This week, America will mark the 18th anniversary of one of the worst national tragedies in its history. In those eighteen years, however, countless more tragedies have occurred and more will continue to occur. Some receive widespread coverage. Some are deeply personal and, though few people will ever know about them, still leave us reeling. Common to these moments, regardless of size or scope, are the questions tragedies leave in their wakes.
How did this happen?
Why did this happen to me?
What am I (or we) supposed to do now?
Live long enough and you’ll wrestle with all of these and more. On September 11, 2001, I sat in my parents’ living room asking these questions. Fifteen years later, my wife and I sat in the same living room, mourning the loss of our unborn child and asking the same questions. So what do we do? How do we respond to tragedy, personal or public? What if my friend or co-worker is the one dealing with loss? Here are six ways Christians should respond to tragedy.
6 Ways Christians Should Respond To Tragedy
- Pray (Psalm 55:22) – No matter the cause or scale, a believer’s first response to tragedy should be prayer. Many times in Scripture, we see people crying out to God in prayer in the midst of loss or despair. God counsels us, through Scripture, to bring our burdens and cares to Him in prayer. Even Jesus, before His crucifixion, left His disciples behind so He could pray. “But I don’t know what to pray,” people say. “It just seems pointless.” Here are a few things to pray for when tragedy strikes.
- Pray for comfort for those who are suffering, afraid, or recovering.
- Pray for wisdom for those involved in decision-making, whether they are doctors, first responders, family members, or world leaders.
- Pray for trust, that those involved can lean on the goodness of God and trust in His perfect will.
- Pray for openness, that those involved would come to know Christ through their tragedies.
- Mourn (Romans 12:15) – Christians are called to weep with those who weep. Sometimes, as during a national or international event, that mourning takes place from a distance. Our hearts and our spirits grieve with those who have lost loved ones (whether those loved ones were victims or perpetrators). Sometimes, as when tragedy visits a friend or family member, we mourn together. Weeping with those who weep often means we don’t try to answer their questions or “fix” their problems. Maybe this is contrary to your nature, as it is to mine. Maybe your temptation is to recite Bible verse after Bible verse or try to explain why evil exists in the world. However, we should resist the urge to pour out all of our Scriptural wisdom while a loved one is grieving. Often, the best friend is the one who resolves to simply be there and grieve in silent solidarity. As Trillia Newbell writes, “Those moments when you’re anxiously trying to find the perfect words are often the best moments to humbly embrace your weakness and lack of knowledge.” And if the loss is yours? Take time to grieve personally. Many of us feel like we have to soldier on and put on a brave face, but grief is a natural part of the emotions God has given us. Find a trusted friend or a quiet place and mourn, knowing that God sees your grief and is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18).
- Give Aid (Romans 12:13, James 2:15-16) – As believers, we should always seek to give generously and love selflessly in times of tragedy. Look for ways to give aid to those who are suffering. Take a meal to a friend. Offer to take a family member to lunch and listen to them. Consider volunteering with aid crews during a large-scale event or donating money to a trusted organization that will provide relief to those suffering. There are always many ways to give aid in these times and we must pursue them for the good of others.
- Love (Mark 12:31) – Jesus tells us in Scripture that the second-greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Far too often, people react to tragedies that grab our national attention with more heat than light. We are quick to jump on our keyboards to assign blame, point out what should have been done differently, divide ourselves along political party lines, and look to the media for “experts” who validate our opinions. We must remember, however, that the victims of these tragedies are not statistics or points on a graph. They are fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. They are human beings made in the image of God, and they deserve our grief more than our rhetoric. In the wake of tragedy, we must love our neighbors instead of hating our opponents. Everyone of a certain age will always remember watching the attacks on the World Trade Center take place. We know where we were, who we were with, and how we felt. It is a memory that will stay with us forever. However, I will also never forget the night of September 11, 2001. After a press conference on live TV, dozens of politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, joined hands and sang “God Bless America” together. In that moment, everyone was more concerned with loving neighbors than with being right or placing blame. As Christians, this must always be our response to tragedy. Love your neighbor as yourself.
- Point to the Gospel (Luke 13:1-5) – In these Scriptures, Jesus mentioned two recent tragedies: the execution of some Galileans by Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea) and the collapse of a tower in the town of Siloam that killed eighteen people. When the people asked Jesus about these tragedies, His response was that those killed were not worse than the crowd of people around Him (a common Jewish belief was that disasters like these were punishments on those who died), but that all who were listening to Him were likewise in danger of dying, not just physically, but spiritually. Some might think Jesus’ response seems cold-hearted, but in fact, the opposite is true. Jesus is not dismissing the deaths; He is pointing those around Him to life. In the aftermath of these two tragedies, Jesus reminds His listeners of the danger of spiritual death, then tells them to repent that they might have spiritual life. In the midst of tragedy, we must gently do likewise. We may need to spend time in prayer or silently grieving with a friend first, but we must always look for appropriate opportunities to direct those around us to the gospel.
- Hope (Revelation 21:4) – One thing we can trust is that tragedy and loss will continue as long as we live on the Earth. As Christians, however, our hope is found in the work of Christ and the promise of a life to come. All creation is suffering under the curse of sin, but someday, Christ will return and make all things new. He will rescue His people to eternal life with Him, where He will wipe away every tear. When tragedy comes, whether personal or public, we must point others to this hope. When despair and injustice threaten to overwhelm, we must remind ourselves, our loved ones, and our world that One is coming who will set all things right. As David wrote in Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Tragedy, suffering, and loss are a natural part of life, but Christians are called to be precise in their responses. Love your neighbor. Weep with those who weep. Look forward to the hope we have in Christ and, above all, draw close to God.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Psalm 46:1-3).