What the Gospel Says in the Face of Tragedy: Thoughts on Sutherland Springs Shooting

BARBARANNE KELLY|GUEST

On Sunday morning, November 5, as I sat worshiping with my family in church, a gunman entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, only 37 miles away, and violently murdered half of their congregation. As the news began to break that afternoon, it sounded unbelievable. As more news filtered out, it only got worse. I find it difficult to pull my attention away from each new detail as the story of what happened continues to unfold.

My first thought as I heard the news was that as we sat in the pew, my five-year old grandson was sitting to my left, and my friend’s four children were to my right: how many of them would I have been able to shield with my own body?

That morning in worship we shared the Lord’s Supper, passing the trays of bread and juice.

Christ’s body, broken for us.

37 miles away, broken bodies littered the sanctuary floor…

Christ’s blood, shed for us…

In that small, rural church, the blood of children, siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, mingled on the floor, running under the pews.

This staggers the imagination; it is too horrible. What that man did in that church was pure evil. How do we wrap our minds around this? How can we possibly make sense of such evil? Where do we find hope?

When the Wicked Prosper

Even as I type the question, I am reminded of another who also struggled to understand the ways of God in the face of wicked men. The author of Psalm 73, believed, as do I, that God is good to his chosen people. But he is struggling, as I often do, and am now, with understanding why the Lord allows wicked people to prosper. He sees the wicked enjoying comfort and wealth; I see an evil man who slipped the net of justice and purchased the weapons and ammunition he needed to carry out his attack.

From verses 3 to 15 the psalmist outlines the comforts of the wicked, which don’t seem to parallel my own concerns, until, in verse 16, mid-psalm, we come to our mutual question:

“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task…”

Oh, sisters, this is a wearisome task, but one which we, as believers, must undertake. When heartbreak is splashed across the news, or shared down the prayer chain, or encountered in our homes, we must not shy away from this task. It is wearisome, but necessary. As people of faith we believe in a gospel that has substance and holds the solution for evil.

In his next breath the psalmist encounters the gospel:

“…until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”

The Justice of God

When he went into the sanctuary of God, the Temple in Jerusalem, he saw at the very center the altar of sacrifice. The Temple was a massive and beautiful building, decorated with marble and gold and intricately woven tapestries. But the altar was the centerpiece, the focal point, the purpose for the temple. For it was upon the altar that the priests labored day after day to sacrifice the multitudes of animals required to cleanse the people of their sins. It was inescapable: when he entered the sanctuary, he saw the blood of those sacrifices.

And, seeing the blood, he remembered that the wages of sin is death. Seeing the animals, he saw death paying for sin. Seeing the altar, he remembered that God is not only just, but he is also merciful. By grace, God provided a way for his people to receive forgiveness for their sins. Mercy and justice mingled as the blood flowed from the altar. Seeing and remembering, his heart is re-focused toward his merciful God, and he cries out:

“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me into glory.”

The psalmist then realizes that, though the wicked enjoy comfort and apparent freedom in life, God’s justice is not sleeping, but waiting:

“Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away by terrors!”

The psalm reminds us that there is no “slipping the net” for wicked, evil men. Our God is holy and just, and he will not allow sin to go unpunished. When we see tragedy, and are tempted to despair, we can turn to God and pour out our hearts to him, knowing that he also sees the evil and hears our cries:

“The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” (Psalm 34:15, 16)

The Lamb of God

His eyes are upon us; he sees all that we go through. He will not pardon evil; justice will be perfectly measured out against the wicked. But that is not where we anchor our hope. If we stay there, only hoping for the punishment of wicked men, we will grow cold and bitter. We must raise our eyes to fill our hearts with hope:

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25, 26)

God himself is the blessed inheritance which is desirable beyond anything which the world has to offer. God himself sustains us when our hearts break into a million pieces and we struggle for breath in the wake of devastating news. God alone is our portion forever.

No amount of animal sacrifice would cleanse the sins of the people, but the animals pointed forward to the sacrifice which would finally, in the most evil act of injustice in history, atone for sin. The once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God:

“He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled he did not revile in return, when he suffered he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you are healed.” (1 Peter 2:22-24)

When we run to God in our grief, we see the cross—not an altar that requires perpetual sacrifices—but the cross upon which Jesus died to atone for our sins. When we struggle to understand great evil, we look to the cross and see a great Savior. In the death of Christ, we find hope, not only because he died, but more importantly, because he was raised from death. In his resurrection we who believe are promised life beyond the grave. Because he lives, death is not the end. Because he lives, we have a living hope. Because Jesus lives, Sunday morning, his children in Sutherland Springs were ushered straight into the presence of our Lord.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Seeing the bloody altar re-focused the psalmist’s heart then, just as remembering the cross and sharing the Lord’s Supper re-focuses our hearts now. In the bread and the cup, I am reminded that justice has been met for my own sins in the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Therefore, when my heart is breaking, I can remember that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ himself shields his children from the sting of death. In Christ, God the Father will receive me into glory.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Barbaranne reads, writes, cooks, runs, and shoots an occasional photo in Texas.  She and her husband Jim are the parents of five of the neatest people they know and grandparents to the first two of (hopefully) many grandchildren.  She has been blogging ever since she accidentally signed up for a blog while attempting to comment on a friend’s blog post and figured, “Why not?”  She now blogs at Grateful and Women of Purpose, a ministry of the women of her church. Barbaranne and Jim are members of Christ Presbyterian Church in New Braunfels, Texas, where she leads a Bible study for women in the hope that she and they may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.

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