When the Tower Falls

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The suffering and loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina remind us of how vulnerable mankind is. Few man-made devices are capable of producing the level of devastation we have witnessed in Louisiana and Mississippi. Undoubtedly, many will ask, “Why is this happening?” Perhaps many in our churches know someone, maybe even a family member, who has been touched by the destructive arm of a hurricane. Such tragedies provide pastors, teachers, and counselors with opportunities to provide comfort and instruction to those in need. Too often, however, our own theology needs some adjustment before we can assist others in their growth.

I must confess that I have been very tempted, like others, to find some local reason for the disaster. For instance, New Orleans has maintained a reputation for permissive, riotous living; Mardi Gras alone contributes to such a reputation. Could the hurricane be God’s way of bringing about some cleansing? Perhaps it is. But I must remember that I do not know the mind of God concerning New Orleans (Deut. 29:29), even though I do know His opinion of the sin that exists there. Is New Orleans really any different from other localities across the United States where sin is equally prevalent? I must remember furthermore that many who are suffering in southern states are righteous people. Are they paying for the sins of the community? Although some may find these questions easy to answer, I am not convinced that our easy answers are always theologically correct. In fact, I am not convinced that these are even the questions we should be asking. The better question to ask is “How should I respond in my own life to such tragedy and loss?”

Jesus provides some important teaching on this subject in Luke 13:1-9. The context of this passage (Luke 12:49-53) is Christ explaining that His work will divide people: “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division” (12:51). Jesus emphasizes the importance of a person’s right response to Him (settling accounts) so he or she avoids judgment (12:54-59).

The suffering and loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina remind us of how vulnerable mankind is. Few man-made devices are capable of producing the level of devastation we have witnessed in Louisiana and Mississippi. Undoubtedly, many will ask, “Why is this happening?” Perhaps many in our churches know someone, maybe even a family member, who has been touched by the destructive arm of a hurricane. Such tragedies provide pastors, teachers, and counselors with opportunities to provide comfort and instruction to those in need. Too often, however, our own theology needs some adjustment before we can assist others in their growth.

I must confess that I have been very tempted, like others, to find some local reason for the disaster. For instance, New Orleans has maintained a reputation for permissive, riotous living; Mardi Gras alone contributes to such a reputation. Could the hurricane be God’s way of bringing about some cleansing? Perhaps it is. But I must remember that I do not know the mind of God concerning New Orleans (Deut. 29:29), even though I do know His opinion of the sin that exists there. Is New Orleans really any different from other localities across the United States where sin is equally prevalent? I must remember furthermore that many who are suffering in southern states are righteous people. Are they paying for the sins of the community? Although some may find these questions easy to answer, I am not convinced that our easy answers are always theologically correct. In fact, I am not convinced that these are even the questions we should be asking. The better question to ask is “How should I respond in my own life to such tragedy and loss?”

Jesus provides some important teaching on this subject in Luke 13:1-9. The context of this passage (Luke 12:49-53) is Christ explaining that His work will divide people: “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division” (12:51). Jesus emphasizes the importance of a person’s right response to Him (settling accounts) so he or she avoids judgment (12:54-59).

Jesus’ teaching raised a question among His audience concerning a recent tragedy—Pilate’s cruel slaughter of Galileans in the temple area. [1. The exact nature of this event is unknown from either scriptures or secular historians. Attempts to find parallels in Josephus have been unproductive. Pilate commonly monitored Jewish feasts rather closely since Jewish nationalism often flourished during such feasts.] The question led Jesus to address whether suffering comes by a deliberate choice of man (Pilate’s violence) or by an accidental disaster (the falling tower of Siloam). Such questions, common among those who have experienced tragedy (remember the aftermath of 9/11?), reflect Jewish beliefs about divine retribution.

Some view the Jewish leaders’ question as an attempt to align Jesus against the Romans or the Jews. If true, in typical fashion, Jesus wisely avoids the trap and gets to the heart of the issue. His point is that since the future is uncertain, we must make necessary spiritual changes today. In other words, catastrophe should always be a catalyst for spiritual change. Jesus teaches several principles that are instructive for counseling toward a spirit of change.

Explanation: When Tragedy Strikes

First, Jesus reminds us that tragedy is inevitable (vv. 1-5). In discussing the two disasters of Pilate’s violence and the falling tower of Siloam, Jesus indicates that tragedy occurs without warning. Neither the Galileans nor the tower workmen anticipated such a crisis. Such uncertainty, although unsettling, should prompt us to recognize our vulnerability (“ye shall all likewise perish”). The word “likewise” compares the victims in Jesus’ day with His listeners, including us today. Few will die in the same way, but we will all die.

