When will the violence end? How long, O Lord, must we wait for justice? Why did you allow this to happen?
I was overwhelmed yesterday– news of yet another violent shooting at a school, followed by angry rants and follow-up tidbits of information– the name of the shooter (his full ,, three-part name, with corrected spellings, etc.), his family history, educational history, social history, medical and mental health history, recent FB posts, criminal record, and so much more. I saw reports naming his state legislators and how much money they have received from the NRA. There were statistics about the school, and its security measures– other schools, and how many school shootings there have been so far this year. Reports about AR-15 rifles and other guns–how many are sold each year, how many are used in violent crimes, and which states and countries have the toughest gun control laws–with differing sets of statistics, opinions, and conclusions. And, once again, I have seen quotes and posts, and accusations posted by people like me– ordinary people living hundreds of miles from the scene, who never met either the shooter or his victims, and, in most cases, have no personal connection with the horrors faced by these students, teachers, guards, and their families.
Senseless violence, natural disasters, sudden tragic circumstances, still have the power to shock us, overwhelm us, shake our confidence, our composure, our beliefs. Most of us want to believe that we live in a predictable world, a safe and orderly world, a world that has been tamed, and groomed, and civilized. And we don’t want those beliefs shattered with the truth– life is unpredictable, filled with tragedy, evil, and danger, and it will end in death. I’m not saying this as a cynic or a pessimist– life is also wonderful, filled with love, laughter, achievement, delight, and eternally precious. But why are we so deeply disturbed to face the truth about our troubled world?
I believe it is due, in part, to the recognition that this is a fallen world. It was not made for evil and tragedy and death, but every tragedy reminds us that the whole earth groans for restoration to what it was always meant to be. The echo of Eden, and the hope of Heaven live in us, and the reality of our lost state cannot be denied when tragedy strikes. The pleasant facade of the triumph of reason and humanity cracks, and we are forced to see that evil resides next door, down the street, across town, perhaps even in our own hearts and minds.
I love the movie “The Princess Bride” (ask any of my friends–I can quote whole scenes!), but when I first saw it in the theater, there was one line that struck me like a punch in the stomach. The Dread Pirate Roberts (a.k.a. Westley) kidnaps/rescues Buttercup from her original captors, and after she tells him of the pain and desolation of losing her true love, he doesn’t comfort her by revealing that he is, indeed, her own sweet love, still alive and well. Instead he says, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” Wha-what?! What kind of lover, when confronted by that kind of tragic outpouring, says something so callous? To quote another line from the movie, “Why don’t you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?” But Westley is not heartless. The line is memorable, both because it is jarring in its context, and because we recognize that it holds a truth. Anyone who tells you that this life will be free of pain and suffering IS selling something. In the movie, Humperdink is “selling” the idea that he is going to make Buttercup a princess and marry her, and they will live happily ever after; all the while planning to kill her. In today’s world, there are people trying to sell us ideas– that they “have it all figured out”; that truth and justice and morality and even a person’s worth and value are all relative; that God doesn’t exist or that he doesn’t care; that evil is a figment of our imagination, or that human institutions can create a perfect society and “save” the planet from other human activities and institutions.
Jesus tells us in John 16:33 that in this world, we will have trials, trouble, tribulation, and/or suffering (depending on which version you read). Not because God doesn’t care; not because he is incapable of stopping tragedies, but because we (humankind) have turned away from God, and the consequence of our rebellion is tragedy and death. He doesn’t tell us this because he is callous or insensitive or cynical. In fact, in the next phrase, he tells us to take heart, and to be of good cheer, for he has overcome the world. HE has overcome the world, and in doing so, he has given us hope, and peace, and strength– not to avoid or deny tragedy, but to overcome it, and to triumph over it.
How does this relate to the pursuit of prayer? Prayer is not a magic panacea in times of trouble– it isn’t a chocolate-coated miracle pill. Prayer (and sharing thoughts and prayers with those who are suffering) doesn’t make the suffering disappear– it doesn’t lessen the horror or the evil of an event, and it doesn’t guarantee that future hate, violence, injustice, or tragedy will disappear or even diminish. But prayer reminds us that evil will not always triumph; that it need not overwhelm us, paralyze us, or defeat us. I believe it can bring us from being “mostly dead” in despair, fruitless rage, divisive finger-pointing and fault-finding, “inconceivable” arguments, vengeful fantasies, and conceited self-indulgence, back to abundant life in Christ, and renewed courage to do what is kind and loving, even in the face of evil. Prayer should also restore our focus on what is good, and noble, and true, so that we can be equipped to fight for what is right, instead of just ranting against what is wrong.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.– Philippians 4:8
I pray, in the wake of this newest tragedy, that God would show me where I am wrong in my thoughts and actions toward Him and toward others; that he would surround those who are suffering pain and loss, giving them comfort, strength and renewed purpose in the days ahead; that he would lead us to have the tough ocnversations, and take the right steps to bring renewal, restoration, hope, and healing to our communities and our land; and finally, that we would listen to, and acknowledge the truth, and take heart as we focus on the One who has overcome the world.