God is in Control—But Where Was He?
When the dead are counted, the number will be more than we can bear” said Mayor Giuliani. And so it is, the number 5,500 is more than we can bear.
Why did God not protect Washington and New York City?
The same question was asked back in A.D. 410, when Aleric the Goth overpowered the guards at the Salarian Gate and trashed the City of Rome. The citizens were angry, and blamed the disaster on the God of the Christians. They insisted that their own pagan gods would have done a better job of defending the city; but now the Empire had mandated belief in the Christian God who watched the barbarians ram the gate and did nothing. Could a God like that be trusted? If He was all-powerful why did He not intervene to defend the city?
In order to defend the God of the Christians, Augustine wrote a book titled, The City of God. He suggested that God had a different agenda than the people of the city. He had an eternal purpose revealed in Scripture.
Specifically, Augustine said there are two cities: the city of God and the city of man. The city of man was built by man, and reflects his dreams, hopes and pride. This city is earthly, temporal and capable of being destroyed. In fact, it will some day be totally obliterated.
There is, however, another city: the city of God. This city endures forever; this is the kingdom of God that gives meaning to the world. This is the city of the patriarchs and prophets, the city of the apostles and the church. This is the city “which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” This city cannot be destroyed.
Those who belong to the city of man lost everything when Rome was destroyed. But, although those who belonged to the city of God found the attack devastating, they were not thereby destroyed. Death and destruction could not deprive them from anything of eternal value, for they knew that, come what may, heaven awaited them.
Where was God when Rome was trashed? Where was God when terrorists devastated the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Where was God when children learned that their father was not coming back home? When mothers, brothers, sisters, and spouses were destroyed by evil men? Where was He?
God did not have a breakdown in His intelligence system. He was there when the hijackings were being planned; He was there when the plans were executed. He was there when New York burned.
If it is true, as C.S. Lewis has said, that “God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts to us in our pain” then God has just shouted to us with a bull horn from heaven. What is He saying to us?
First, the human heart is capable of great evil. We like to think that there is an invisible line that runs through the human race; on the one side are the good people, on the other the bad or evil people. The line does not run through the human race, but as Solzhenitzyn has taught us, it runs through the human heart. Yes, it is true that we have been touched by the heroism and sacrifice of the firefighters, many of whom gave their lives to save others. But, incredible though it might seem, at birth the human heart is about the same in all of us. The only thing that prevents us from great evil is God’s grace, our different cultures, our home life and, of course the choices we make.
The tragedy in New York revealed the human heart for what it is.
Second, these horrific events force us to sharply distinguish between that which is temporal and that which is eternal. The temporal and the eternal collided in New York. When you saw the towers fall—those were temporal. But when you saw people jump from the rubble; those were eternal human beings, who entered the gates of eternity.
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:10-13).
Death is sure; life is uncertain. Jesus told the story of a rich man who said, “I have much goods for many years, I will eat, drink and be merry….” Jesus said he was a fool because, that night his soul was demanded of him. The souls of more than five thousand people were unexpectedly demanded on September 11.
Two categories of people died in these tragedies; those who personally trusted Christ as Savior were taken immediately to heaven. They are even now in the presence of God, beholding the beauty of the Savior. They miss their families, but they would not return even if they could. And if their families have come to trust Christ, there will be a reunion in heaven, the likes of which we cannot imagine.
Then there are those who trusted in themselves; those who saw no need for a Savior. They entered a place called Hades; a place of boredom, monotony and suffering.
How are we to live in this new world of uncertainty? Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). After the terrorists killed the body, they did all that they could do. What they could not do is to destroy the soul—that eternal part of us that will survive the body.
What do we do with our bitterness and anger? The doctrine of heaven is comforting, but so is the doctrine of hell. How could we live in this world, unless we believe that God will personally judge every single action and that justice will be accurately dispensed?
Here is a test of Christian compassion: are you willing to pray for the terrorists who are still alive—those who have aided the evil ones who sacrificed their own lives to destroy others? Are you willing to pray that they would come to know Christ as Savior, or would you rather that they be in hell?
Third, God is reminding us that judgment is coming. Interestingly, the terrorists inflicted damage on the two symbols of our greatness: our wealth and our military power. New York and Washington represent us all—our values, our hopes, our dreams, our security, our investments. Yet what happened there on September 11 is a preview of final judgment. Read about the future Judgment of Babylon, and you will think you are reading about New York, Chicago and Los Angeles (Revelation 18:9-17).
Why would God use wicked people to get our attention? God gave Habakkuk a message that startled him, “Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people…” (1:5). God raised up people more evil than Israel to judge Israel. Just so, God may use people more evil than we to judge us.
No nation on earth has had as many blessings as the United States. We have more wealth than other nations; we have more Christian radio programs; more television programs, more books, more churches, more seminars, more counseling centers. And yet, we have more violence, more immorality and more false religion than almost any nation on earth. We have given expansive rights to pornographers, but have outlawed prayer. We have forgotten God.
Since all the sins in the world are in the church, let us point our fingers only at ourselves, for judgment must begin in the house of God. We’ve noticed that people who have not prayed for years have been praying since the disaster. Indeed, members of Congress actually attended a prayer service—on government property, no less!
Where was God when New York was burning? Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, tells of a time when he was in a concentration camp and was compelled, along with a few others, to witness the hanging of two Jewish men and one Jewish boy. The two men died instantly, but the boy struggled for perhaps a half hour on the gallows. “Where is God, where is He?” someone behind Wiesel muttered. Wiesel also felt the question springing to his heart.
