Faith Under Fire: Trusting God When Your World Collapses
A Response to the Terrorist Attacks

By David Henderson (M.Div. '87, D.Min. '96)

Dr. Henderson addressed three issues in his September 16, 2001, sermon: the essential natures of humanity, human life, and the character of God. Following is his introduction and discussion of the character of God.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, evil erupted on this nation's soil.

With cunning deliberateness and stunning disregard for life, trained teams of hijackers turned four loaded passenger jets into guided missiles and slammed them into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and a Pennsylvania farm field. The destruction is beyond our fathoming, the loss of life perhaps beyond our ever knowing.

For five days the images have replayed unceasingly before us: planes penetrating, flames billowing, towers imploding, people running, a tidal wave of smoke and debris advancing, the grief-stricken crying and pleading. We watch them and yet we don't see them. They are beyond our taking in. It is a disaster film gone horribly wrong.

We put ourselves in the shoes of those whose lives were directly impacted by the attacks, imagining the terror in the planes that were taken, the chaos in the buildings that were struck, the grief and bewilderment of those whose family and friends will never come home, the hope mixed with fury among those who pick through the rubble for survivors, the anxious burden of those who lead us.

The feelings that begin to boil up from within us are raw and intense. Disorientation. Disbelief. Horror. Anger. Fear. Hate. Sadness. Vulnerability.

Woven through the feelings and tied together with them are questions, scores of questions, that rise up inside us: How could they have gotten away with this? What will they do next? Will we ever catch who was behind it? At a deeper level, we ask: Will we ever be safe again? What will this mean for the future? For the future of our children? Deeper still, we ask: What if I had been in one of those towers, or on one of those planes? What would I have done? Am I prepared to die? Where is God in circumstances like this?

The terrorist attacks that crippled our nation on Tuesday exposed a number of things that were not as they should have been in this country: ineffective airport security systems, inadequate foreign intelligence efforts, a poor national security structure, gaps of vulnerability that expose us to future attack. They have forced us as a nation to grow up in a hurry, to face up to dangers and risks that to this point we have perhaps not taken seriously enough.

But I suspect it may be the case that it is not only things "out there" that have not been found to be as they should be.

For all of us, these attacks have sparked probing questions about ultimate things: about the nature of life itself, the character of those with whom we share life, and the essence of the God who gives us life. My sense is that there may be some things "in here," within our souls, that these attacks have exposed as inadequate and in need of shoring up.

It is not only our nation that has come under fire. It is our faith that has come under fire as well. And it may be that these tragedies will force us to do some growing up spiritually as well, to face up to places where our faith has proved less than adequate in the face of a tragedy like this one.

For most of us, our faith is fine when life is fine. We enjoy life, we enjoy others, and we enjoy the goodness of God. But this week four cunning teams of terrorists seem to have flown in under heaven's radar and, for some of us, in the aftermath of the attacks, our faith is left as teetery and unstable as some of the buildings left standing near the World Trade Center.

One of the questions that the events of this week surface is: What do they expose about our beliefs with regard to the essential character of God? It is on those things that I would like to focus this morning, bringing a Christian perspective to the issues raised by these attacks...

Our beliefs about the essential character of God.
Is God to be trusted, or not? We're told that God loves us, that He has our best interests at heart, and that He is able to do whatever He wants. Then how could He let this happen? Did the Lord of the Universe look away? Or did He look on with the same horror and helplessness we felt, incapable of doing anything to stop the attacks? If God wouldn't—or couldn't—keep the men and women in those buildings and airplanes safe, how can I trust him to keep me safe?

One solution is to decide that our idea of God's power is simply wrong. Yes, God loves us, and He knows what is best for?us. But He just couldn't stop this. That's the conclusion Rabbi Harold Kushner came to when he wrote his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Things just got out of God's control. God wanted to step in and intervene, but this was just too much for Him. He writes: "God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even He can't bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming the lives of innocent victims."

But Rabbi Kushner does what the Scriptures are unwilling to do: to give up room on the essential attributes of God: the love of God, the wisdom of God, and the power of God. According to Rabbi Kushner, God loves us, and He knows what is best for us, but all things are not under God's control.

Yet according to the Bible, God loves us, He knows what is best for us, and all things are under His control. Some of the many verses that speak directly to this issue of God's complete control over all of the events in our lives include Ecclesiastes 7:14, Lamentations 3:38, and Amos 3:6: When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? But this causes another crisis. If God is in control, and this is what He brings upon us, what does that say about the God we love and serve? He can't be trusted! Neither His love for us nor His wisdom about what is best for us can be counted on.

But tempting as it is, we can't go that direction either. The clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God is incapable of evil. He is the father of light in whom there is not a shred of darkness. Listen to James, for example. "God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else either" (James 1.13 NET). And in John's epistle, we are reminded of the unwavering, uncompromising love of God. "God is love, and there is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear" (I John 4.16-18).

