It happened again.
In the dark hours of this Sunday morning some 50 people were killed and another 53 were injured in a terror attack in gay nightclub in Orlando. President Obama has called it an “act of terror and an act of hate,” and it’s being described as the most deadly shooting in American history.
The news of such violent atrocities comes to us so regularly nowadays that we may feel numb, helpless to know what to do or say after such events. But as followers of Christ we can’t simply shut out the pain and despair. We must bring light and healing.
These horrible events of recent years have targeted a wide variety of people: military personnel, movie-goers, elementary school children, and now patrons of a gay nightclub. All have dignity as made in the image of God. The death of any leads to mourning, whether they were targeted at random or not.
Over the years several writers for TGC have provided wise guidance on how to respond. These five calls to action apply to the most recent in a strring of tragedies.
No matter how frequently such tragedies occur, our first response should always be the same: turning to God in prayer. After the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in 2012, Scotty Smith provided a model for how to pray in the midst of pain:
Dear Lord Jesus, we abandon ourselves to you tonight—we come running with our tears and our fears, our anger and our anguish, our lament and our longings. We collapse in your presence, with the assurance of your welcome, needing the mercies of your heart.
Some stories are just too much for us to absorb; some evil just too great to conceive; some losses beyond all measurability. We need your tears and your strength tonight. That you wept outside the tomb of a beloved friend frees us to groan and mourn; that you conquered his death with yours, frees us to hope and wait.
But we turn our thoughts from ourselves to the families who have suffered an unconscionable violation of heart and all sensibilities. Bring your presence to bear, Lord Jesus, by your Spirit and through your people. May your servants weep with those who weep and wail with those who wail. Extend your tear wiping hand—reach into this great tragedy with an even greater grace.
In the wake of mass violence, a common pattern is emerging among tech-literate, socially connected Christians. Rather than hearing the news and turning to God, we turn first to social media.
If we wanted to learn the facts about the incident we would look to news agencies. Too often, though, we’re actually looking to revel in the partisan divide. Even without looking we know the various angles that will be played out (e.g., gun control, the violence of Islam) and want to jump into the fray to join our “team.”
“Perhaps due to the callousness of our hearts or the fact that mass shootings have become common,” Trevin Wax wrote after the Umpqua Community College shooting last October, “we now rush to the computer to vent our frustrations rather than turn to God and to each other to express our grief.”
I understand how the feeling of helplessness intensifies the desire to just do something—to promote some person or push some policy. Make a statement. Pass a bill. Do whatever it takes to help us at least feel like we’re making progress in preventing these senseless horrors.
What troubles me is not that these tragedies lead to advocacy for policy change, but that our country’s imagination is held captive to the idea that the only place where such change can take place is in the legislature or courthouse.
On days like this we may need to guard our heart (Prov. 4:23) by avoiding social media altogether. Out of consideration for those who are suffering and in pain we can refrain from engaging in the polemics and adding to the din of divisiveness. Instead of tweeting and posting, we should seek to take practical actions, such as donating blood. (Even if we don’t live in the Orlando area, this event can remind us that daily tragedies occur and blood donations are always needed in your community.)
As Christians we are called to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Yet in times of tragedy we may be tempted instead to try to explain and justify rather than to simply be silent and grieve with those who are grieving. As Trillia Newbell has written,
When your friend is weeping it’s hard to say, “I don't know, I don't understand.” We want to know. We want to bring comfort, but in our attempt to “fix it” we can forget that there's a real person in deep sorrow. Your friend, coworker, or relative is not a faucet to be fixed—they are flesh and blood to be loved. Those moments when you're anxiously trying to find the perfect words are often the best moments to humbly embrace your weakness and lack of knowledge.
To be clear, waiting doesn’t mean never sharing perceived wisdom. Waiting might actually involve acknowledging you do understand. You understand your friend's sorrow enough to be willing to bridle your tongue, to speak carefully and thoughtfully, to pray and wait.
The death of any humans should lead to mourning, whether they were the victims or the perpetrators. As Angela Price wrote after the domestic terror attack last July,
Loving those who are different is not easy. It’s a sacrifice, but Jesus did it for us. When he came to rescue us, we were all lost in sin. We were “risky” for him, even to the point of crucifixion. Yet he entered into a world filled with filth, and willingly laid down his life in love. This is how we share Christ with those desperate for saving grace.
Christians should be the most realistic people on Earth. While we may support certain policies and solutions that we believe can foster peace, we must always be quick to admit that the root cause of violence and hate is sin.
As Erik Raymond wrote after the mall shooting in Omaha in 2007,
First and foremost an event like this is a heart-wrenching reminder of the devastatingly painful and absolutely brutal result of sin. The basic answer to the question as to why the trigger was pulled once, never mind 40 to 50 times, is a rebellion from and a hatred of God. At its must fundamental sense this tragedy is rooted in a rebellion from God. The fact that people had to die today in this mall is a testimony to the vicious recourse of sin. The Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6.23). Death is the sword of sin, it cuts deep and far, and spares none.
Such tragedies, Raymond adds, should cause us to look away from superficial hope.
Yes sin is devastating; death is relentless. And if you and I do not have a true sovereign that can defeat such things with certainty then we are ourselves hopeless. But there is one who is just this sovereign and just this good. The Scripture tells us of Jesus who himself being God became a man with the expressed purpose of defeating death by disarming sin of its power. It is Jesus Christ, the Son of the most high God, who is Sovereign and good, and able to save sinners from the deadly enemy of death. It is Jesus who gave his life as a sufficient sacrifice to pay the death penalty due to rebels like us. He died upon the cross and rose victoriously from the grave. The Scripture says he was “declared the Son of God with power” (Rom. 1.4). His resurrection from the dead is the proof that death and sin have been defeated.
One day there was a tragedy with a similar story as the one that we have today. Many folks died and the people questioned how they should react to it. Jesus answers was amazingly short and profound. He said, “Unless you repent you too will perish” (Luke 13.3).
This is the message in this tragedy. Yes this is horrible. Yes it hurts. But the greater tragedy is to turn away from such things without repenting, or turning from sin.
As the English writer Samuel Johnson once said, people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed. We probably don’t need to be instructed about how to react. We know what to do. We’ve faced this situation before and will face it again all too soon. We just need to be reminded of our call to muster the courage and respond in a way that brings honor to our Savior.