How are Christians to respond to recent tragic events in the UK?
There have been bombings at Parsons Green and at the Manchester Arena. There was the attack in Westminster. And, barely had the police cordons been lifted in Borough Market and London Bridge, when another cordon went up around Grenfell Tower, because of its horrific fire.
We all have firmly etched on our memories images of those and other horrific happenings. Yet these are not the first nor the last time such things will happen. Sadly, we know yet another tragic story will soon emerge and dominate the headlines.
As Christians, it is vital we don’t just make sense of these events, but that we also understand how to respond to them. Luke 13:1-5 is a passage of Scripture that can be of great help to us in knowing how we should respond to these tragic events.
During his life and earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ was constantly aware of immense human suffering and tragedy. He witnessed countless acts of evil, and he personally suffered at the hands of evil, cruel and unjust people.
What is important for us to note is he never downplayed nor reduced what other people were suffering. He never belittled them nor even judged them for what they were suffering. Instead, he responded with compassion, love, concern and care.
How many times do we read of Jesus being moved in spirit for those in dire circumstances? Moreover, he was not just moved by their suffering, but also ministered to their needs.
In Luke 13:1 Jesus is asked about a terrifying event. But the motivation for asking was based on the presumption that the victims deserved what came upon them. This event could be compared to a terrorist attack, a seemingly unprovoked attack on innocent people going about their own business.
The event in question was the occasion when a group of Jews from Galilee were in Jerusalem participating in one of the mandatory Jewish feasts. They came to Jerusalem to bring their animals for sacrifice to God. While in Jerusalem, for reasons we’re not told, Pilate and his men came upon them and killed them. Hence the statement their blood was mingled with the blood of their animal sacrifices.
The second event could be compared to Grenfell Tower: a disaster few would have thought would happen. In the case of Luke 13, a tower in Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people.
These two events must have been in the living memory of those who spoke to Jesus. As so often the case when such events occur, many questions arise, especially why these things happened. What makes this Scripture passage so helpful is what Jesus does and does not say.
The conversation these people had with Jesus suggests some believed that what happened was deserved, an act of judgment against the victims’ sinfulness. Similar thinking was demonstrated by the disciples when they asked Jesus about a blind man, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2).
On both occasions, Jesus says nothing about these events being due to the sinfulness of the people concerned or an act of divine judgment upon them.
Over recent months, some Christians have made strong statements online and elsewhere about recent UK tragedies being acts of God’s judgment against our nation, specifically as a result of decisions and new laws made by our government. I am not convinced that this is a biblical, Christ-like response.
Firstly, God is not capricious; by which I mean, he is not just waiting for us to make a mistake so he can punish us. Secondly, if Jesus didn’t comment on events like those in Luke 13 as being acts of judgment, then nor should we do so. We have no right to say what is or what is not punishment from God’s hand. That is God’s territory, over which he is sovereign and for which he owes us no explanation.
Some people might object and quote numerous places in the Old Testament where God pronounces judgment on nations and brings this about through natural or military means. However, there is a fundamental difference, for these acts of judgment have been declared to be God’s judgment by God himself.
The prophets were not giving their own analysis of events, but speaking as ones under the inspiration of God’s Spirit. When we give our opinions or analysis, we can never say they are God’s inspiration or made under the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can only declare an event to be God’s judgment if God specifically declares it to be.
Such comments also sometimes demonstrate a lack of compassion for those who are suffering and, therefore, fail to display Christian, gospel-hearted love. Think of the woman caught in adultery: Jesus could have said she deserved to be stoned to death, but he did not.
Also, such publicly pronounced opinions do not help when witnessing about Christ. If, for example, we were to go and stand outside Parsons Green Tube Station or Grenfell Tower and preach that those tragedies were acts of God’s punishment against the sin of our nation and government, and because of the victims’ own sin, I imagine we would be putting our lives at risk!
Such conduct would show a lack of understanding of the gospel. Remember, Scripture clearly teaches us God never delights in death, not even in the death of the most wretched of people. God desires all people everywhere to come to salvation, through Christ.
Our response to the world is to be that of Christ’s, who said, ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:17).
Jesus made clear his mission is to bring salvation, so that many might be saved from God’s judgment. Yes, the day will come when he will judge and punish all who do not believe, but that day has not yet come.
Therefore, the mission of the church is to continue this work of Christ, testifying to his gospel, warning people of the judgment to come and pleading with them to believe.
The reality is, sadly, that evil men will always do evil things. Records show Pilate was an insecure, power-hungry, egotistical man, who wanted to stamp his authority upon others. He was not afraid to shed blood, even of innocent people, if it meant he gained more power and people feared him more.
Such thinking is not too different from the psychology of terrorists, who believe the more terror they create, the more power they will have. They aim to terrify people into submission. They are sinful men, who do evil deeds to satisfy their own evil desires.
God is not the one who works evil deeds. Such a thought should be banished from our minds. Jesus clearly taught that Satan only seeks to ‘kill and destroy’.
We live in a sinful, fallen world, in which sinful, broken things take place. Our world is under the curse of sin, which permeates every aspect of human existence. We regularly cut corners and reduce costs, take shortcuts and bend the rules. The sad and tragic reality is that, at some point, such choices and decisions will have consequences and people will suffer. But that is not God’s fault; it is ours.
We should respond to these tragic events in the same way that Jesus did. He calls on us to examine our own hearts and seek him for the salvation of our own souls. He also proclaims his gospel.
In Luke’s account, there was a crowd of people gathered around Jesus. But instead of dealing with the questions they asked about who was responsible, or whether this was divine judgment, Jesus challenged them to repent. Death can come in an instant; therefore, we must be ready to face God.
Jesus visited suffering people and ministered to them, demonstrating care and compassion. He fed, comforted, loved and ministered his truth to them, in order to lead them to the Father. This is how we should respond.
God did not wait for us to change before he sent Jesus to suffer and die for us. Jesus came to redeem us while we were yet sinners. This, therefore, is how we, his disciples, his church on earth, should respond to the world around us and those in it, in all its suffering.
Gordon Bull is pastor of Thornton Heath Evangelical Church, Croydon.