I'll never forget the phone call. It was late one night and I was getting ready for bed. The phone rang, which was strange at this hour, but I answered. On the other end was my friend in tears. He said that his son was at Children's Hospital and wasn't doing well. He asked if I would pray for his son, and then hung up. Not only did I pray, but I got dressed and headed to the hospital to check in on my friend and his son. As I walked through the doors of the emergency room I saw a group of medical professionals performing chest compressions on my friend's son. Apparently the little guy had had a heart issue that was now putting his life into jeopardy.
That next morning I drove my friend and his wife to Stanford Hospital. We found out he needed a heart transplant to survive. We spent nearly 40 days together at the hospital, waiting, hoping and praying. I remember spending time in the hospital chapel with my friend who prayed repeatedly for the Lord to spare the life of his son. He even offered to give his own life for his son, if the Lord would be so pleased to grant life back to this 5 year old boy. The Lord didn't. After a 40 day fight, Trevin went to be with the Lord.
Where was God!?
His mother and father have served the Lord faithfully for many years. They have had a profound ministry to many and even played a key role in me coming to know Christ. Yet the Lord took Trevin home. This doesn't make sense!
Several years later I was in a staff meeting with a few of our pastors. We were passionately discussing something when the phone rang. Jerrod sent the call to voicemail. We continued our discussion when it rang again. Typically an immediate callback means something important, so he took the call. His face went pale as he listened to the voice of his wife on the other end of the call. He hung up the phone and urgently headed for the door. When we asked what was wrong he replied, "Tyler's dead." Our executive pastor jumped in the car with him and I reached for my keys and began to pray. As I followed them to the hospital I couldn't help but ask God, why!? This family has served the Lord and been faithful to Him in so many ways. As we walked into the hospital room his wife was there in tears. I watched them embrace and searched for words and understanding.
Where is God!?
Years later a friend of mine got a call from the hospital. "Was your husband working out tonight?" the caller inquired. "What was he wearing?" They pressed further. "Why do you ask?" the wife inquired. "We've got an unresponsive patient and we need to see if you can come and identity him for us." So she calls her brother to meet her there and heads to the hospital, not sure what they'll find, but with a heavy heart, fearing the worst. As she approaches the hospital, her brother greets her. She enters a room and they inform her that they have a "John Doe" and need her to identify him. They lead her into another room and show her the body of her husband. "That's no John Doe," she replies. "That's my husband! That's Peter Hagenzieker." Peter had been a teacher and influencer at Kastner Jr. High for years. He took point for the school's FCA club and was a faithful man. He had served the Lord faithfully.
Where is God!?
What do you say? How should you respond? What words of comfort, if any, can be offered in this type of pain?
Unfortunately these stories are not unique. They come in various forms and to varying degrees of severity, but they come nonetheless. They are common, far too common! A spot on an x-ray, a bad report from the blood work, chest pain that indicates a heart issue, a pink slip at work, a down economy that leads to losing a home, an unexpected car accident, the sting of divorce, the loneliness that follows the death of a loved one, and on and on and on!
So we turn to the Scriptures for answers. We turn page after tear stained page, looking for hope and understanding. And yet answers are elusive.
In these moments, questions fill our minds as we try to understand. Where is God?
I'm thankful these are not new questions. In fact, they have been asked for centuries. One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Psalm 13, where King David deals with this exact question. These words were written by a man who understood sorrow and grief. He felt the sting of moral failure, experienced the loss of a child, the rape of a daughter, the murder of a son, the rebellion of another son, the rejection of his kingdom and the eviction from his home.
In the midst of it all, he writes these words:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
- Psalm 13 (ESV)
How honest. How authentic. How candid. How true! Where is God?
If you notice in the passage, he never gets alleviation of circumstances. The wound is never lanced and the pain is never remedied, yet his tone changes. Not because of a change of circumstances, but because of a gained perspective.
Notice verse 5: "But I have trusted in your loving steadfast love." His change of perspective didn't come form a greater understanding of circumstances; that would be an answer to the "why" question. Instead he gets a greater understanding of the nature and position of God. This perspective helps him see that, even in pain, God is sovereign. God is in control. It allows David and all of those like ourselves who would also suffer loss after him, to cry out "Your'e Still God." David recognizes that God has a past track record of faithfulness. He is not asleep or unaware. He is not distant or callous. Quite the contrary, He is sovereign! He cares! And He is aware! He has a perspective that David will never truly understand. He won't get why God allows what He does, nor will he truly comprehend the reason that tragedy strikes, but he can trust in the enduring and unchanging nature of God.
When David pauses long enough to look beyond his own pain to see God at work, he can't help but trust in the faithfulness of an Almighty God. It is his trust in the continued faithfulness of God that allows David to sing to the Lord and to praise Him for who He is, and for what He is doing in David's life.
So, where is God?
In my distress I called upon the LORD;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
- Psalm 18:6 (ESV)
Aware and present when we call.
So, where is God?
You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
- Psalm 56:8 (ESV)
Intimately involved in our pain.
I'm not sure what circumstances surround you at this point. But I know that tragedy often strikes unannounced and uninvited. When it does interrupt your life, I pray that you will eventually gain perspective. Instead of asking God "why?" try asking God "what?" I admit this shift is perspective is not an easy one. In fact, it is often the result of many anxious nights and honest conversations with God. However, healing comes when we can see our circumstances with a fresh perspective.
If you find yourself in the ashes of tragedy, here are a few suggestions:
- This world is a crazy place. Our bodies fail, sickness intrudes our life uninvited, and because of sin, people do crazy things that cause lifelong trauma. In the midst of the insanity of life, would you entrust your life to Jesus Christ? This world is not as it should be, nor as it will be when He returns. In the meantime, life without Christ is a life without hope. Only through the person and work of Jesus Christ can there be hope in a fallen world.
- Realize that you are not alone. God is aware and listening for your cry for help. Call to Him and He will grant comfort. This process may be messy and there may be some candid and raw emotions that fly when you cry out in pain. God is a big boy, He can handle it. Cry out anyway. As your read in Psalm 13, God has heard good, honest prayer before. In fact, this honest dialogue with the Lord may be a key part to the beginning of a healing process.
- Find others around you that you can share life with. Your pain is yours, but you don't have to be alone in it. There are others who have experienced their own share of heartache. Maybe God can use those He has already comforted in their own affliction to be a comfort to you in yours.
Thank you to the Dilfer, Rumley and Hagenzieker families for permission to share a bit of their stories and help point people to hope in Christ!
The Rest of the Story:
On June 24, 2009 a colleague, fellow pastor, and good friend received the tragic news that their son has passed away. As a staff team and as an extended family we all grieved and tried to find comfort and understanding. On our staff at the time was Brent Lamb, a good friend and very talented songwriter. As Brent processed the loss and tried to make sense of it all, he too found inspiration in renewed perspective. His way of working through this was to put his thoughts into song. Below is a link to "You're Still God" that Brent wrote in response to Tyler's death.