(RNS) — This Monday morning, parents were dropping their children off at The Covenant School anticipating a bright, sunny, promising day of love, friendship and learning. No one could fathom what would happen soon after this, when a 28-year-old assailant entered the building and opened fire, resulting in the loss of life for three 9-year-old children, three adults on staff and then the assailant as police intervened.
Part of a pastor’s calling is to enter into life’s disorienting, gut-punching, heart-ripping spaces and offer perspective on questions that honestly cannot be answered. This is especially true when the main question being asked 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 the senseless loss of life for these precious little ones?
Why would the same God let faithful, loving, godly educators also be gutted from their families and communities so prematurely? Why would he allow the young survivors and those who took great risk to protect them experience the trauma of being there, of hearing the gunfire, of being rushed frantically to places of safety, and then be marked by the memory for the rest of their precious and fragile lives? 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, by his power of persuasion over the hearts of all humans, redirect the intent of 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 it?
We already know the answer to such questions, which is that we will never know the answer to such questions.
Nashville musician and producer Charles Ashworth, also known as Charlie Peacock, shared great wisdom in his song “Now Is the Time for Tears,” whose lyrics warn us against acting like Job’s friends, who provided foolish and woefully off-the-mark answers to their suffering friend who was, among other things, grieving the loss of all 10 of his children, to questions that cannot be answered by finite minds:
Now is the time for tears. Don’t speak, save your words. There’s nothing you can say to take this pain away. Don’t try so hard. … Cry with me, don’t try to fix me, friend. That’s how you’ll comfort me. Heavenly Father, cover this child with mercy. You are my helper through this time of trial and pain. 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?” really 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 that the final enemy called death is coming for us all, with a mortality ratio of 1:1 since Adam and Eve fell in Eden’s garden. We know that sickness, sorrow, pain and death are part of current reality and will one day be rid of 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 and confusion and anger. There is good reason why among the eight human emotions — guilt, shame, loneliness, fear, anger, sadness, hurt and gladness — seven of them are given for the purpose of expressing grief and protest over how things are not how we know, deep in our bones, things are meant to be. These seven grief-stricken emotions are part of how God, in whose image we are made and who is himself a deep feeler who gets angry and sheds tears — “Jesus wept” — equips us to show up fully in a tragic world.
When lives are lost, especially in such a senseless and rupturing way, the protest of Martha, who had just buried her brother Lazarus after a premature death, feels right:
“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 even 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 and did not come through for us, even when we cried out to him in our fear and despair? Do we dare challenge him for not doing things we know God is supposed to do as a God 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. When tragedies involving the death of children and their beloved educators happen, is it right to question God? Is it right to confront him for his inaction against a kind of vandalism that is irreversible in this fallen world, namely, vandalism against his most precious gift of human life? Is it our place to question him, even for these things?
He is God, after all. He is to be trusted, esteemed, honored, respected … and feared. But maybe somewhere in Martha’s question, and in the honesty and rawness and realness of her expressed grief, there are signs of an actual, next-level reverence and holiness that respects and honors the Lord enough to give him our unfiltered honesty, and even to insist on some sort of meaningful response. Martha, like us, is in relationship with him, after all. After losing his wife, Joy, to an untimely death because of cancer, C.S. Lewis, in his book “A Grief Observed,” dared to question God in similar, Martha-like fashion:
When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself 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:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? 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. We strain to hear. … We strain to hear God in our sorrows. But instead of hearing an answer we catch the sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God … thru the tears of God we see the splendor of God.
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 saturated with the seven emotions of grief, and are filled with bold and explicit protests against what feels to us like the inaction of God in our times of greatest need.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
“I cry aloud to the LORD; I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint. … I tell him my trouble. … I have no refuge; no one cares for my life. I cry to you, Lord. …Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need.” (Psalm 142:1-6)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)
Another potential comfort to consider is that although he does not provide us with answers concerning our grief, he does provide us with himself. When Martha and Mary questioned him about the untimely death of their brother and how he, Jesus, delayed four days after burial to show up on the scene, we are told that Jesus wept. Then, right before Jesus shouted, “Come forth” into Lazarus’ tomb and the dead man came forth and lived again, the text says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit.” The Greek for this phrase is much more forceful than this, however. The literal meaning is that Jesus was furious, likened to a raging bull with flaring nostrils who is about to rush, attack and trample its prey under its heavy and insurmountable feet.
That is who Jesus is concerning death. He is not passive. Far from it, he is an angry trampling bull who will trample over death and restore all that is his that has been lost. The Bull of Heaven has big, heavy, stampeding feet. The Lion of Judah has piercing, death-defying teeth. And defy death, he has. And defy death, he will.
And yet, let’s not rush to hope so swiftly, lest we rush prematurely out of our grief, hurt, anger and fear. In the wake of such horrid loss as our friends at The Covenant School have experienced, it is right and good and cross-bound Christ-like — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — for disorientation and grief to feel, at this time, more formidable and strong than the feelings of hope. Our Lord has a reason for everything.
This includes not showing up for Martha and Mary until four days after their brother’s death, as well as allowing the universe to be deafeningly silent after his own death until the third day, as well as this haunting “already but not yet” season we are stuck in currently as we await his return and the fulfillment of his promise to make all things new. I think his reason includes his own high esteem for our grief, which resembles his. Like a pregnancy, the pathway to adulthood and good therapy, grief is too sacred a thing to be rushed. So the Lord, who himself was the “Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” keeps and tends to us in our grief for a time, until the morning of hope should dawn in the fullness of time.
Even as we wait in grief, the text of Scripture whispers hope.
“We grieve … with hope.” (1 Thessalonians 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 is a lyric from our friend and Nashville singer-songwriter, Sandra McCracken. The lyric is from her song called “Fool’s Gold,” and is in my mind the best exclamation point to put on the grief being felt in Nashville, Tennessee, at this time:
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. But because this is not okay, we know this is not the end.
(Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and the author, most recently, of “Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans.” This commentary originally appeared in his Substack newsletter. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)