Does it take a tragedy?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on December 3, 2006 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A visitor to our website writes that the mother of a friend of his came to Christ as a result of a tragedy. His friend’s niece lost her life in an auto accident; and as a result of the girl’s death (the girl was a believer), the friend’s mother’s heart was softened to the Lord and she trusted Him for salvation and was baptized in a church.

In other words, it took a tragic accident to awaken this woman to her need for a Savior. And the visitor to our website struggles with this. He knows that the girl who died is now safe in the arms of Jesus; and understands that, from God’s perspective, such a tragedy isn’t a completely bad thing. But our visitor is resentful of the fact that it took something so grievous to cause his friend’s mother to see her need. This visitor writes: “I love Jesus so much and want everyone to be saved, but I don’t want bad things to happen before someone believes. I myself was ‘jolted’ back to Jesus after my marriage fell apart and was denied custody of my daughter.

“It says in God’s word that it is hard for a rich man to get into heaven; … Why? Why do bad things have to happen before we wake up???”

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Dear friend,

I sense from the tone of your letter – and certainly because you mention that you yourself went through the terrible trial – that this is a pretty important and perplexing matter for you. I think it is summed up in your question: “Why do bad things have to happen before we wake up?” Why does God, it seems, have to use such terrible trials to cause some of us to realize our need for Jesus and trust Him? Why can’t we just trust Him because of the good things He brings into our lives?

I’m going to confess something to you; I don’t feel as if I have suffered very much in my life. So please understand; whatever I say in answering your question is not going to come from my own experiences of suffering. What I have learned about suffering is from what I have read in the Scriptures or from talking to others who are “seasoned sufferers”. I hope that, because of this, you’ll be patient with my stumbling attempts to answer you. In fact, I have to tell you that I think you’re asking about a great mystery – and I’m quite sure I CAN’T give you a full answer! But let me at least share a few thoughts.

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First of all, let’s consider that passage you mentioned. That was from the story in the New Testament of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus, you’ll remember, turned to His disciples after the young man walked away and said, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24). The disciples were greatly astonished at this; and declared, “Who then can be saved?” They rightly concluded from what Jesus said that, if it were left to being a matter of one’s own power, or stature, or resources, no one would ever be saved! And Jesus then gave a very important answer. He looked at them and said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v. 26).

The reason I think that this relates to your question is because it involves the whole matter of what it takes for someone to be saved. Salvation is, as Jesus said, an utter impossibility for men. But it is not impossible for God to save a man. In fact, with God, all things are possible. I think that, for some people, God uses trials and terrible suffering to bring them to Himself. In the case of other people, He works in a completely different way. In the end, it’s not the circumstances that make our salvation happen; but rather the grace and power of God that brings us to salvation. Like John the apostle says; “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe on His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

So at least a part of the answer to your question, “Why do bad things have to happen before we wake up?” would have to include the idea that it’s not our circumstances – bad or good – that ultimately cause us to wake up. In the final analysis, it’s God’s sovereign grace that causes us to wake up. Unless God gives the grace to believe; then no amount of hardship will ever make someone believe.

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Now; along with saying that it’s God’s sovereign grace that ultimately causes us to be awakened to our need and enables us to trust Jesus for our salvation, we also have to affirm that God has chosen to use a variety of circumstances to do this. The God who ordains the end (our salvation), also ordains the means to that end (that is, our circumstances). And, as it seems to me you have said, the fact that God sometimes uses tragedy or trials to do this isn’t in itself a bad thing.

When I think of this, I think of the Old Testament story of Joseph and of how his brothers sold him into slavery. Because they had done this evil act to him, he was able to rise up to a position of great power in Egypt and serve as their protector and provider during a time of famine. He comforted them and told them, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for God, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). Look at that carefully. Joseph didn’t say God took what they meant for evil, and “turned it around” for good. Rather, it says that God “meant” it for good. He meant the same circumstance as those twelve brothers meant; but He intended a completely different purpose in it than they intended.

We have to call a thing “good” or “bad” not just on the basis of its immediate impact, but also by it’s ultimate result; and if bad circumstances result (through God’s sovereign love and mercy) in eternal blessedness in Christ, then those “bad circumstances” are really wonderfully good. You could put it this way: If our trial brings us closer to Jesus, then the second most precious gift God could ever give us – second, of course, only to Jesus Himself – is our trial! What a blessed gift such a trial, then, truly proves to be!!

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We’d also have to say that not all hardship is intended to awaken people to salvation. Sometimes – and this is a very difficult thing to say – God allows hardship in order to harden some people in their unbelief. The apostle Paul mentions this in his letter to the Romans. He spoke of the Pharaoh during the time of Moses, and said, “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth’ [here quoting from Exodus 9:16]. Therefore, he has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens” (Rom. 9:17-18).

Just as the Ten Plagues God administered on Egypt through Moses only served to harden Pharaoh’s heart, God permits some trials in the lives of some hardened unbelievers in order to harden them further. If we were to ask why God would do that, the only answer Paul gives us is this: “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have the power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:20-24).

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These passages, I believe, give us some scriptural perimeters within which to think about the question, “Why do bad things have to happen before we wake up?” But I realize that it doesn’t entirely answer the question.

I’m going to suggest to you, friend, that it’s one of those questions that we’re not going to get a full answer to; and that we’re just going to have accept what little we know about it from God’s word, and trust that God will always prove to have done what is right in the end. It’s something about which, as one theologian has said, we need to have a ‘learned ignorance’ – that is, a knowledge of what we cannot and may not know until we get to heaven.

But though we may not have a full answer right now, we can – and should – give God a full response right now. We may not get a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why do bad things have to happen before we wake up?”; but we should praise God, and say, “Thank You, O heavenly Father that – however it happened – I woke up!! Thank you that Your Son underwent the worst “bad thing” on the cross for me; and that You gave me the faith to believe. It was all Your doing; and through it, You proved to be wonderfully good to me; and I will praise You forever because of it!”

And what’s more, I think that you can look at your friend’s mother and say the same thing: “Thank you, Lord, that – however it happened – You allowed her to wake up too!” If she truly believes; then one day, you and she – and your friend’s niece – and your friend, too – will all praise Him in heaven together. There wont be any tough questions then about why it happened the way it did – just eternal praise and thanks to a sovereign God who always does what is right and just.

Again, that may not be an entirely satisfying answer to your very good question; but I truly believe it’s the best one we can have on this side of eternity. I suggest that, when we find that God has so limited things for us that we can’t get the answers we want, we should at least make sure He gets from us the response He desires and deserves.

God bless you,
Pastor Greg

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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