Christian Counseling: Part 1: Grief, God and the Newtown Massacre

Twenty wide-eyed and life-grabbing six and seven year olds lay lifeless on a classroom floor without the hope of any tomorrows. They would not be coming home after school today. They will never speak another word, play any game or exchange hugs with mom or dad. Their Christmas gifts will never be opened, nor will pictures of their happy smiles be taken and shared with family and friends. They will never graduate, fall in love, marry, have children or be given the chance to brighten the world with their unique personalities and contributions. What have we all lost? We will never know.

It would likely be easier to count the dry eyes in Newtown Connecticut and perhaps all of America than to number the wet ones. At sudden, shocking and traumatic events, like the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, we get lost in a whirlwind of grief, confusion and anger or rage. We seek answers to tough questions, especially those surviving family members and those who work at or attend the school--"Why? Why did it happen? Why did it have to be my daughter? Will I ever recover from the relentless and overwhelming grief? How will life ever be the same for me, for my family, for our community? How do I handle the vulnerability, fear and guilt that rage through my thoughts and emotions like a runaway train? Where was God? How could He let this happen? Why didn’t He prevent this from happening like any good parent would have done?" Or perhaps, "How can there be a God when things like this happen?"

"These are the times that try men's souls," so said Thomas Paine, one of America's Founding Fathers about the Revolution. He was familiar with tyranny, death, grief and the desire and need for safety and peace. There are not only "times" that try us, but events that try us, like: 9/11, VA Tech and Newtown. Those who believe in God will no doubt entertain, if even briefly, questions about God and His thinking and choices regarding the massacre. For those who believe in the existence of God, it will either draw them closer to Him or prove to be a point of disconnection. There is no doubt in my mind that some will suffer a crisis of faith when they face their incongruent thoughts and feelings--God is a protector, loving, all powerful and sovereign over everything in life, and yet this useless, evil tragedy occurred with God’s full knowledge and lack of preventive intervention. They may ask, “What could possibly comprise the righteous attitude of God that orchestrated or allowed such a horror?” To some these are scary questions that are too often avoided and, as such, result in people’s love for God to slowly grow cold and connection to Him to be minimized or severed.

Is God absolutely sovereign (meaning King, Supreme Ruler and Law Giver)? Yes! This is an unchangeable characteristic of God, but it does not tell us about how He executes His sovereignty or power, only that He has the capacity to do anything He wishes. There are times a person wills or desires something (one of the meanings in the Greek), but refuses to act on the thought or feeling. God may desire a particular outcome (people avoid doing wrong), but it doesn’t mean He will act on His desire to prevent the wrong. As with the Prodigal son, God respects an individual’s God-given right to exercise free will, even to choose wrongly as the son did.

I have no illusions that one paragraph is going to solve the long debated issue of God’s sovereignty. My hope is only to raise people to caution about expressing their opinions until they think and rethink this complex and seriously loaded issue since it has the capacity to harm or heal.

To further stir your motivation to exercise caution and search for understanding, image your child is murdered and someone implies or says to you that it was God’s sovereign will for your child to die at the hands of an evil person. How would you feel about God? How would you feel about the person saying it? Perhaps only a handful of Christians, if any, would say that divine sovereignty eliminates human responsibility. It is likely they would agree that both exist, yet all the while too many hold on to incongruent thoughts, such as God is in control of everything and that nothing happens in this world without it being His will. The latter belief is called hyper-Calvanism.

That belief is a gross mistake. It is harmful to faith and can easily raise questions about whether God is really a loving person. We need a new, clearer theology of sovereignty that does not get in the way of people coming to Christ or wrongly disturbs those in the faith, especially in times of great need like those in Newtown. And if you think that people cannot prevent others from coming to God or pull others away, consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:13 and Luke 13:24.

Lastly, don’t forget to consider your own grief. Don't believe the traditional advice to manage grief by getting on with life ang allowing time to heal all wounds. The truth is time only dulls pain and memory. That dulling process does not bring healing. The alternative is to daily face and embrace tears, anger, grief, questions and the like for about 15 to 20 minutes a day. Write honest letters in the raw to God and the people involved, which are for you and not to be sent. Image them being in your grieving room and carry on a verbal dialogue. Do these things until your emotions greatly diminish and you have sufficient answers and peace.

May we all see, take and give grace to one another, especially those in their hour of need.

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