In December 2012, I traveled down to South Carolina to visit my sister and her family. My nephew was graduating from college, and we had the entire weekend ahead of us to celebrate his big day.
On Friday, we were sitting around the house, relaxing and killing time. That’s when we first heard the news, on CNN or the radio or a text message … something or someone telling us that a gunman had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, murdering students and teachers there.
The first thought that came to my mind, “Please not again.” It seemed like we had been through all of this before—too many times. Columbine. Virginia Tech. And now Sandy Hook. The feelings of sadness and shock seemed familiar.
And later, another thought, where in the world was God in all of this?
Over the course of the next few weeks and months, I really didn’t watch or read much about Sandy Hook. Plain and simple, it was just too heavy for me. When I did catch glimpses of the school building or the families or the surroundings, it reminded me of when our family had lived in Connecticut. Things looked much the same at our children’s elementary school. I felt a connection to the tragedy, even though I didn’t personally know anyone who’d been affected by it.
Questions continued to linger in the back of my mind. What if that had been our kids? Could we have moved forward and maintained our faith after something as terrible as that?
In the summer of 2013, author Philip Yancey released a book called The Question That Never Goes Away. In it, Philip tackles the “why” of Sandy Hook and other tragedies. He asks, and then attempts to answer … What role does God play in tragedy and suffering? … Why would God allow these things to happen?
I saw the book and thought, “It’s time.” It was time to work through some of the emotions I’d set aside. It was time to hear the full story of Sandy Hook and to process the events of that day (and other days like it) with the help of a guy I trust—Philip Yancey.
I’m glad I did.
The book brought me to tears—or close to them—several times. It helped me … as Yancey’s books always do.
In one section that particularly moved me, Philip wrote about the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan—a “horrifying day” that brought about well over 15,000 deaths. There was the tragedy, and then there was hope that God and people of faith brought afterwards.
Here’s an excerpt from The Question That Never Goes Away:
I met with some of the retired contractors and construction workers who had signed on with Samaritan’s Purse to rebuild houses swept away by the tsunami. They were living in cramped communal housing and worked long hours without pay. “We don’t proselytize,” one told me. We don’t need to—the people know why we’re here. We’re simply followers of Jesus trying to live out his commands. Just before handing owners the key to their new home we ask if we can pray a blessing on the house. So far no one has turned us down.
A question or two remained in my mind, long after I’d put the book down.
When Philip mentioned “the God of grace and mercy I have learned to love,” I felt a connection, but I thought … Why is it so difficult for some of us to learn to love God? … If He is truly the “God of all comfort,” why doesn’t love for (and trust in) Him come more naturally?
So I emailed these questions to Philip, and here’s what he had to say:
My quick answer to your question is that we tiny little humans are relating to a God of the universe who happens to be invisible, to us at least. We're sensory beings, and don't have a lot of experience in relating to spirit beings. How do you love what you can't see? That takes faith. We tend to judge God's love by the circumstances of our lives, despite clear evidence that God's love isn't dependent on those circumstances. I think that's why we have the clear example of Jesus, a God of all comfort in person, on earth. I emphasize that if we are unhappy and grieved by what happens on planet earth, God is far more grieved and upset.
This makes sense to me. The idea that God is far more grieved and upset by these events than we are … yes, this is certainly the God I have learned to love.
If you’d like to hear more from Philip, he blogs at PhilipYancey.com. Also, if you’d like to check it out, he’s got a new small group study coming out this fall called Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News?