Here’s an email question: “Pastor John, in moments of public tragedy, how do you reconcile your own compassion for those who suffer and also hold firmly to God's sovereignty, knowing that what has happened was ultimately governed by God? It seems this is a huge tension, theologically, when the suffering happens. Just personally, how far do you affirm in your own heart the determining will of God when you see tragedy unfold in the news?”
My understanding of the question is not so much what I am saying in public, but what I am feeling in my heart, and how I am relating compassion to a conviction. I think the question, if I understand it, is based on some assumptions that I may not share. Let me try to state those, and then the person who asked the question can see if we are on the same page.
It sounds to me like one of the assumptions is that if one feels and speaks in his own heart about, for example, a building collapsing in Bangladesh with several hundred people crushed that he can’t also have compassion. Even as I am talking today a mental health facility in Russia burned, and 38 mentally ill people were killed. We may remember the fertilizer plant exploding and dozens dead or the Boston Marathon. I mean it seems like right now in our nation event after event of calamity is happening.
“Part of God’s will in permitting or ordaining a calamity is that we weep with those who weep.”
The tension they are asking me about is: When I see that and speak to my own heart and believe that God is totally in control then this conflicts with my compassion. Or if say to myself instinctively God controlled that, God ruled that, or God either in a planning way permitted that or ordained that, then this conflicts with my compassion. Feeling compassion and feeling the sovereignty of God in its fullest sense are at odds seems to be an assumption.
And my question would be, why would that be? Why would a person feel that? And here is the a second assumption—God being the ultimate cause excludes our feeling hurt, our weeping, our helping, or our outrage at the sin involved. God’s sovereignty implicitly, in their minds, is excluding that or pushing that aside. Now, I don’t share either of those assumptions. They are not part of my way of thinking.
Part of God’s will in permitting or ordaining a calamity is that we weep with those who weep. That is part of the plan. Once you realize that God brings to pass all things, I mean all things, then you know there are no maverick molecules. That’s how R. C. Sproul said it. And that is right. Or Spurgeon said every dust mote that flies in the air and every little globule of spray in every harbor in the wake of every boat in the world is guided on its path through the air by God. Once you get to the point of believing that the providence and sovereignty of God to that extent, then you see that God intends for weeping, the abhorrence of evil, the rescue of the perishing, and the healing of the broken hearted to be a part of his plan even as he may plan the collapse of a building or the explosion of a building or an earthquake or a flood.
“If you see a calamity, don’t draw the unbiblical conclusions that God wants me to feel no outrage.”
When Jesus met the man who was born blind people said, ““Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:2–3). Jesus answered, “This man was born blind for the glory of God.”
Now what does that mean? It means that when God ordained that this man endure years of blindness. I don’t know how old he was; let’s say he was 30. That means 30 years of blindness, and God was also willing that there be some responses to it of a certain kind. The shepherds who were caring for him in the synagogue had the wrong kind because when he was healed they didn’t rejoice. They had hearts that were terrible.
Jesus wanted people to rejoice, to see God, and to glorify God. I don’t doubt that Jesus wanted 30 years worth of kind and faithful parenting from his parents like many parents give today who have disabled children. And what is God’s purpose? Well, one of his purposes is that beautiful demonstrations of compassion be shown from these parents.
So, the point is this. If you see a calamity and you know God could have stopped it, which he always could and he didn't stop it so he must have a purpose in it, don’t draw the irrational, unbiblical conclusions like therefore, God wants me to feel no outrage over the sin of the bombers in Boston. He doesn’t want me to feel any compassion for the victims of the buildings since he brought the building down. And he doesn’t want me to get engaged in any relief project because he caused the earthquake.
That is just irrational. That is crazy. That is a person who has gotten halfway into the Bible, and they are starting to draw human conclusions rather than biblical conclusions. God wills for the beautiful virtues of outrage at sin and compassion for victims and efforts of relief to be manifested in the midst of the calamities that he himself is in charge of.
Sovereign over the Cross
And maybe I just close with one of the most practical illustrations. It says in Acts 4:27 that God predestined what Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles and the Jews brought to pass when Jesus was crucified. In other words, the worst sinning that has ever happened in the history of the world was planned and predestined by God that we might be saved. The murder of the Son of God is the worst act in human history, and that was planned by God according to Acts 4:27.
“The worst sinning that has ever happened, the murder of the Son, was planned by God that we might be saved.”
Now God wills that evil for the sake of thousands of good responses. He wants us to be saved by it. He wants us to trust this Jesus. He wanted Mary to come to the tomb with compassion in her heart to put down herbs. He wanted to show that Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus were men of courage and godliness because they were willing to take the body and put it in their own tomb. God had millions and millions of good and holy purposes in willing that this happen. The same would be true of everything he wills in this world.
We should determine how we respond, not by any false, human, or logical deduction that we are drawing from the sovereignty of God. We should determine it from what the Bible says should be our response, namely compassion and outrage at sin and efforts to be involved in helping bring about relief.