Second, Jesus demonstrates that tragedy strikes all kinds of people, regardless of their spiritual standing with God. These individuals were not greater sinners than others because they suffered (vv. 3, 5). In fact, these were religious people (worshippers). One group died because of the decision of a local leader, while the other group died because of an accident. We usually cannot explain why one dies and another does not. [2. Consider Acts 12 in which James was executed but Peter spared.] Every day that we continue in life is a gracious gift from God.

Jesus also describes the proper response to tragedy—repentance. The religious and self-secure person may miss that point, since he or she often sees little need for a repentant response.

Repentance is a change of view concerning the person of Christ, a reorientation to life according to God’s standards. Ultimately, the question we should ask daily is “What will my relationship to Christ be today?” For the unbeliever, the issue is one of eternal consequence. For believers, the issue is one of right fellowship with their heavenly Father. Will believers properly orient themselves to the demands of Jesus, or will they follow their own directives? Disaster of any kind should produce an evaluation of one’s relationship with Christ, resulting in a correct orientation toward Him. Resistance to change will lead to spiritual disaster. Even for the faithful believer, each crisis is an opportunity to reassess attitudes, goals, priorities, decisions, and potential blind spots.

Jesus uses the parable of a fig tree to elucidate His point further. Jesus reminds us that even in the absence of tragedy, we need to produce a life of fruitfulness. The danger in talking about disaster is that those who have escaped disaster thus far often develop a false sense of security. We cannot wait until catastrophe strikes to assess our relationship with God, since God is already assessing that relationship. Jesus’ desire, therefore, is spiritual fruitfulness in response to whatever crisis we face (vv. 6-9). The tone of the text here is one of urgency, since God’s patience, while vast, does have its limitations (vv. 7-8). The real issue is not whether I can attach some significance to a particular point of suffering, but how I respond to the Lord through that disaster. In other words, I cannot determine when or why a crisis hits, but I can determine the spiritual outcomes based on my responsiveness to God through the crisis.

Implication: How to Respond to Tragedy

What does this mean for the biblical counselor? First, a counselor should provide comfort and a vision of the spiritual growth the suffering person can experience. Reminding the individual that “this is another enormous opportunity to see how much you need God” provides a glimpse of hope and a spiritual goal to attain.

Second, the counselor and counselee should be attentive to spotting areas needing theological readjustment. We should be careful to place the emphasis on adjusting our belief system rather than merely changing behavior. Such work calls for a change of heart/mind (repentance) that changing behavior does not produce. For example, a person can stop displaying his anger by force of will while still remaining angry and bitter inside. A person, however, who recognizes God’s sovereign purpose in suffering and who trusts God through the suffering will not become bitter toward God or others. A biblical belief system changes behavior. Here we see real fruit! This work of God is often called the “refining process.” We do not have to like the crisis, but we can enjoy the wonderful outcome the crisis produces.

Third, the counselor can remind the individual that if he or she bypasses the growth process, the opportunity is wasted. God might soon provide another similar opportunity for growth. Often, people who have experienced tragedy are eager to “get through” the problem as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Such a response compounds the tragedy because now the person misses the key purpose for the crisis—growth. Furthermore, instead of one supreme purpose for the tragedy (which we may never understand), God intends to work a multiplicity of purposes into a variety of lives for His glory (cf. Rom. 8:28-30). What a great God! Only He can paint a masterpiece on a canvas of despair. Only He can generate brilliant light out of devastating darkness.

Fourth, we should be careful to remind the counselee constantly of our Savior’s intercessory work on his or her behalf (Heb. 2:18; 4:14-16; 7:25). Frequently, the reminder to “trust God” and to “see His grand purpose” feels more like salt than salve in a wound. The person needs the assurance of Jesus’ presence more than the assurance of His purpose. The counselee will come to realize the purposes over time as he or she knows God better.

In one concise Scripture passage, Jesus supplies a theology of tragedy—a theology that directs a sufferer through the dark and frightening corners of crisis. When we understand that catastrophe should always be a catalyst for spiritual change, we can enjoy the presence of Jesus in the suffering and find purpose through the suffering. This reality is why our need for Christ becomes crucial in times of confusion. His all-knowing presence makes sense of the most confusing of crises and adds purpose and profound meaning to our problems. The counselor has the blessed opportunity to help the counselee discover Christ’s presence and purpose.

Originally published Winter/Spring 2005

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