Fifteen years ago this month, on Feb. 5, 2008, an EF4 tornado that killed more than 50 people across four states touched down on the campus of Union University. Thankfully, no students or faculty members lost their lives that night, but eight people remained trapped underneath the wreckage of fallen buildings for hours. Over 50 students were taken to the hospital and nine sustained serious injuries.
The upheaval resulting from the damage lasted for months. Losing 70 percent of student housing created numerous challenges and the final strain was significant. During the days immediately following the ordeal our entire community rallied around the school, bringing unity out of tragedy. Miraculously, Union did rebuild and today she is stronger than ever. I continue to be grateful for the university’s faithful Christian witness and its unapologetic commitment to Scripture.
Times of unexpected tragedy often bring out the best in all of us as neighbors love, support, and encourage one another. That does not mean, however, that there is no ugly underbelly when adversity knocks on our door. Demeaning insecurities often plague us when trials invade our lives. We wonder if God still loves us. We worry that our sin caused the pain. We grieve what we perceive to be the absence of God.
Though these attitudes won’t cause us to stumble when we aren’t on the receiving end of calamity, there are other temptations when we witness others hurting. We would never vocalize our darkest thoughts, but sometimes we sit in judgment over the misfortunes of others as if they are deserving of difficulty. By inflating our sense of self-righteousness, we also magnify the perceived inadequacies of those in the fire. Our presumption is driven by inward arrogance and outward apathy.
In light of these dangers, allow me to offer an important biblical principle to remember when hardships arise.
The presence of tragedy does not reveal the presence of sin. In Luke 13 Jesus addresses a well-known atrocity that left the Galileans bewildered and confused. Apparently, Pilate killed a group of Jews who were making sacrifices in the temple because he suspected them of sedition. Unfortunately, the common belief then, and even today, was that victims of such calamities were guilty of extraordinary sins. Though unspoken, this idea also suggests that those who emerge unscathed from close destruction must do so because of their unparalleled righteousness.
Interesting, however, is that Jesus refused to assign guilt to those who were killed and refused to assign innocence to those who were not. The positive or negative nature of a people’s circumstances is not an indicator of their need or lack thereof for repentance. Jesus simply answers, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:3).” Then, to drive the point further, our Savior shares another example about the danger of presumptuous interpretation when trials come. When a tower in Siloam fell and killed eighteen people, Jesus again refused to make reckless judgments (Luke 13:4). Jesus does not deny that some events are acts of judgment or that sin often causes pain. He does deny, however, that we should feel safe or proud because bad things don’t happen to us. Again, He simply retorts, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:5).”
My first reaction to any disasters should not be a moral evaluation who suffered and who did not. Many wicked people live carefree lives, and many godly individuals face immense challenges. Could it be that God sometimes uses calamity to bring those of us who are spectators to repentance rather than punish those who are immoral? Do bad things sometimes happen for reasons we don’t understand? The painful realities of a fallen world should lead to our humble repentance rather than our boastful reassurances.
So how should we respond to blessings, trials, and hardships?
1. We should humble ourselves. Humble yourself before God and yield to His plan even when you are hurting. Humble yourself if you emerge unscathed after life’s storms. Humble yourself as you enjoy the blessings of safety and tranquility. Refuse to use God’s blessings as an occasion for boasting.
2. We should pray for our neighbors when they hurt. Pray for wisdom about how you might encourage them. Pray that God will bring our community together when we face difficulties. Pray for a deeper, more sincere walk with God. Pray with thanksgiving for God’s mercy and protection each day of your life.
3. We should love more. Love God more than you did before your life fell apart. Love your neighbors as yourself when they suffer. Love your community and friends as precious parts of your life. Love your enemies when tragedies strike by burying past grudges. Love your place of worship and the believers there.
4. We should thank God. Ask Him to make you more aware of the blessings you take for granted. Thank God for His protection and care over the course of your life. Thank God for His unconditional love. Thank God that our circumstances do not reflect our eternal value. Thank God for the strength to endure our worst days.Dr Adam B. Dooley is pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, TN, and author of Hope When Life Unravels. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBDooley.