Jim Pace has heard the question - and variations on it - more times than he can count: Where is God when bad things happen? The co-pastor of Virginia Tech-based student church New Life Christian Fellowship (NLCF) was sitting in a coffee shop less than a mile off campus when the horrors of April 16, 2007 unfolded.
Three years have passed since Seung-Hui Cho shocked the nation by killing and wounding dozens of students on what should have been a routine day of classes. In the weeks and months following the tragedy, Pace struggled to find -- and articulate -- real answers to the "soul-ripping" questions he encountered from those around him and within himself. His recently released book, Should We Fire God? is the fruit of this struggle, and Pace hopes the book will help believers and non-believers alike find answers to some of their toughest questions about God.
As a Virginia Tech alumna and former LifeGroup leader with NCLF, I especially looked forward to speaking with Jim about his book. Check out our conversation below.
Crosswalk: Just to start off, could you just give us some background? What was April 16th and the days following like for you, and how was that a defining moment in your faith and pastorate?
Jim Pace: It was just weird. You would think being a writer I could explain it better than that. It was weird.
I grew up really not following Jesus. I mean I was kind of anti-Christian. And these issues of God's goodness and other things like that were always reasons I never really got that involved. So for me coming to Christ, I had to deal with a lot of these issues. And doing a ministry in a university town, I am surrounded by well-informed, intelligent cynics and skeptics. So tough questions have just been a part of my faith journey, ministry, everything.
When the shootings happened, it was like a spark was lit. These became things that instead of talking about it maybe once or twice, three times a month with somebody, I was talking about it almost constantly. That has framed how I perceive God, because those are things that I've had to sort through again freshly.
CW: You wrote that the days following the tragedy, you felt like a spokesman for a God who didn't do a very good job, it seems. What were some of the toughest questions you received after the shooting?
JP: When I was a guest on Good Morning America, they received these emails from people. And one girl, I think a 14-year-old from Topeka, Kansas, said, "I don't feel safe going to school." Diane Sawyer turns to me and says, "What would you say to this young woman to make her feel better?" This was on live television, right?
I think looking at [it] honestly, some of the most emotionally intense were just people that were [saying], "Why in the world did God not warn my boyfriend or my girlfriend or my daughter to just get out of the building?" Or you talk to the guy who was the last guy to make it out of one of the rooms that got shot up, and everybody after him was killed… he made it out the window. Or you talk to the girl who literally hid under a dead body when Seung-Hui Cho was in the room. What in the world was God doing? I get that he doesn't stop everything. I get that sometimes I get a flat tire, and my car breaks down. But he should have seen this! Those are just soul-ripping questions.
CW: You're very candid about your own questioning in the book. I found it striking that you even said that you still sometimes feel mad at God for not taking Cho's life before he could take everyone else's. What was most helpful for you in resolving these questions and reconciling what happened with your trust in God?
JP: There were a number of things just kind of over time. There were almost different seasons. I think one very powerful interaction with God - and part of the book is about this - is really reflecting on if God were to do what I asked him to do, which is stop this, and then if he did what other people that are hurt asked him to do, which is stop the next thing and the next thing, where does God stop stopping? Is there any pain that is acceptable, that we would say, "Yes, you can let this through"?
And I don't say that in a way to minimize the suffering the families went through. I can't imagine... I am getting choked up now. But the issue that God must deal with, that he has to, is where the end of the list is of what he allows. And if he doesn't allow any suffering, then what are we left with?
In the book, I talk about people that struggle and battle against cancer. And I know people -- in my family and others -- where the oncologist said, "You know, there's just nothing we can do." The reality is there is always something else the doctor can do. But if they do that thing -- say there's a tumor in your brain -- well, if you take it out, then you do damage; there's nothing left. If God honestly stopped everything so that we were never harmed, I think we would stop being real. As horrible as this was and as difficult as it still is as we're coming up now on the anniversary, I just don't think that's better.
CW: You mentioned the anniversary, and one quote that really stuck out to me is, "The really sticky issues for me have always dealt with why a God who claims to be capable, loving, and aware, could allow such suffering to occur for so long." That last part stuck out to me, because I think, so often, we hit a rough period in life, and we have this adrenaline; we attack it with faith and fervor. But then suffering drags on, and it gets difficult. Now that it has been several years, have the questions changed at all? Are there new challenges?