The solution is not to compromise the way we think about God's power, which is what Rabbi Kushner proposes. It is to broaden the way we think about God's love. That is the direction that Joni Eareckson Tada takes in her outstanding book When God Weeps, which I highly recommend. It's also the direction C.S. Lewis takes us in his exceptional book, The Problem of Pain. Love and mere kindness, the elimination of suffering, are not necessarily the same thing. Listen to what he writes:

"The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word 'love,' and look on things as if man were the center of them. Man is not the center. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake" (47-48).

To experience the love of God in a true, and not an illusory form, is therefore to experience it as our surrender to His demand, our conformity to his desire (51).

The love of God and the sovereignty of God are not at odds. Paul writes, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son" (Romans 8.28). What then shall we say? Nothing can separate us from God's love for us. Nothing! "For I am convinced," writes Paul, "that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8.38-39).

God's Love in Darkest Tragedies:
And here are two of many examples in the Scriptures, one from the life of a single man, one from the life of a whole nation, of the way that God's love, His wisdom, and His power come together in life's darkest tragedies.

At the end of Genesis we read the story of Joseph, who as a young boy was sold as a slave to passing foreigners by his jealous brothers and dragged off to Egypt. Then, just when after several years he had entered into his master's trust and been given great responsibility, and things appeared to be going well, he was falsely accused by his master's wife and thrown into prison. For years he sat there. No one knew him. No one cared. He was forgotten. But in a marvelous turn of events Joseph was brought before Pharaoh, successfully interpreted a dream, and found himself as the Pharaoh's most trusted adviser, the second most powerful man in all Egypt. When years later Joseph's brothers unexpectedly showed up in the palace begging for food and Joseph revealed to them who he was, he said to them: "Don't be afraid. You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50.20).

The same thing happens on a broader scale in the book of Habakkuk. When the powerful and destructive armies of unbelieving Babylon begin to descend upon the people of God, the prophet falls before God and says,. Don't you see what's happening? Don't you care? "How long, O Lord, must I call for help but you do not listen? Or cry out, 'Violence,' but you do not save? Why do you tolerate wrong?" (Habakkuk 1.2-3).

But God's answer to Habakkuk is surprising. This is all part of His plan. Yes, He says, the Babylonians are evil. "They are ruthless and impetuous . . .a feared and dreaded people. . . . bent on violence" (1.6-9). And yes, "{they} have shed man's blood, [and] have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them. Woe to him," says the Lord. His day of judgment will come. (2.8-9) But, in the meantime, the Lord says, "I am going to do something that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians" (1.5). I am going to use them for good, to accomplish my good and loving purposes among my people.

As Augustine said: "Nothing happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen: he either permits it to happen, or He brings it about Himself. Under God all things are without exception fully controlled — despite all appearances to the contrary."

And everything that God does, and everything that God allows, is marked by a Father's love for us. In her book, Grace Grows Best in Winter, Margaret Clarkson writes: "The sovereignty of God is the one impregnable rock to which the suffering human heart must cling. The circumstances surrounding our lives are no accident; they may be the work of evil, but that evil is firmly held within the mighty hand of our sovereign God... All evil is subject to Him, and evil cannot touch His children unless he permits it."

Pain and suffering eclipse the goodness of God, but they do not thwart it. I don't begin to presume that I know the ways in which God intends to use these attacks for good. But I am certain that He will, and that He already has.

On Tuesday, September 11, terrorists sought to bring this nation to its knees. Perhaps among other reasons for permitting this evil--many of which we may never come to know this side of heaven--God allowed this to happen for that very reason, that we might be brought to our knees, and there to seek the face of the One who is the source of all comfort and strength, the source of all hope and healing, the source of all life itself.
Under the rubble and debris of these attacks lies what remains of an optimistic view of humanity, of a this-world, life-is-good view of our life, and of a teetery view of God that fears perhaps He has lost control of our world.

But just as, Lord willing, there will rise up out of the craters and rubble new and sturdier structures, so too, Lord willing, as a result of these events and our earnest reflection on them there will rise up out of the ashes of our old views a more biblical view of humanity, of life, and of God.

A view of man that owns up to the great dignity of our having been created by God, the great indignity of our having rebelled against God's purpose in our creation, and the great wonder of God having come to us in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue us. A view of life that takes seriously the fleeting sorrow of the present, and the joyful promise of eternity. And a view of God whose wisdom is beyond our fathoming, whose love knows no limits, and whose power knows no bounds.

God is sovereign. We can trust that. He is in control. God is wise. We can be assured that He knows what is best. And God is loving. We can reach out to Him and find Him, if we seek Him with all our hearts.

Trust in Him, people of God. When your world collapses around you, trust Him.

Rev. Dr. David Henderson is Senior Pastor, Covenant Church, West Lafayette, Indiana.