Yesterday in Sunday school the man sitting a few seats from me raised his hand but was never called on by the teacher. After the class had dispersed I asked him what he had wanted to say. He replied, “I have lost my faith.” Then added, “Where was God?”
He didn’t need to explain. Newtown, Conn., is the elephant in every room since Friday. I myself have been so continually heavy-hearted that my husband warned against obsession, and then, as if given a sudden insight, switched to saying that if this is the way I am feeling, then maybe the Spirit has put it on my heart so that I can pray. How many of us older folks have gone around with a sentiment similar to the Apostle Paul’s, that we could wish ourselves accursed if by our deaths those children could live (Romans 9:2-3).
Now I happen to remember that two weeks earlier in the same Sunday school class the man had raised his hand to comment that soon this nation and this world will be going through “three-and-a-half years” of the worst suffering the world has ever known. The remark went nowhere, partly because it didn’t precisely fit the topic under discussion, and partly because it was an uncomfortable remark in any context around here.
Nevertheless, the “three-and-a-half years” teaching is definitely in the Bible (Revelation 11), and definitely means something, whether it is a literal or symbolic number. So it came to my mind to answer the man yesterday with his own convictions. I said to him, “Perhaps the Lord is sparing those children the three-and-a-half years of suffering ahead. What do you think?” He was stunned to silence, but later found me in the church and said he was comforted by the thought.
The question of “Where was God?” will doubtless arise in other churches besides mine. So maybe this is as good a time as any to address it. Firstly, we should realize that though this is new pain, it is not new theology. Why should it take us by surprise that evil is real? Why should it surprise us when Peter’s words are demonstrably true, that the devil is a roaring lion seeking someone to devour? We saw his handiwork at the Twin Towers and recently in a suicide bomb in a church in Nigeria.
Why should it surprise us that God does not step in to stop every plan of gospel-spurning man? He did not stop Eve, or Cain, or Herod’s soldiers as their steeds rode off to the murder of the innocents in Bethlehem. And most interestingly, He did not stop the delegation of soldiers led by traitorous Judas to Gethsemane, though Jesus pleaded with the Father with drops of blood. But what God did do in each case was have a plan to bring good out of evil.
As to the children of Newtown, we have a few handles in the Scriptures for how to think about this. One is Isaiah 57:1, which hints at mysterious surgical extractions from planet earth of those God wants to shelter from coming calamity. Another is God’s reassurance to Abraham (Genesis 18) that He knows how to make distinctions in his dispensations of judgment. Another is His stated compassion on those who cannot tell their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11). Finally there is Jesus’ special heart for children. Who has ever seen to the bottom of that great heart?
Is there a better time than now to repeat those words of Jesus to ourselves?
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:10-14).