It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. (Acts 12:1-4)
Last Sunday as New Life Church (newlifecma.com) was gathered for worship here in Clarkfield, Minnesota, an intruder infiltrated a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and gunned down 26 unsuspecting people, more than half the congregation. Many of them were children. In the aftermath of horror, this has been a week of shock and mourning for Christians around the country.
On Tuesday morning someone from our church asked me the inevitable question, “Where was God?” Those three short words unleash a gusher of highly charged queries. How could God allow something like this to happen? Why didn’t he protect his people, especially the innocent children? Is it unjust for a good God to allow such suffering?
Ironically, the very moment the tragedy was unfolding 1,200 miles away in Texas, we were studying a similar horror in Acts 12:1-4 in which early Christians were persecuted and James the Apostle was beheaded by King Herod. The Bible reports this terrible event and several other such evils without commentary. There isn’t even a record about how the survivors mourned their devastating loss.
Both Scripture and experience teach us that we live in a broken world. From the time the curse entered God’s creation in Genesis 3 until the time the curse is lifted in Revelation 22, we live in a society frustrated by futility. Things go wrong—very wrong—and we simply don’t have very satisfying answers. The bereaved pastor in Sutherland Springs put it this way, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.”
Moreover, we can’t fix the problem of evil. We can’t bring back the victims. We can’t recall the bullets. The fact that this mass shooting took place in a church rather than a gay nightclub means nothing. Followers of Jesus, even the most obedient of Christians, aren’t exempt from the pain and loss of our fallen planet. Sometimes the good die young. Sometimes the wicked live into old age. Life under the sun isn’t fair, at least by our standards.
Actually, people ask “Where was God?” all the time. We asked it after the Twin Towers fell on 9-11. We asked it after an F5 tornado flattened Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. Someone even made a documentary movie about that tornado with the title, “Where was God?” We’ve asked this hard question several times in recent weeks – after hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and shootings. Where was God? Why didn’t he intervene? Does he care? Is he even there? For followers of Jesus, a church shooting may seem like the worst evil of all. But it’s really no worse than the other catastrophes. A nightclub shooting might even be the worst catastrophe, especially if we consider that many victims there weren’t prepared for eternity.
The friend who asked me “Where was God?” during the shooting also tested an answer with me. He said God was on his throne – and he is right. God still rules the world. Therein lies our hope. We can see God on his throne in the story about the rescue of Peter from prison, which is recorded immediately after the beheading of James. We can even laugh at the humor in it. (I’ll write about that in another post.) God doesn’t always deliver us from evil, but if we suffer in his sovereign will, he will deliver us through it.
The broken world is not out of control. Evil is not all-powerful or unrestrained, even though it may seem like to us. We are not victims of unbridled evil. If the events of last Sunday have you doubting God’s goodness or power, consider the rescue of Peter (Acts 12:5-19) or glance ahead to the following story in Acts 12:19-25. There we can see how God punished wicked King Herod after he killed James.
God is still on his throne. We can respond with joy and hope.