Aug 01, 2012 by Mark Young | 0 Comments
Like they had in the spring of 1999, Coloradans recently faced, once again, the awful news that unspeakable evil and unconscionable violence was unleashed on their friends, family members, colleagues, and fellow citizens. This time it happened at a movie theater in the city of Aurora. Twelve murdered. Fifty-eight others wounded. Several hospitalized in critical condition, some dealing with life-altering injuries.
Responses to the tragedy are complex and varied. Disbelief. Fear. Grief. Confusion. Anger. Thousands gathered for a community-wide memorial service and many continue to visit a makeshift memorial near the theater. Background checks for gun purchases in Colorado rose over forty percent after last week’s massacre. The shooting has touched deep chords of vulnerability, forcing us to acknowledge the fragility of human life, and mocking our naïve and arrogant sense of control. Some seek comfort in shared grief with fellow sufferers; others seek it through a pistol grip in their hands.
So where do we go from here? Culturally, isn’t it time that we addressed our abiding fascination with, and voyeuristic enjoyment of, violence? Politically, isn’t it time that we had a genuinely productive conversation about the wisdom of open access to weaponry that was designed for one purpose—warfare? Socially, isn’t it time that we explored how social isolation and the virtual world can be a toxic elixir of fantasies that blur our vision of reality and relationships, dull our moral sensibilities and dehumanize those around us? Unfortunately, I see no secular cultural institution with the moral foundation and authority to address our fascination with violence. I have little hope that our politicians have the courage to find common ground with their political opponents for the sake of the common good in order to create meaningful legislative approaches to the question of gun ownership. And I see little initiative to address the increasing alienation and isolation that immersion in the virtual world creates for many.
Answers to the questions above, even if we did have the wisdom and courage to address the issues they lay bare, can only take us so far in dealing with the grief, fear, confusion, and anger that we are experiencing in these days. As a grieving community struggles with tough questions and troubled hearts, we look to our God, whom Paul described as the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” in 2 Corinthians 1:3. But how does our abiding faith in God provide comfort? What do we know about God that allows us to find comfort and hope when faced with evil and suffering?
Rooted deeply in the Old Testament and in rabbinic tradition, Paul’s descriptive phrase, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,” draws our attention first to God’s compassion. The prophet Jeremiah, no stranger to violence and loss, lamented, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning: great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24, NIV) In the midst of loss, grief, fear, and depression, Jeremiah found hope in God’s great love and in the certainty of His mercy.
Speaking of God’s great love and unending compassion in the throes of suffering and loss seems foolish. Was God’s great love present in that theater when a murderer rained down death on seemingly random victims? If so, why didn’t he stop the gunman, save twelve lives and prevent unbearable pain for dozens more? Like Habakkuk, we cry out, “How long, Lord, must I call out for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2) Although talented and insightful Christian thinkers have helped us think about these tough questions with well-reasoned arguments,* I suspect that for most of us the raw emotions of pain and loss remain. The crucible of faith is the willingness to keep believing that God’s mercy never fails even when it seems foolish to do so. To say with Jeremiah, “I will wait for him,” provides comfort because it demonstrates the conviction that suffering and loss isn’t God’s final answer to the devastating presence and consequences of evil.
For many, faith focused on God’s mercy and compassion alone will not provide comfort in the face of evil. We must also trust in God’s justice. God will judge evildoers; his righteousness demands it. Turning our attention to God’s justice isn’t natural for us. We’re more comfortable thinking about God’s love than God’s justice. We are ready to embrace the God who loves but not eager to stand before the God who judges. Yet, without justice, God’s love becomes benign sentiment that seems impotent in the face of evil.
The author of the book of Hebrews wrote unflinchingly about the justice and judgment of God. “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. . . . For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27, 30-31)
The certainty and equity of God’s justice provides comfort for those who suffer loss at the hands of evildoers as it assuages our strong sense of need to seek vengeance on those who have harmed us or our loved ones. That deep urge to seek vengeance and the fear that the evildoer will escape without penalty generate a rage that leads to violence. History demonstrates that vengeance and retaliation can quickly devolve into cyclical violence, even genocide. Thus, Paul exhorts us, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) There is no real comfort in vengeance because only a holy God can execute revenge without sin. There is, however, real comfort in the certainty and equity of God’s justice.
Although God’s compassion and God’s justice seem intrinsically contradictory—one drawing us into the arms of a loving Father and the other laying bare our sin before a righteous Judge—one without the other cannot provide comfort. Trevin Wax, writing in Christianity Today, reminds us how the paradoxical truths of God’s mercy and God’s judgment focus our attention on the work of Christ.
God the Judge has promised to completely wipe out the evil of the world. And yet, he loves us. In his grace, he is the righteous judge and the gracious redeemer. His judgment against evil is poured out upon his only Son on the cross. Justice and mercy are not a war with one another. They meet at the cross. (Bold mine. Christianity Today, July/August 2012, p. 51)
And so, we weep. We question. We believe. And we do not lose heart.
*See Lee Strobel’s reflection at http://www.chcc.org/sundays_lee_strobel_summer_2012.aspx and Doug Groothuis’ excellent chapter, “The Problem of Evil: Dead Ends and the Christian Answer” in his book Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith.