It surrounds us constantly. We can’t escape it, though sometimes we brush up against it without realizing how near it really is. The imminence of tragedy and heartache is a cold and unwelcome reality for all of us, as we were reminded by the awful flooding in Colorado, and by the murders at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. If those aren’t reminder enough, we could look to Syria, where Al-Nusra Front jihadists’ cruelties are epitomized by the beheading of a man for his unwillingness to deny Christ, and their subsequent mocking that his Jesus didn’t save him; or we could mourn the loss of a child near New Orleans, who after playing with a water toy in the backyard was killed by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba.
While jarring to most of us, these kinds of events are the daily fare of people all over the world. And if not the result of human cruelty, then we witness the earth groaning beneath our feet as it sweeps away thousands in floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and eruptions. There is simply no place to hide from the sorrows and dangers of human experience. Even if we take our own lives in nihilistic desperation, we look forward to being held to account for our wasted stewardship, and we look backward to see behind us the wake of heartache and brokenness that we have wrought in loved ones left behind. Thankfully, there is more to the story than the “nasty, brutish, and short” life of Hobbes’s lamenting.
When one seeks comfort and strength in the pages of Scripture, they will not find the absence of tragedy as the near-term reprieve. Peter, for example, doesn’t advocate that believers shall always escape from trials. Rather he offers believers a proper and therapeutic response: “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials…” (1 Pet 1:6). Rejoice??? How can there be any joy in such darkness? Of course, the Bible is not advocating some kind of psychobabble denial of the harsh realities surrounding us. Instead, it advocates perspective. Peter is not suggesting that the trials faced by believers are joyful in themselves. Instead he is pointing believers to their eternal hope and the fact that God will use the temporal distresses to refine believers: “so that the proof of your faith, more precious than gold, which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:7).
The joy isn’t found in the circumstances of the moment – those can be exceedingly dark and worthy of the weeping they inspire. Rather the joy is found in knowing that God has not left us to the agonies of life, but has provided us hope for the future – a hope which allows us to benefit in no small way from the refinements and shaping of today.
I cannot imagine the pain of those families in Colorado, Washington D.C., or Syria, and other parts of the world, as they try to make sense of the mind-boggling loss of loved ones. As Paul exhorted us, there is simply a time to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). Certainly hope for the future is not incompatible with compassion in the present. As followers of Christ we can put our arms around those who are heartbroken, walk silently with them, and encourage them in His future hope as we may be given opportunity.
All the while we should consider Paul’s reminder regarding the importance of knowing God’s plan for the future. He says, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13). Because of the certainty of our future in Him, believers need not grieve in anguish as if there is no hope. Of course, we all grieve loss. Even though, for believers, loss of loved ones in Christ is temporary (in light of a heavenly reunion), it is still extremely painful for that duration. (Again – weep with those who weep, don’t tell them to stop weeping.) But the hope Christ offers of a future in Him provides a lasting joy without which, as Paul put it, “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19b).
Life is hard. Pain and death make it harder. Yet in the midst of these realities there is comfort and strength offered to all and found in the One who conquered death (1 Cor 15:53-57) and paid for our hope with His own blood. There is also an exhortation to believers, that their time here is not wasted and the path they trod is not without purpose: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).