God’s Sovereignty and Personal Compassion in Public Tragedy

In light of various tragedies in the news, I asked Pastor John a few weeks ago how he personally reconciles what appears to be two conflicting responses when public tragedy occurs: (1) his compassion towards those who suffer and (2) his conviction that Scripture ascribes to God the final control over all calamities and disasters wrought by both nature and man (see Exodus 4:11, Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Samuel 2:6–7, Ecclesiastes 7:13–14, Isaiah 45:5–7, Lamentations 3:37–38, Amos 3:6, Psalm 135:6–7, Job 1:19–21, 42:11).

How a church responds to disaster will be much more complex, especially if a church is located close to a tragedy, a complexity he outlines in a 21-point chapter for pastors, “Brothers, Help Your People Hold On and Minister in Calamity,” in the book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.

But in this Ask Pastor John podcast, we focused on his own initial, personal response, and how God's sovereignty over all things, and his own compassion for those who are suffering, fit together when public tragedy strikes. We released this as episode #85 (listen here). Here’s a transcript of what he said.

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 my compassion to my conviction. So here is my thought. I think the question is based on some assumptions that I may not share.

It sounds to me like one of the assumptions is that if one feels and speaks in his own heart about a building collapsing in Bangladesh, with several hundred people crushed, or even as I am talking today, a mental health facility in Russia burning and 38 mentally ill people being killed, or we may remember the fertilizer plant exploding and dozens dead, or the Boston bombings. It just seems like right now in our nation event after event of calamity is happening.

So the question for me that people are asking is: When I see that and believe that God is totally in control or say to myself instinctively, “God controlled that, God ruled that, God either in a planning way permitted, or ordained that,” then this is in conflict with my compassion. It is going to be in tension with my compassion; feeling compassion and feeling the sovereignty of God in its fullest sense are at odds. That seems to be an assumption. And my question would be, well, why would that be? Why would a person feel that?

And here, I think, a second assumption is that God’s being the ultimate cause would somehow exclude our feeling hurt, or our weeping, or our helping, or our outrage, at the sin involved. God’s sovereignty implicitly in their minds is excluding that or pushing that [compassion] aside. Now I don’t share either of those assumptions. They are not part of my way of thinking.

I think 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. God brings to pass all things — I mean all things. There are no maverick molecules, R. C. Sproul said. And that is right. Or Spurgeon said, every dust mote that flies in the air, or 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 in the providence and sovereignty of God to that extent, then you see that God intends 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.

When Jesus met the man who was born blind, people said, “Ok, who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). And Jesus answered, “It is neither. This man was born blind for the glory of God” (John 9:3). Now what does that mean? It means that when God ordained that this man endure, let’s say 30 years of blindness, he was also willing that there be some responses to it of a certain kind. And the shepherds who were caring for him in the synagogue had the wrong kind of response, because when he got healed they didn’t even rejoice. They had hearts that were terrible. And Jesus wanted people to rejoice and to see God and to glorify God.

And I don’t doubt that Jesus wanted 30 years’ worth of kind and faithful parenting from that man’s parents, like he wants from many parents 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 conclusion: “Well, 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 of 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 has started 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.

Maybe I will 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, for the death of his Son, that we might be saved. The murder of the Son of God is the worst act in human history, and it was planned by God according to Acts 4:27.

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. 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 happened. And the same would be true of everything he wills in this world. So we should determine how we respond, not by any false, human, 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 bringing relief.

Further reading —