Just a few days ago, parents were dropping their children off at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, anticipating a day of love, friendship, and learning for their sons and daughters. No one could fathom what would happen soon after, when a 28-year-old shooter entered the building and opened fire, resulting in the deaths of three nine-year-old kids, three adults on staff, and the assailant.
Part of a pastor’s calling is to enter into life’s disorienting, gut-punching, heart-ripping spaces and offer perspective on questions that cannot be answered. This is especially true in situations where the main question is “Why?”
Why would a good and loving God who is sovereign over every square inch of the universe, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who said, “Let the little children come to me,” and who promised again and again to be our shield, our protector, and our defender allow for this senseless loss of life?
Why would the same God let faithful, loving, godly educators be gutted from their families and communities? Why would he allow young survivors to experience the trauma of hearing gunfire and then being rushed frantically to safety?
Why would he not foil and fail the shooter’s plans before a single shot was fired? Why would the One who holds even the hearts of kings in his hands not redirect the assailant’s heart as well? Why would God allow for one of his own image-bearers to go to such an inexplicable and horrific place and then follow through with those intentions?
We already know the answer to these questions, which is that we’ll never know the answer to these questions.
Nashville musician and producer Charles Ashworth, also known as Charlie Peacock, shares great wisdom in his song “Now is the Time for Tears.” The lyrics warn us against acting like Job’s friends. They provided foolish and woefully off-the-mark answers to their suffering friend who was, among other things, grieving the loss of all ten of his children. As Charlie sings:
Cry with me, don’t try to fix me, friend. That’s how you’ll comfort me. … Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers. Gently show them that now is the time, now is the time, now is the time for tears.
The “Why?” question cannot be answered from our earthbound perspectives. We know the world is fallen. We know that sin and sorrow wreak havoc on everyone and everything, all the time. We know that none of us is guaranteed another day, and that the current day could be our last. We know the final enemy called death is coming for us all. We know that sickness, sorrow, pain, and death are part of current reality and will one day be destroyed by our resurrected and returning king.
But in spite of what we know—or perhaps because of what we know—the best answer to the “Why?” question is bewilderment, confusion, and anger. There is good reason why the eight human emotions—guilt, shame, loneliness, fear, anger, sadness, hurt, and gladness—include seven for the purpose of expressing grief and protest over how things are not what they’re meant to be. These seven grief-stricken emotions are part of how God equips us to show up fully in a tragic world.
When lives are lost in such a senseless and rupturing way, the protest of Martha feels right. After she buries her brother Lazarus, she says, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died” (John 11:21).
“Lord, if you had been here.” Do we dare speak this way to our maker? Do we dare confront him for abandoning us in our times of greatest need? Do we dare give voice to the feeling that he did not show up, even when we cried out to him in our fear and despair? Do we dare challenge God for not doing things we know he is supposed to do as one who protects, defends, and upholds the weak?
Some are hesitant to ask Martha’s question. Though honest, raw, and real, it also feels irreverent to challenge our Lord about anything, even our most devastating trauma. In the face of tragedies involving the death of children and their beloved educators, is it right to question God?
He is God, after all. He is to be trusted, esteemed, honored, respected, and feared. But maybe somewhere in Martha’s question there are signs of a next-level reverence and holiness that honors the Lord enough to give him our unfiltered honesty—and even to demand some sort of meaningful response. Martha, like us, is in relationship with him, after all.
After losing his wife to an untimely death by cancer, C.S. Lewis dared to question God in similar Martha-like fashion. He writes in A Grief Observed:
When you are happy … and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
Likewise, Nicholas Wolterstorff lamented the death of his son from a rock-climbing accident. He writes in Lament for a Son:
You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
If a pastor has anything worthwhile to say in such a time as this, it is that God himself invites, even welcomes, this kind of protest. In fact, the very prayer book that he inspired for us to use as our own prayers—The Psalms—are filled with bold and explicit protests against what feels to us like the inaction of God.
Although God does not provide us with answers concerning our grief, he does provide us with himself. When Martha and Mary questioned Jesus about his delayed response to their brother’s death, we’re told that Jesus wept. Then, right before he shouted “come forth” into Lazarus’ tomb, the text says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit” (John 11:33).
But the Greek for this phrase is much more forceful. The literal meaning is that Jesus was furious, like a raging bull with flaring nostrils about to rush and attack its prey. Jesus is not passive. Far from it. He is an angry animal who will someday trample over death and restore all that has been lost. The Bull of Heaven has stampeding feet. The Lion of Judah has death-defying teeth. He has defied death. He will defy death.
And yet, let’s not rush to hope so swiftly, lest we move prematurely out of our grief, hurt, and anger.
In the wake of the horrid loss experienced by our friends at the Covenant School, it is right and good and even Christ-like for disorientation and grief to feel stronger and more formidable than feelings of hope. Our Lord has his own reasons for everything. That includes not showing up for Martha and Mary until four days after their brother’s death; allowing the universe to be deafeningly silent for three full days after his own death; and permitting us to be haunted by the “already but not yet” season we’re stuck in currently as we await his return.
Even as we wait in grief, Scripture whispers hope: As Paul writes, “we grieve … with hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
It’s a good thing that in times like this, hope doesn’t have to be a feeling. It is more of an inescapable, Resurrection-sealed fact than it is a feeling, to be sure.
One of my favorite reminders of this idea comes from my friend and Nashville singer-songwriter, Sandra McCracken. The lyrics to her song “Fools Gold” offer the best exclamation point for the grief felt in Nashville, Tennessee right now:
The kids are laughing in the other room,
A life more complicated, their smiles are still in bloom
They’re on their own,
Take them by the hand, the best we can
We give them love, we give them love
But if it’s not okay
Then this is not the end
And this is not okay
So I know this is not, this is not the end
This is not okay. Easter is coming, but everything right now feels like Good Friday and Holy Saturday, or as some call it, “The space in between.”
But because things are not okay, we also know it’s not the end.