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Trusting God in the Midst of Tragedy

“Jamie, can you come home right away? There was a boy hit by a car while crossing the street coming home from school and Jude isn’t home yet.” I was at the Church office when I got this message from my wife. I immediately finished up what I was doing, asked a few people at the office to pray, and drove home. As I drove, so many thoughts went through my mind. I still wasn’t sure if it was Jude who was hit, but I had a sickening feeling in my stomach that my life was about to change. Tragically, it was our 11-year-old son Jude who was struck by a pick-up truck that day, and he died at McMaster Children’s Hospital about 33 hours later.

What started out as a normal Tuesday morning shovelling snow with my 11 year old son Jude and his brothers before school, turned into a day of absolute devastation.

How do you go on in life when something like this happens? How do you move forward as a husband, a dad, a Pastor? There is no training that can prepare you for this.

At the funeral service for Jude, we had a Scripture reading from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Verse 13 says:

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”

As Christians, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope. But what is it about being a Christian that allows us to grieve differently than the rest of the world? How is our experience of grief and tragedy different than those who do not know Christ?

The Psalms are probably one of the most helpful places in the Bible to turn to when processing grief. Psalm 139 in particular has pointed me to three truths about God’s character that have been of immense comfort to me as I move forward, leaning into God.

God knows everything about me and still loves me intimately

The first six verses of Psalm 139 affirm God’s omniscience. God is all knowing.

God intimately knows each and every one of us (Psalm 139:1). He knows our words and our thoughts even before we speak them (Psalm 139:4).

When I go through a wave of grief, my thoughts can get dark. There are things that I would never think about God and life during good times, that I begin to think in my despair. These are thoughts I do not feel comfortable sharing with people.

But with God, he already knows our thoughts. He has searched us and knows us. “Before a word is on our tongue, the LORD knows it completely.” (Psalm 139:4) And so, in our grief, we do not need to hide our thoughts from God.  We can go to the Lord in prayer and just lay our burdens before him.

God gave us the Psalms to teach us how to cry out to him. Most of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us. God wants us to invite him into our grief, not to suppress it. This has been so freeing for me. I can bring everything to God in prayer, and he knows it already and is ready to listen.

God is always with me. He is near me in my grief.

David confesses in Psalm 139:7-8 that there is nowhere he can go that God is not there with him. God is omnipresent.

There is literally no place we can go, where God is not there with us. This goes beyond speaking just of physical places. David is talking about where he is in his own demeanor. He is saying that God is with him wherever he is bodily, spiritually, and emotionally.

God is not only near to David, but God’s right hand holds him fast. The phrase “hold fast” is an idiom. It means to stick firmly to something. God’s right hand holds us firmly.

The experience of Christ holding me fast has taken on a whole new level of meaning during these past months of grief. The grief has taken me to a point where I constantly feel like I don’t have it within me to keep going. As Christians, we often talk about God being the one that keeps our faith going, but I have never felt that so deeply like I have during this period of grieving.

At Jude’s funeral service, one of the songs we chose to sing was “He Will Hold Me Fast.” The second verse describes Christ holding us fast even though these promises came at a great cost to him. Even so, he will hold us (me!) fast.

I have held onto this promise like never before! Jesus will not let my soul be lost. No matter what we are going through, Christ will not let us go! Jesus gave his life to redeem us, and so the comfort we have as believers is that no matter how we are feeling, Christ will not let us go.

God is sovereign. He controls all things

What do I mean that God is sovereign? I mean that because he created us, he rules over us.  He controls all things. He rules, not as a distant Creator with no interaction with his creation, but as a gracious King who oversees every inch of every aspect of all of life.

In verse 16 of Psalm 139, David says, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God is sovereign over all things, including the number of days we will have in our life.

When Jude died, one of the most common reactions we heard from people was that it was so tragic that he died at such a young age. He didn’t get to live a full life. And humanly speaking, this is true. In Canada we assume we will live around 80 years. So, to have a boy die at only 11 is really sad.

In a very real way, that is true. I am sad that I won’t get to see Jude graduate high school, or get his first job, or get married, or see him become a dad.

But when I think about Jude’s life from God’s perspective, Jude lived a complete life. Before Jude was formed, God knew that he was going to have 11 years and 4 months on this earth. God knew the span of his life was 4,143 days long. His life was not cut short from what God knew he was going to give Jude, from the foundation of the earth. I got to enjoy Jude for all the days that God had chosen to give him.

Jude’s death did not take God by surprise. In God’s sovereign plan, he knew this would happen.

This is a hard truth to come to terms with, but as a Christian who believes that the Bible is authoritative over my feelings, I recognize that God could have protected Jude, but for some reason unknown to me, chose not to.

Three Options

And when you think about it, there are only really only three options available for me to believe about God in this tragedy:

  1. God had the ability to protect Jude, but did not want to.
  2. God wanted to protect Jude, but did not have the ability to do so.
  3. God had the ability to protect Jude, but he desired something that in the grand scheme of his sovereign purposes was greater than protecting Jude.

If it’s the first option, I have a God that is distant and uncaring. If it’s the second option, I have a God who loves, but isn’t powerful enough to do anything.

In the third option, I have a God who loves Jude, and could have protected him, but chose not to. I have a God whose thoughts and ways are higher than my own (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Biblically speaking, it has to be the third option. God can do all things. “Our God is in the heavens he does all that he pleases!” (Psalm 115:3) And in working his sovereign purposes, he did not even spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all! (Rom 8:32)

There is no easy pill to swallow when assessing why God allows tragic things to happen. I do not understand the details of God’s sovereign plan, but I choose to trust “the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.” (God moves in a Mysterious Way, William Cowper)

Our place is not to know all of God’s purposes but to trust in him, even if we don’t understand. It is tempting to think that if we had all our questions answered it would comfort us. But explanations never comfort, it is trusting in the “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (1 Cor 1:3) that does.

How to come alongside those who are in the midst of tragedy

Two quick words of advice for those who would want to come alongside someone in their grief.

The greater the tragedy the fewer the words. In our hardest times, we don’t need longwinded expressions. There really are no words. Instead, just say: “I’m so sorry this happened”; “I’m here for you”; “I love you and am praying for you.”

In addition to words, offer practical help, but be specific. Send a text saying, “I’m going to the grocery store, can I grab you anything?” Offer to pick up their laundry, and drop it off clean and folded the next day. Send a restaurant gift card in the mail.

In our hardest times, we don’t need longwinded expressions.

Tell the person grieving specifically how you can help, but be okay if they say no. Many people said to us, “If there anything you need, just let us know”. That is good, but in the midst of grief, it is hard to know what you need.

Jesus is with us in our grief

Losing Jude has been, by far, the most devastating thing that has happened to me. It is harder than anything I could have ever imagined. But in it all, I am thankful that I have a God who knows me, is with me, and is sovereign over all things. God is present with me in my suffering. He has held me fast.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And it is through Jesus, in his finished work on the cross, that I have assurance that Jude is now in heaven experiencing God’s presence. Even in my mourning, I am comforted by God that Jude is happier today than he has ever been.