Langham Partnership’s International Ministries Director Chris Wright seeks a biblical response to current challenging events. This first appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of LPUKI’s Transform magazine.
When bad things happen
Sometimes events in the news have an uncanny resemblance to things in the Bible – sometimes very tragically so. When that road bridge in Genoa, Italy, collapsed in August, killing 43 people, I couldn’t help thinking about what Jesus said about the tower that collapsed in Siloam, killing 18 people. Here’s the account in Luke 13:1-5.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
The first incident was clearly a terrible moral evil – the murder of some worshippers by the same Roman governor who would crucify Jesus himself. The second incident was very likely some kind of tragic accident – the collapse of a tower, maybe while it was being built, killing construction workers or others just standing nearby.
Don’t sit in judgment
Jesus addresses the assumption that people are sometimes quick to make, “God must have been judging them for their sins.” Sometimes people think that way, even negatively, when they themselves suffer some tragedy, “What have I done to deserve this?” The way Jesus responds is interesting. “Do you think they… were worse sinners… or…more guilty than everybody else?” That is, did they deserve to get judged by God more than others?
And Jesus answers, emphatically and twice, “No!” Jesus rejects jumping to the “easy” explanation that when disaster strikes, it must be God’s judgment on somebody’s sin. Yet it still amazes me that so many people, including Christians, dojump to that conclusion, or wonder if it might be so – either as a way of condemning others or sinking in self-inflicted guilt themselves. When the 2004 Tsunami hit South Asia, I was distressed to receive emails from Christian friends in the region wondering if it was God judging them.
Of course, occasionally in the Bible God did use “natural” disasters as a form of judgment on sinful people. But we cannot reverse that and assume that anydisaster today means God is specifically judging those who suffer or die (or notjudging those who escape). Jesus simply denies that. In our fallen world, accidents happen. Sometimes we know the reason (and clearly part of the reason is often human sin – political corruption, negligence, folly, bribery, injustice, etc., as is being alleged in the case of the Genoa bridge, and the horrendous Grenfell Tower fire). And sometimes we simply never will understand. 
We are all sinners, and evil or accidents can happen to any of us at any time. That’s the point of Jesus’ final comment – which might seem harsh. He is not saying that God caused those accidents to make people repent. But that such things do alert us to how fragile our lives are every day and how suddenly we could be launched out of this life to face our Creator – and are we ready for that each moment? We should not jump to conclusions about others, but rather heed the warning for ourselves.
Don’t give up praying
Accidental deaths are hard enough to relate to our faith in God. When God’s own people are intentionally killed, families destroyed, churches burned down – it gets even harder to go on believing that there is a God of love and justice. Will God ever put things right for those who have been so wronged? Recent weeks have brought us yet more incidents of gruesome attacks on Christians in Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Why does God not stop such things? Will those who do them ever face justice? Will those who suffer them ever be vindicated? Is it worth going on and on praying about it all?
Those are the questions Jesus anticipated when he told this little story in Luke 18:1-8.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
I used to wonder what that last sentence of verse 8 had to do with the story – until I looked back at the context in Luke 17:20-37 (the chapter divisions and subheadings in our Bibles can sometimes be unhelpful!). Jesus was warning his disciples that the Son of Man would face rejection and suffering (17:25), and that there might be a long delay in which life would apparently go on as “normal” (including much suffering for God’s people), before the Day of the Son of Man when God’s judgment will be executed – judging the wicked and vindicating the righteous (Jesus was drawing from the picture in Daniel 7).
So then, says Jesus, even if it seems a long time and if it seems that God doesn’t care, don’t give up praying! (18:1). For when Christ does return, he wants to find those who have remained faithful, in witness and prayer even under persecution and death (18:8). And his story contrasts a lazy human judge who still managed to put things right for the widow, with the God who will ultimately put all things right for all creation and all history. It may seem delayed, but go on trusting God. When he acts, it will be quickly – even if not immediately or even in this life.
I find that I have to hold on to that myself sometimes – when I pray for suffering believers in other parts of the world, and it just goes on and on. I have to trust, like Abraham, that “the God of all the earth will do right” (Gen 18:25). The Lord knows those who are his, and the Lord will in the end bring about total rectification for his broken world.
Words from a friend
I pray this too for suffering friends who go on trusting even in the midst of fears and doubts and when they cannot see or understand the ways of God. These are words from an email I received from a friend – a strong and godly believer serving God all his life – whose wife recently died.
The struggle I have is with the apparent randomness of life, and the gulf between the grand promises about intercessory prayer in the Gospels and our lived reality where evil rages on, and “answers to prayer” are often relatively trivial.
This morning I read that great chapter Hebrews 11. The opening verse is “Faith is being sure of things we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV). But I am not sure about our Christian hope, I am not certain about what is to come. But then in v. 8 of Abraham it says “he obeyed and went, not knowing where he was going”. I can identify with this, however paradoxical it sounds! So faith for me now is a matter of faithful obedience, living without certainties and with more questions than answers. All I can expect in my prayers is “Your will be done on earth. Your kingdom come.”
I used to preach on this text (Isa 50:10)
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the word of his servant?
Let the one who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on their God.
Now I have to walk the talk! 
Perhaps my friend’s words may speak for you, and encourage you to go on trusting and praying – even in the dark.
That’s why I wrote a book titled, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith(Zondervan, 2008).
Quoted with permission.