Floodwaters engulf between a fifth to a third of the entire country of Pakistan. An earthquake decimates much of the nation of Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands in an instant. Forest fires raze forest and fields in central Russia, threatening homes and livelihoods. Such events happen far too often in our world and our awareness of such tragedies has grown keener in our globalized society made smaller by instantaneous visual communication. Of course tragedy is not confined to these mass media-worthy events, but has marred human experience from the beginning. Though somewhat insulated from misery by our materially prosperous and technologically advanced society, suffering and death are nonetheless normative.
The pain and tragedy inherent to the human condition have caused many to doubt that life has ultimate meaning and reject the belief in an ultimate benevolent being who created and governs the universe. The question of why God allows suffering or even how the goodness of God is consistent with the existence of evil in the world is by no means just a modern one. Ancient peoples, whose lives were far more pervaded by suffering, death, and injustice than our own, likewise wrestled with such doubts. There is fascinating episode in the life of Jesus, recorded only in the gospel of Luke, where some people bring him a report about a political massacre at the temple in Jerusalem. The Roman governor, Pilate, had some political dissonants killed while they were worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem. In reporting the incident to Jesus, they were implicitly seeking a satisfying explanation for why this tragedy happened. Jesus discerns an assumption in their minds and questions it explicitly: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3). Their assumption, which is probably held universally, is that bad things happen to people because they are bad. We believe that in a just universe good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. Thus, when the opposite occurs we begin to doubt if the universe is just and therefore purposeful.
Jesus is saying that we cannot infer from tragedy that the victims were more deserving of punishment, for all us deserve the same fate – death – because of our sin. After establishing this principle, he cites another tragedy – a tower falling and killing 18 people – one that is a pure accident, and not a direct result of human agency. He does not blame God, nor anyone, but uses the event to remind us of our common fate and to call us to the right response to tragedy: repentance. Repentance is turning from the sin that is the source of all the tragedy, suffering and injustice in the world, and turning to God, looking to Him for rescue from sin and its effects.
Whether we hear of tragedy across the globe or experience it personally at home, it should remind us of the heinousness of sin and the just consequences all sinners deserve, but more importantly beckon us to flee to the grace of God that welcomes sinners and provides eternal hope.
In my next post on this topic I will examine some of the purposes God has revealed for suffering and how the cross presents the surest hope in the midst of tragedy.