One of my first girlfriends died when she was twenty-one. She was gunned down on her neighborhood street while in her car. The killer was never caught. There was never any motive discovered. She was just found dead, on the side of the road, with seven bullet holes in her chest. I attended her funeral, where the pastor gave the dreaded sermon. How can one respond to such a tragedy? The three worst funerals I have ever conducted were those of a stillborn baby (the memory of the casket will never leave me), a father who died in a house fire in the middle of the night as he tried to rescue his son, and my sister, who committed suicide on January 4, 2004. I know what the pastor was going through when he attempted to find words. He wanted to defend God. The primary question was evident: “How could God have allowed this to happen?” So he believed he had to provide some sort of answer. Although I don’t remember much of what he said, there was one phrase that he repeated with great resolve: “This was not God’s will.” Over and over he said, “This was not God’s will.” This was before I even knew the words “Calvinist” or “sovereignty.” All I knew as I left that place was that I was less comforted and more fearful than when I came. His defense of God made God, in my eyes, a cheerleader in heaven whose willful hand is present when good things happen, but strangely absent when evil comes our way.
For me, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is not some far-off academic discipline, revived in my mind by arguments – black ink on paper – in some book I read long ago. It is much more endearing. So much so that I often wonder if I grip it so tightly that it may cause me to be unbalanced.
Never is the sovereignty of God so close as when tragedy enters my life. Because of the pain that follows these tragedies, I often find myself on my knees praying that God is sovereign. “Lord, please don’t let this be some random act in which your hand was not intimately involved. Please don’t be playing a game of chess with evil. Let things be more meaningful. And don’t – please don’t – be nothing more than a cheerleader in Heaven who lowers your pom-poms when pain and suffering strike their dreaded blows. Let your hand be behind it lest I die. Let your shaping hand guide all things.”
Having said that, let me give three points of advice to my fellow Calvinists about handling the tragedy in Newtown.
1. Don’t make this an us (Calvinist) vs. them (Arminian) issue
The issue of God’s sovereignty is not exclusively a Calvinist position. All Christians – Calvinist, Arminian, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and the like – believe that God is sovereign. As well, everything I said in my second paragraph (including the prayer) could also be said by an Arminian. Arminians believe God is sovereign. While we may frame things a bit differently, the best Arminians I know don’t think God is a cheerleader, nor do any (but Open Theists) believe he is a chess player. They believe that God is in control and could have prevented the happenings in Newtown. Like us, they don’t know why he did not prevent it. All of us believe that God will bring good out of this tragedy.
When we make it an us vs. them thing, we unwittingly push people to defend extremes that don’t represent the best of their theology. In these battles, unnecessary division takes place between brothers of the same faith as our theology begins to lisp. Don’t make the Arminian theology lisp simply because you want to turn this into an opportunity for theological politics to find a canvas. Arminians, this goes for you too.
2. Don’t say that this was God’s will
“It was God’s will that this evil occur. He brought it about for his glory!” Simply put, there are way too many qualifiers that we have to add to such statements. In times of emotional hurt and pain, while it may be true that it was God’s “will” for something to happen, it is not God’s “will” for you to pronounce such right now. You see, most of us (Calvinists) know how we distinguish between God’s will of decree and will of desire. We know that there is the will of the heart of God and the will of the hand of God. God’s heart did not want these children to be murdered, and he mourns over the death of those lost. Yes, he decreed it to take place before the foundations of the world, but his heart is not always in concert with his decrees. God is never the agent of sin or evil, but he does make extensive use of it in a fallen world. It is all he has to work with. But when we speak theologically in a time of tender tragedy, while we may think we are being theologically astute, we are not (how can I put this?) using our heads. Wisdom is sometimes betrayed by knowledge. When we say “It was God’s will for these children to die,” to a broken world with undried tears, all you are saying is that killing children represents the heart of God. So “will” may not be the best word to use right now.
On the converse, saying it was not God’s will for this to happen is just as negative, as it presents to people, at least in their minds, an impotent God who does not have the power to stop such a tragedy. Remember, we believe it was God’s will and it was not God’s will at the same time, but in different relationships to the event. When the time is right, we can publish such theology. But the time is not right. Let’s keep from saying it was God’s will without qualification. It smacks of arrogance and misrepresents the heart of God.
3. Don’t be too quick to respond theologically
So much of the Christian life is a mystery. Mystery’s bed-fellow is silence. There will definitely be a ripening when theological answers are necessary, but our sad countenances will be theological enough for most people. The tears on our own cheeks along with our silence is often the best we have to give in times like this. People need a shoulder to cry on, but it is a much more inviting shoulder when we too are broken before God in the mystery of his sovereignty. Let people be mad at God for a bit. God prefers this to indifference. We are all in a wrestling match with God that is without words. Let’s all wrestle together with the God we love during this terrible time.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]