We’ve just been through one of the most devastating weeks in recent history. This past week, on September 11, 2001, the world changed forever. The terrorist attack on New York and Washington affected us all. It affected some of us directly – we have friends, family, and colleagues in that area. Some of us were made frantic phone calls, trying to make sure that our loved ones are safe. But it affected us all emotionally. You can’t be a human being and remain untouched by the damage caused this past week.
We’ve prayed for those that have lost loved ones. We need to continue to pray for the families affected, as well as the government and the churches in the area. But today I want to speak to you – the Richview church family – on how to handle tragedy. Why? Because we’ve all been affected. We all need guidance on how to handle this disaster.
But there’s another reason I want to look at this topic. Nobody is immune to disaster. I pray that nobody will experience events as horrific as what we saw this past week, but everyone here will experience tragedy. Many of you already have. It’s inevitable. Everybody here will go through a period of crisis, a period of tragedy in their lives.
I don’t think there’s a person here who hasn’t been moved by the stories coming out of the States this week. The first day or so you got the big picture. Then a few days later you began to hear individual stories. You began to see the people who have been affected. It’s one thing to hear numbers in the thousands. It’s another to begin to hear the individual stories – the families who have lost a brother, a wife, a parent.
As we’ve seen this week, this isn’t a perfect world. The Bible is clear that bad things do happen, even to good people. You read of tragedies in the Bible – of towers falling over and people being killed, and of innocent people being slaughtered as they worshiped God (Luke 13:1-5). Jesus said that when we hear of a tragedy, instead of blaming others, we need to think of our own life and eternity. This past week has given us reason to begin to reflect on our own lives.
I don’t know what you think about your own death. You may never think about the topic. Or maybe you think that you’ll die in your sleep one day when you’re old and happy. This week we’ve been reminded that death is often sudden and unanticipated. We all need to be ready. No matter how young or how healthy we might be, death is certain.
The Bible makes it clear that God didn’t cause the evil that we saw this past week. God is never the author of evil. He grieves when atrocities are committed. You can be sure that God is even more offended than we are by what has taken place. God didn’t cause this to happen. God is all-powerful, but he’s given us the ability and freedom to take actions. Those actions can be offensive to him and damaging to others. We’ve seen an example of that this past week.
The Bible also makes it clear that God is still very much in control. There are no easy answers, but the Bible offers something that’s far better than an easy answer. The Bible offers hope. The Bible provides the assurance that no matter what happens in this life, we can have a peace that transcends circumstances. We can have a living hope in the God who never lets us down, no matter what is going on around us.
We’re all going to experience tragedy. What should we do when the roof caves in? How can we handle disaster? Four principles that have helped me get through this past week:
1. RELEASE MY EMOTIONS TO GOD
That’s the first principle. Release my emotions to God. Let him know how you feel. Be honest with him. Tragedy always brings strong emotions, and if you’re going to get through tragedy, you’ve got to be free to release your grief to God.
I grew up with the mistaken idea that God couldn’t handle my feelings. Somewhere I picked up the idea that I had to sort of pretend that I was okay with things when bad things happened. It’s almost like I expected God to say, “Chin up! Quit your complaining.” Some of you may have that idea as well – that you can’t share openly with God. That’s a devastating belief, because that means that your relationship with God lacks honesty. You’re holding back in opening yourself up to the very one who made you.
I began to read my Bible and to notice that God’s people throughout history have been completely honest with God in sharing their struggles and their grief. In fact, one entire book of the Bible, called Habakkuk, is about a man’s struggle with some honest questions that he had for God. Listen to one of his questions: “How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen! ‘Violence!’ I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see this sin and misery all around me? Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence” (Habakkuk 1:2-3). God didn’t slam him for asking honest questions. God answered him.
What’s the lesson? You can bring your complaints and questions to God. God is big enough to handle your questions. God answers. You can bring your questions, your doubts, your feelings to God. God can handle your honesty. That’s why you can release your feelings to God.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:4, “God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” You can write beside that verse, “It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to mourn.” God doesn’t expect you to be happy all the time. You can face your feelings honestly. You can release your grief to God.
Psalm 62:8 says, “Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge.” David, the man who wrote those words, is an example of someone who did this. If you read the psalms, you’ll find David expressing his grief and his questions to God. He would ask questions like, “How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?” (Psalm 13:2). David was incredibly honest in expressing how he felt to God.
Others in the Bible were equally as honest. Jeremiah said, “LORD, you always give me justice when I bring a case before you. Now let me bring you this complaint: Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?” (Jeremiah 12:1).
Rich Mullins wrote a song that expresses some of these feelings to God:
You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt…
Well I memorized every word you said
Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While you’re up there just playing hard to get
You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin…
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the one who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow all I really need to know
Is if you who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
Brutally honest. Completely authentic. God never once said, “Don’t ask such questions.” He never said, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” God is big. He can handle your doubts, your fears, your questions. God is big enough to handle how you feel. That’s the first principle. Release your emotions to God.
