Bryan Holcombe was the guest preacher for the day. His wife Karla came to worship with him, along with their son Marc Daniel, their pregnant daughter-in-law, Crystal, and their grandchildren, Noah, Emily, Megan, and Greg. Then Devin Kelley opened fire, killing them all.
Joe Holcombe, Bryan’s eighty-six-year-old father, was left to mourn the generations he had raised. “We know where they are now,” he said. “All of our family members, they’re all Christian. And it won’t be long until we’re with them.”
Pastor Frank Pomeroy lost his teenage daughter and much of his congregation. When asked how to make sense of the tragedy, he said, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.”
The “hardest thing” to understand
God gives us free will so we can choose to love him and others (1 Peter 2:16). If he prevents the consequences of our misused freedom, we are not truly free.
And yet, there are times in Scripture when he does just that. God spared Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace to which they were consigned by King Nebuchadnezzar’s egotism (Daniel 3:27). He sent his angel to free Peter after he was imprisoned by King Herod (Acts 12:6-11).
If God sometimes saves us from the sins of others, why did he not intervene in Sutherland Springs? Why did he not spare the children, teenagers, and adults who were gathered to worship him?
I am convinced that our Father redeems all he allows. Sometimes his redemption is obvious and clearly justifies his decision to allow what he redeems. But when horrific, innocent suffering happens, it is difficult for me to imagine how God could bring enough good to explain the evil.
I’m not the only person to face this dilemma.
Alvin Plantinga has been called “the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.” Winner of the 2017 Templeton Prize, he is without question one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history.
And yet, when asked about his toughest philosophical challenge, Dr. Plantinga replied, “The hardest thing to confront as a Christian philosopher is the problem of evil. It’s really hard to understand, even after thinking about it for many years, why God would permit so much evil in the world. You have to wonder, ‘Why does God permit that?’ I think we don’t know. I don’t think there’s a good answer to that. There are lots of suggestions people have made, theories people have tried out. But I don’t think any of them are very satisfactory. At the end, this is a puzzle.”
A hopeful word for hard times
Isaiah 40 finds the people of Israel enslaved in Babylon. Their temple has been destroyed, their sacrifices ended, their nation in ruins.
Understandably, the people are questioning God, claiming: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God” (v. 27). The nation believes that God either does not know about their suffering or he does not care.
He responds: “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (v. 28). Because he is “everlasting,” he knows all that happens wherever it happens. Because he is the creator of the world, he has the power to do all that his providence chooses.
In fact, “he gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength” (v. 29). These verbs are in the present tense, indicating that God is doing this right now.
Even though they do not see him at work in their suffering, he is. They do not know that he is raising up Cyrus and the Persian Empire, which will one day overthrow the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return home (Isaiah 45:1-7). In the same way, we cannot see all that God is doing in the circumstances of our world.
Here’s the key: “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). To “wait for” God means to place our entire trust in him with the certain expectation that he will do all that is right.
Those who choose to trust God in Babylon can claim four promises:
One: They “shall renew their strength” (v. 31a). The Hebrew indicates that they will have God’s strength, not just their own. All the power of the omnipotent Lord is available to them.
Two: They “shall mount up with wings like eagles” (v. 31b). They shall escape the shackles of this fallen world to “mount up,” not just like any bird, but “like eagles.” A crow can fly to five hundred feet; an eagle can fly to ten thousand feet.
Three: They “shall run and not be weary” (v. 31c). Those who depend on God for their strength will “run with endurance” the race set before them (Hebrews 12:1) until they have “finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Four: They “shall walk and not faint” (v. 31d). No matter their speed or circumstances, they will have all they need.
Not why but how
These promises do not explain why God allowed Babylon to enslave Israel or Devin Kelley to attack his people as they worshiped him. Like Alvin Plantinga, I believe that this issue is a mystery, like the Trinity, that our finite minds cannot fully comprehend.
But our text does tell us how to respond: by choosing to “wait for the Lord.” When we trust his will though we do not understand his ways, we find in him the strength we need to fly, run, and walk through the deepest valleys and darkest days.
Corrie ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor who experienced the worst sins of humanity, noted: “Faith sees the invisible, believes the unbelievable, and receives the impossible.”
Why do you need such faith today?
Photo: Law enforcement officials continue their investigation at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs as the sun begins to rise on November 6, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Yesterday a gunman, Devin Patrick Kelly, killed 26 people at the church and wounded many more when he opened fire during a Sunday service.
Photo courtesy: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Publication date: November 7, 2017
For more from the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, please visit www.denisonforum.org.
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