JP: I think everybody I talk with about it seems to be at a slightly different place. One of the things that I hear when I talk to my friends from Latin America or that have connections in Latin America is that when something terrible happens, they don't have a classically American response of, "God, will you please remove this?" When difficulty happens, their response tends to be, "Will you give me the strength to walk through this well?"
I think a lot of people I know [here], their views of suffering have changed. Functionally, in terms of the amount of violence, a lot of us at Virginia Tech hadn't faced that before. And so this reminded us, okay, there isn't that blanket of protection. How do I pursue God in such a way that I can meaningfully have faith in the midst of the world as I see that it is now, not as I thought it was? That wasn't what it really was?
The honest fact is this has created a problem between a lot of people and God that has not been fixed yet. But the ones that are pursuing him really intensely through this, I think their view is, "Okay, so this is how it is. Can you provide me the grace and the strength so that I can walk through this well?"
CW: Some would say it's not okay to question God or get angry at him. What would you say to someone with that perspective?
JP: I'd say, "Praise God that this thought is mostly gone!" I can understand the idea. If you teach kids it's okay to talk back to their parents, then they don't get to a certain point where they think, "Oh, I've talked back enough. I'm ready to respect them!" And so I understand the premise, the reasoning, of don't question him. I just don't think it's good.
I think we live in a world that has not existed very long. It has only been about 100 or 150 years where we've had cameras. Now, we have high-definition televisions where we can see suffering almost the moment that it happens. When the horrible earthquakes in Sichuan, China, happened, they had video feed of the damage before aid workers could get to the scene.
When we can see that much pain that clearly, it makes us ask questions of God, especially in a world where we value helping people if you can. And we value personal liberties and choice. The way the world seems to be going runs flat up against those values. So I think it's necessary to ask him these questions.
CW: You mention helping. As a pastor, what are some practical thoughts you have on how we can help those that are experiencing crisis or tragedy?
JP: When Katrina happened, you needed people to drive down truckloads of bottled water and things like that. That mobilizing almost felt better than something like this. I was getting calls every day, "I'm hopping in the car right now, and I'm bringing 10 clinical psychologists with me. You just line up the people." I ended up telling most of those callers, "Please, turn around, go back home, tell me where you are. And then we're sending our students home for the summer in about a week. Give them free counseling when they get there."
What you have to be able to do is allow the Lord and allow the people that are on the ground to guide. And then when you are in that moment, I found sometimes the most valuable thing - this is so simple, but maybe it takes me a while to learn this - is I just sat in silence, and I just let them let it out. I let them say things about the world and about God that they know aren't right, but they needed to say them. It's a good thing to give people soothing words, but sometimes those words can be thrown around very callously.
CW: Is there anything else on your mind that you want to share with the readers before we wrap up?
JP: I think one of the things is that this book is born out of the Virginia Tech shootings, certainly. Quite literally, there is a publisher that heard some of my interviews on CNN, and that's how it got started. But it's not a book about the shootings. It really is about that point where you just get to a breakdown, and you think this doesn't make any sense anymore. You say that you are loving and aware and strong, but what I see is not that at all. God, until you and I get this sorted out, we can't move forward -- whether you are a follower of Jesus or not.
The book moves the conversation along, gets people a little unstuck. Then I just get out of the way and let them and God take it from there. That's the hope of it.
CW: It has been several years, you've been through a lot and you've written this book. Do you feel like it is realistic to have a strong trust in God even in the difficulties of life?
JP: This has almost made it stronger for me. Because the thing that tragedy does is it makes you lose your confidence in what you trusted… the world as a safe place that will hand you a comfortable life, etc. And what you have to do then is you have to reflect. Some say, "Well, I don't know how to sort this out with God" or "I just can't move in this anymore," and your faith actually becomes much weaker. Mine became stronger, where it's like this is the way the world is. This is exactly what the scriptures say will happen. It doesn't say there is going to be a shooter on the campus. But Jesus says, "Look, it hates me. It's going to hate you." He said, "Look, this life is going to be full of difficulties. There is an abundance of trials."
It made me appreciate the fact that God played by his own rules. He doesn't protect me fully from it, but he hasn't protected himself either. He sent his son who walked on the earth, lived through this, walked through pain himself. God knows what it's like to lose a kid, because he's lost one. I would have never done that. It's too painful. And so it made me appreciate the commitment and the risk, that God is committed until the time he feels is right so that we have a chance to be real. And I think that's amazing.
CW: I really appreciate your time, thank you very much! For more information on Should We Fire God? visit http://www.jimpace.org/should-we-fire-god/.
April 16, 2010