There’s a second principle that we can follow when a time of disaster comes:
2. REFUSE TO BE BITTER
When something happens that is so wicked, so evil, it’s normal to want revenge. It’s easy to become bitter and so begin to nurse hatred in our hearts. But that’s never the way. Hatred and bitterness are diseases that are fatal to the soul. Hebrews 12:15 says, “Look after each other so that none of you will miss out on the special favor of God. Watch out that no bitter root of unbelief rises up among you, for whenever it springs up, many are corrupted by its poison.” Bitterness is dangerous. Bitterness will poison your own soul. It will damage those around you. The minute you become bitter, they’ve won. They’ve not only inflicted physical damage. At that point they’ve done successfully poisoned your soul.
Jesus said something that seems impossibly hard at a time like this. Jesus said, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for the happiness of those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you” (Luke 6:27-28). I have to be honest and say that I don’t really want to love those who perpetrated these acts. I want to hate them. But I’m praying to God, “God, give me a love for them. Give me forgiveness in my heart. Give me your love.” It sounds impossible, but God can do it. He’s already begun that work in my heart.
Is it wrong to want revenge? Yes. God says, “I will take vengeance. I will repay those who deserve it” (Hebrews 10:30). It’s not our job to get revenge. It’s God’s job. God will hold every human being accountable for what they’ve done. It’s his job to repay.
It’s not okay to want revenge, but it’s okay to want justice. There’s a big difference between revenge and justice. Every single one of us should be praying that God would dispense justice on the evil that’s been done. God has already begun to dispense his holy justice on those hijackers that died in the plane crash. We can pray that God would continue to show his justice.
God can use countries such as ours to help demonstrate that justice. Romans 13:4 says of the government, “The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.”
John Piper said this week:
We will magnify the mercy of God by praying for our enemies to be saved and reconciled to God. At the personal level we will be willing to suffer for their everlasting good, and we will give them food and drink. We will put away malicious hatred and private vengeance. But at the public level we will also magnify the justice of God by praying and working for justice to be done on the earth, if necessary through wise and measured force from God-ordained authority.
God says, “At the time I have planned, I will bring justice against the wicked” (Psalm 65:2). Pray that God will demonstrate his justice. Support government leaders as they take measures to dispense justice. Desire justice, but don’t desire revenge.
What’s the difference between justice and revenge? Justice is a reflection of one of God’s character. Whenever we want justice, we’re reflecting one of God’s qualities. But whenever we show revenge, we’re reflecting a character of the Evil One. We’re letting Satan work in our souls.
This sounds impossible. You’re right – it is humanly impossible. It’s not natural to forgive those who perpetrate atrocities. It’s not normal to want to keep bitterness out of your soul. It’s humanly impossible – but God can help. You may have to pray, just like I’m praying – “God, help me with this. I don’t want to be forgiving. I want to be bitter.” Ask God to help you. Release my emotions to God. Refuse to be bitter. Ask for his help.
The third principle:
3. RUN TO GOD FOR SAFETY
There’s no such thing as a safe place. It doesn’t matter where you go – you’re in danger. You hear tragic stories of people moving to where it’s safe, only to find out that they’re not safe after all. Where can you turn for safety?
Before this week, many people thought the Pentagon was impregnable. Nobody could guess that the defenses of the Pentagon could be overcome so brutally and efficiently. Any illusions we had of the Pentagon being safe have been erased this week.
As the Towers collapsed last week, you saw people running to safety. It’s a reminder to us that there is a place of safety that’s available to all of us. It’s a place where we can never be attacked. That’ place is in God’s arms.
Psalm 46 says, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1). A fortress was an elevated, isolated place of safety. It’s a place where you could go and be safe from the enemy. It’s a place to go when you’ve got no where else to turn.
“So we will not fear, even if earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea” (Psalm 46:2). Images of destruction may haunt us – but we don’t have to be afraid. Even if the world ends, even in the face of utter destruction, you can run to God. He’s the only safe refuge in a very uncertain world.
People instinctively know that. The first words that many people said after hearing the disaster were “Oh God.” That may have been reflexive, but it makes sense. Who else would you call on when something like that happens? Where else would you turn?
We read the verse earlier that said, “Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). It’s good to know that God’s arms are a place where we can run, where we can be honest. It’s a place where we can never be touched. It’s a place where we’re safe no matter what happens.
On Tuesday, I drove up to the church a few hours after the tragedy. Flights were being diverted to our airport. I began to think, “It could happen here.” That’s the reality. We don’t know what’s going to happen at any time. We’re never really safe. We often have the illusion of safety, but there’s only one way to be really safe. The only way to be really safe is if we run to God.
Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill you. They can only kill your body; they cannot touch your soul” (Matthew 10:28). We don’t have to be afraid of terrorists. Physical attacks can never destroy our soul. When we run to God, we can have the knowledge that no matter what happens in this life – even in death – we’re completely safe with him.
If you’ve given your life to Jesus Christ, you don’t need to be afraid. You’re safe. God is opening himself as a refuge to all of us. No matter who you are – no matter what you’ve done, you can run to God. You can be safe in his arms. You can receive peace today and security for your future – for all eternity.
The world seemed to become a more dangerous place this week. It reminds us that the world never really was safe. There’s only one place that’s safe. It’s in the refuge that God offers. Run to God for safety. There’s one more principle to follow in a time of tragedy:
4. RELY ON GOD’S CHARACTER
Release your feelings to God. Refuse to be bitter. Run to God for safety. The last principle that the Bible offers is this: rely on God’s character. Count on him. His character is unchangeable. You can rely on God no matter what happens.
One thing you need to know about God. God will never change. Our events may change. The constants in our life may change. You may lose your job, your finances, your marriage. You may lose your health. But you will never lose the security of knowing that God never changes. In the worst circumstances imaginable, we can continue to rely on God’s character.
There’s a book in the Bible called Lamentations. It’s a book that is exactly like it sounds – it’s not a happy book. It’s full of mourning and of weeping. The city of Jerusalem had been completely destroyed. But the man who wrote this book wasn’t just upset by the destruction of the city. When the city was destroyed, the dreams of a nation were destroyed. They had expected the city to be a base from which God could rule. When the city was lost, people’s hope and faith in God were destroyed as well. It wasn’t a happy story.
In the middle of mourning for the city, the prophet wrote some amazing words. Lamentations 3 says, “Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!'” (Lamentations 3:23-24) That’s amazing. Even in the middle of great tragedy, the prophet could say, “God hasn’t changed. He’s remained faithful. Despite the circumstances, I will continue to trust in him.
The fact that the sun rises every day is a reminder that no matter how bad things were yesterday – and yesterday may have been unimaginable – God hasn’t changed. You can depend on God. His promises will never fail. Every morning is a reminder – a renewal – of God’s mercy to you and to me.
Psalm 11:3 reports how people felt thousands of years ago in a time of crisis. They said “The foundations of law and order have collapsed. What can the righteous do?” People at the time were saying that the foundations had collapsed. It seemed like the situation was hopeless, even for those that believed in God. Where do you turn when it looks like everything is falling apart?
The next verse answers this question. Psalm 11:4 says, “But the LORD is in his holy Temple; the LORD still rules from heaven. He watches everything closely, examining everyone on earth.” When you look at circumstances, you can always give up. But don’t look at circumstances. Look at God. God hasn’t changed. God’s still reigning from heaven. He’s still faithful. You can rely on his character. He’s still in control.
Three characteristics of God will never change. You can rely on these three things. They will never change. GOD’S LOVE FOR ME WILL NEVER CHANGE. You can count on it. Jeremiah 31:3 says, “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.” God’s love will never end. His love will never fail. You can count on God’s love no matter what happens.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
God’s love for you will never change. You can always count on God’s love, no matter what happens.
GOD’S WORD WILL NEVER CHANGE. No matter what happens, you can always rely on God’s Word. Isaiah 40:8 says, “The grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” Matthew 24:35 says, “Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will remain forever.” No matter what changes in life, no matter even if the heavens and the earth disappear, you can count on God’s Word. His promises will never fail. If you’re building on any other foundation than God’s Word, then you’re building on shifting soil. When you build your life on God’s Word, he will never let you down.
GOD’S PURPOSE NEVER CHANGES. Psalm 33:11 says, “But the LORD’S plans sta nd firm forever; his intentions can never be shaken.” God has a plan for each of us. God’s plan can never be thwarted. We don’t understand how everything works into God’s plan. But we do know that nothing can change God’s plan. God is still in control.
Psalm 125:1 says, “Those who trust in the LORD are as secure as Mount Zion; they will not be defeated but will endure forever. Just as the mountains surround and protect Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds and protects his people, both now and forever” (Psalm 125:1-2). That’s what I call stability. Unmoved by any circumstance. When everything around us is changing, when the world looks like it’s falling apart, when it looks like there’s nowhere to turn, you can count on God. You can relay on his character.
God cares about what’s happened. Jesus said, “Not even a sparrow, worth only half a penny, can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it” (Matthew 10:29). God knows the story of every person, every family who experienced a loss this week. He cares. He’s willing to extend his help to you.
Would you like to receive his care today? Do you want to release your feelings to him, to run to his safety? Let’s claim some of God’s unshakable promises that will sustain us – no matter what we go through.
Father, we can’t understand what’s happened this week. Our hearts are filled with questions. I want to thank you that we can share our feelings openly with you. Thank you that you care about us. We want to take a moment to express to you our thanks that you never reject us based on our fears, our doubts, and our questions.
We pray today for all the victims of this tragedy. We pray that your grace and comfort would sustain them. We pray for our government leaders, and government leaders throughout the world. Help them to do justice. Give them wisdom. Sustain them with your power.
We pray that you would keep our hearts from bitterness. We pray that you would draw every one of us to you, our refuge and our strength in times of trouble. We pray that your “rich and wonderful promises” (2 Peter 1:4) will sustain us. We pray all these things, in Jesus’ name. Amen.