For the past few months, our nation – our world, really – has been reeling from one tragedy after another. A mass shooting in Las Vegas, shootings in churches in Tennessee and Texas and trucks driven by terrorists plowing over people in New York City and Barcelona.
But it isn’t always a deliberate attack causing tragedy – back-to-back hurricanes hit the United States, while at the same time an earthquake caused mass death tolls in Mexico, and fires burned homes and took several dozen lives in California. All the while, car accidents, home mishaps and life in general exerted their toll.
In the wake of these tragedies, people around the world – including many Christians – ask, “Where is God in all of this? How can a loving God allow tragedy like this? If God is really love, wouldn’t he have stopped this?” Others have asked, “Is this God’s way of punishing our nation (or world) for all the sinful acts we allow?”
This generation is hardly the first to ask those questions. In fact, the oldest book in the Bible, Job, asks this question. Many of the Psalms resonate with us because the writers ponder these same questions. And in Luke 13, we find Jesus confronted with these questions as well.
Some people, who aren’t identified, asked Jesus about what must have been a relatively recent tragic event in Jewish history. Pontius Pilate, the same man who would later condemn Jesus to the cross, had killed some Galileans. The incident is not recorded in history, but the Jews at that time had a history of revolt and we know from Acts 5:37 that at least one of the revolutionaries came from Galilee. It is probable that the incident mentioned was the Roman response to such an insurrection.
We aren’t told the specific question the people asked Jesus, but based on his response, it was probably along the lines of, “Why would God have allowed that to happen? Is it punishment for their sins?”
According to the people who questioned Jesus, Pilate had killed a number of Galileans, probably including a number of innocent people, as a warning statement, then had mixed their blood with the Jewish sacrifices. This not only defiled the sacrifices, but went against God’s prohibition of offering humans or blood as sacrifices. Pilate did this as a way to demoralize the people, not unlike terrorist attacks we face today.
We aren’t told the specific question the people asked Jesus, but based on his response, it was probably along the lines of, “Why would God have allowed that to happen? Is it punishment for their sins?” Perhaps even, “You say God is a loving God, but how could a loving God allow this to happen?”
They certainly asked the right person; if anyone could give the right answer, it would be the Son of God.
But Jesus’ response not only doesn’t answer the question, it doesn’t really come across as very comforting.
“Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.”
The questioners must have wondered how this got turned around to be about them.
Then he brings up another incident, possibly some type of construction accident.
“Or those 18 that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed – do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.”
Jesus does seem to answer the question about whether this is punishment for sin – no – but then he calls on the questioners to repent before the same thing happens to them. The questioners must have wondered how this got turned around to be about them.
What Jesus is saying here is that we shouldn’t spend our time worrying over something that happened, how it happened or why it happened to those particular people. We should instead make sure our hearts are prepared for eternity so that if physical death happens we won’t also die spiritually.
Death is inevitable. Except for Jesus and a couple of Old Testament saints (Enoch and Elijah), everyone who has ever lived has died or will die. Even Lazarus, after being raised from the dead, eventually died again.
Is the tragedy any less real for parents who lose a child to brain cancer than those who lose a child in a shooting?
Jesus seems to be saying that the method of death is not what’s important. And, in some ways, that is true. Is the tragedy any less real for parents who lose a child to brain cancer than those who lose a child in a shooting? Is death any less real for the loved ones of someone killed in a car accident than for those of someone killed by a terrorist driving into a crowd?
Jesus’ point is that, death is death and it is inevitable. What isn’t inevitable, though, is where you will spend your eternity. You have a choice – accept the loving forgiveness of Jesus’ death on the cross and the new life he provided through his resurrection, which leads to eternal life, or reject him and receive the wrath of God, which is an eternity of pain and dying without relief.
Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and we grieve for these losses as well.
This doesn’t mean we’re callous toward these tragedies – Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and we grieve for these losses as well. We don’t become foolish, either. We take measures to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and take steps to prevent such tragedies from happening to others. But we also can’t let tragedy alter our belief in God. Instead, these should be wake-up calls to examine ourselves, our own relationship with God, and serve as an impetus for Christians to reach out with Jesus’ love and salvation to those around us.
We may never be able to answer the question of how a loving God can allow such tragedies. But we can state with joy and confidence that a loving God has provided a way to not only transcend such tragedies, but to transcend death itself.
At most weddings I’ve attended, at some point the pastor or a friend reads a section of 1 Cor. 13, which is known colloquially as “The Love Chapter.” I’ve seen those verses on plaques or cross-stitch samplers hanging on the walls of people’s homes. We look at those words and think, “What a great example of married love.”
It is a great example of married love – but Paul wasn’t speaking of marriage at all when he wrote it. Paul spent chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians describing how the church works as a body and encouraging us to seek the gifts of the Spirit. All fantastic stuff, but he ends the chapter with “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”
So in chapter 13, we are looking at what Paul believes is an even better way to conduct our lives and our churches. The word translated “most excellent” in the NIV is the Greek word hyperbole, which has the connotation of going above and beyond.
The hyperbole or most excellent way to conduct ourselves is with love. In the first three verses Paul explains that anything we do, no matter how good the work is, even if it’s speaking in heavenly tongues, is worthless if it isn’t done in love. We can’t just create a checklist of do’s and don’ts and go down the list like a robot, marking them as done. Our attitude means everything. The works we do as followers of Christ are meaningful only when we do them from the heart.
For love, Paul used the Greek word agape, which most often refers to the active, unconditional love God has for us – and the same love we are to have for one another.
Jesus himself was adamant that the right attitude was essential to doing good works in his name. In Matt. 7:21-23, Jesus says that people will come to him proclaiming their good works, but if they weren’t done according to God’s will, he will drive those people away, calling them evildoers.
Verse 4 to the beginning of verse 8 in 1 Cor. 13 are those that most often make their way onto the cross-stitch samplers. For love, Paul used the Greek word agape, which most often refers to the active, unconditional love God has for us – and the same love we are to have for one another.
Here is a catalog of what love is (note that it isn’t what love does, but what it is): patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, endures, trusts, hopes, perseveres and never fails. Here’s what it isn’t: envious, boastful, proud, dishonoring, self-seeking, easily angered, a record keeper of wrongs and unrighteous.
Replace the word love or it in that passage with the pronoun I (or better yet, your actual name). How does that sound to you now?
Obviously, those are fantastic things to strive for in marriage. But are you also striving for it in your church? In your interactions with other believers? In your conduct among non-believers?
Here’s how you can do a gut check on how well you are living out the love of God: Replace the word love or it in that passage with the pronoun I (or better yet, your actual name). How does that sound to you now?
“I am patient, I am kind. I do not envy, I’m not boastful, I’m not proud or conceited, I don’t dishonor others, I’m not selfish, I’m not easily angered, I don’t keep a record of wrongs. I find no joy in unrighteousness but I rejoice in the truth. I endure, I always trust, I always hope, I always persevere, I never fail.”
Impossible? Of course it is, under our own power. But as believers in Christ, we now have the power of the Holy Spirit working in us to make possible what we once couldn’t do. We still have to approach this intentionally, though, to keep striving for this kind of love. The more we work at it through the Spirit, the better we’ll get at it. Paul later implies that this is part of our maturing process as Christians – not maturing as a married couple, but in our everyday lives as followers of Christ.
Eventually all other good works will fade away but three things will always remain forever – faith, hope and love, but the greatest is love. This, Paul says, is the most excellent way to conduct our lives – at home, in church and in the world beyond. And, of course, in marriage as well. It goes above and beyond expectations. The key is to put love into action, not just frame it and hang it on the wall.