justin Taylor, The Doctrine of God by John Frame. Ask your pastor for more!

[3] D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Baker Academic, 2006), 189.

[4] Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy Discovering the Grace of Lament (Crossway, 2019).

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Ibid., 28-29.

[7] Luke 13:2-3 ESV

[8] Darrel L. Bock, Luke (Baker Academic, 1996), 1206.

[9] In Greek mythology the Hydra was a water-snake-like monster with nine heads that when cut off would grow back. I think it is an appropriate allusion given the nature of sin and evil.

[10] Luke 22:42 ESV

[11] Luke 22:39-46

[12] Matthew 27:46

[13] John 16:33, 1 Peter 4:12

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