By Jonathan French
To my kids:
When I learned about the Orlando attack, I found myself struggling with what to do and think. How long will this continue? How do you stop an “inspired attack”? How do I protect you, your mom, anyone and everyone I love? Is any of this even possible? As I considered my options, I found myself sinking into spiritual apathy. Maybe this is just the way it is, and everything sucks.
But that’s not what I actually think. And it’s certainly not what I’ve ever taught you; so I’m writing you this letter to let you know my heart, to prepare you for worse things yet to come, and (hopefully) to give you a bit of courage.
So, let me answer my own question: What are we to do when terror succeeds and makes us want to withdraw, quit, or look away?
First, choose to believe afresh in the authority of God and Christ.
This is a mental choice to believe that God is bigger, stronger, and more active in our lives than the evil that destroys life. You must say “no” to an apparently rational fear that evil will prevail. The senselessness of “ISIS-inspired attacks” is terrifying. They could be anywhere and everywhere. That’s the intent. They want us to believe that we’re never safe. We’re never protected. And, in a sense, they’re correct. We aren’t safe. Since the Fall, this world has not been safe. Ever.
But when we choose to believe that God wins, the grip of fear dissipates. When we believe that God is the boss of everything and his authority is the only one that matters, evil’s perceived powers are diminished. They don’t disappear, but are greatly weakened. Fear retreats. It must. In fact, God’s authority is so mighty that the voices of those worshiping him have shaken the doorposts and threshold of the temple (Isa. 6:4). So believe it.
Hear me clearly: Believing means that God’s authority is the only one that matters. He will one day permanently break the grip of the fear we now wrestle with. Jesus’ death and resurrection ended our need to fear death’s permanence, and there will be a day when fear itself will be banished. So, step one: believe in God’s authority.
Second: Add heartfelt faith to your belief. Belief is a rational assent to an idea (you believe the sun will rise); faith is trust in a person, trust that God is who he says he is. Faith means accepting that his Word and deeds are as real as they ever have been. And this is a tough one! Your mind will cry out that you’re being dumb. It’ll tell you that you’re sacrificing your intellect. But therein lies the secret: if God is God, our thoughts and our limited reason can’t be all there is. Faith in God assures us that we are not the be all and end all in this world. Faith teaches us that our reason is insufficient to solve our problems.
Faith is God’s gift in these tragic times because it assures us that this reality isn’t all there is. Hebrews 11:1 puts it this way: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
In dark days like these, we need to believe and have faith in the God who redeems impossible situations and turns mourning into joy. Belief says he’s done it in the past. Faith says he’ll do it again, right now. Let faith rise in you, even if it makes no sense, defying logic, fear, and anger.
Finally, you’ve got to embrace suffering with the wounded, injured, and afraid. This, for me, is both difficult and wonderful. Difficult because I can’t wrap my mind around the “why” of tragedies like this, but wonderful because I don’t have to. Instead I can have compassion, which means to “suffer with.” So I try to embrace those suffering pain, heartache, and unimaginable loss, because our God is greater than what I see right now.
Belief and faith are not a system of twisted triumphalism, but an assertion that the kingdom with a king who loves us has come nearer in this suffering. And because the king loves us, he’s not leaving us in our pain, hatred, or anguish. Instead, he is teaching us to love as he has loved us.
He knows murder. He knows terror. He knows the injustice of a broken world that never gets it right. When we suffer with the people around us, we know (again) his greatness and our desperate need of him.
So embrace suffering with the broken, knowing ahead of time that it won’t be clean or tidy. Enter their mess just like Jesus did and continues to do.
Can you do it? Yes. Just like it was done for me. Like it was done for you.
I love you.
The Rev. Jonathan French is the rector of Grace Church in Ocala, Florida.
The featured image comes via Flickr user Bethan. It is licensed under Creative Commons.