“Where is God, where is He?” Then it was as if he heard a voice saying, “He is hanging there on the gallows.”
Yes, God was with that child on the gallows. But as Christians we also believe that God’s Son died on other gallows—a cross—so that we might never doubt the love of God. And to all who believe, the promise is given, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Let us move forward with the assurance of God’s presence. Augustine was right, “Whatever men build, men will destroy, so let’s get on with the business of building the kingdom of God.”
Forgiveness: You and God
“God might forgive, but we won’t” said a congressman after the horrific disaster of September 11. Many people, particularly the families of victims, are struggling with whether they have an obligation to forgive; or whether granting forgiveness is even proper for dead terrorists who felt no remorse for their planned actions, and for the living accomplices who delighted in the success of the attack.
Why should we forgive those who kill without conscience and scorn acts of human compassion? What should our attitude be toward those who do not request forgiveness, believing they are deserving of praise? Forgiveness sounds like a marvelous idea, until you are the one who has to do it.
Many people are angry, and rightly so. Anger is a legitimate and proper response to injustice. Confronted with hardness of heart on the part of religious leaders, Jesus “looked around at them in anger” (Mark 3:5). David wrote, “God is a righteous judge, who expresses his wrath every day” (Psalm 7:11). Those who are angry with injustice on the basis of principle and conviction have often bettered our world. Luther was angry at religious abuses; Wilberforce was angry at slavery; Martin Luther King was angry at racism. They illustrate that anger, properly channeled and controlled, can produce positive action.
But there is a warning, “In your anger, do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Anger can turn to resentment and bitterness, which like a cancer, pollutes the soul. This is why the Bible warns that we are not to take vengeance on our enemies, “Do not repay anyone for evil… Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17,19).
Of course Paul is not saying that evil doers should go unpunished. In the same context where he warns us to not take personal revenge, he says that the rulers of the state are God’s servants who do ‘not bear the sword for nothing’ (13:4). Vengeance must be distinguished from justice. It is the responsibility of the state to bring to justice those who violate the laws of the land. In our case, we must trust our president, the FBI and our law enforcement officials to punish those who aided and abetted the terrorists. Of course human justice can never be perfect; sometimes the innocent are judged along with the guilty, and sometimes the guilty are never brought into account.
Regardless, we are never to respond with “blind vengeance.” Any reprisals toward anyone of a certain class or group is not only unjust, but also unChristian. Indeed, even personal vengeance toward a proven enemy is forbidden (Romans 12:20,21).
So, what should be done with our anger and resentment? The answer lies in the word forgiveness. “But,” I’ve heard it said, “since God does not forgive those who don’t ask for His forgiveness, why should we?” Consider the words of Jesus, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3,4). This Scripture seems to say that we should only forgive when asked. Clearly, we are to repeatedly forgive a brother if he requests it, but nothing is said about what should be done if it is not requested.
If we say that forgiveness must always result in reconciliation, then of course forgiving the terrorists is impossible. But there is such a thing as one-sided forgiveness; we are invited to release our bitterness to God and commit our adversaries to Him. If not, the hurt and anger will destroy the human psyche and grieve the Holy Spirit. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger…along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31). The perpetrator has caused enough pain already; the only way to be free from his/her continuing influence is to put the matter aside by ‘forgiving’ our enemy. Thankfully, we can be free from vengeful anger without the cooperation of the terrorists. If not, we become their slaves.
The surviving victims of the Oklahoma terrorist attack have something to teach us. The media has reported what we would expect: those who have chosen to ‘forgive’ have experienced deeper personal healing than those who have chosen to nurse their bitterness. Those who thought that the execution of Timothy McVeigh would satisfy their desire for justice have been disappointed. Nothing can substitute for forgiveness.
“But where is justice?” we cry. How can we choose to ‘forgive’ men who deserve a fate worse than death? How can we surrender the anger that properly seeks compensation and revenge? Jesus faced our predicament and His example helps us, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus could forgive without surrendering His desire for justice. He felt no need to ‘even the score’ at the moment. He committed His plight to the Judge of the Universe and could wait for the final verdict.
Two thousand years have passed and those who mistreated Jesus and rejected His forgiveness have not yet been brought to justice. But a day is coming when they shall stand before the Father of the One they so cruelly wronged. Jesus is content to wait for that day, for His faith in the Father’s justice did not waver. Yes, we too can entrust ourselves to Him who judges justly.
And what if we do not feel like ‘letting go’? Keep in mind that forgiveness is not an emotion, it is a choice; it is an act that becomes a process. It is a daily commitment to die with Christ that we might have a future that is not bound by the past. We forgive much because we have been loved much.
The Christian is content with the fact that he is not called upon to execute personal justice; he is confident that God will do so in the final judgment and eternity awaits. The doctrine of heaven is comforting, but so is the doctrine of hell. Indeed, the Bible tells us that the wicked will be tormented “in the presence of the holy angels and the lamb.” Then we read, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:10,12).
The person who forgives terrorists develops patient endurance. He knows that justice will be meticulously served in God’s time and God’s way. He does not have to be resentful, for he is confident that no injustice will be left unaddressed; no wrong will be allowed to stand. Of course the Christian desires that even terrorists come to embrace Christ as Savior, so that their penalty might be borne by the Son of God. Such would magnify the true nature of the undeserved grace of God.
No wonder we shall sing for all of eternity, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Revelation 19:1,2, italics added). In anticipation of that day, we need not succumb to bitterness, because we know that ultimately the terrorists are God’s problem, not ours.