Christian Living

How Christians Can Deal with Tragedy

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/13/2013

It’s a good thing before trials come to put our thoughts in proper order about how to deal with difficulties and tragedies that God allows in our lives, and not to let them shake us from what the Truth is, if we are in possession of it.

Friends of mine in Northern California, Neil and Anna, like a lot of Christian couples at one time or another, met with tragedy last year: the loss of a child. Their second child was born just before Thanksgiving—a second little girl, Caroline—and soon after, they found that the baby had serious medical complications. Then they learned that the baby might not make it, which is what happened. They lost her just nine days after she was born.

Most Christians don’t go through this kind of tragedy, but we go through other difficult things. And when bad things happen, we are shaken in our confidence because, though we understand how this can happen in theory, we don’t always understand how it can happen to us.

What was sweet about my friends’ circumstance is the way that Neil and Anna dealt with this before the Lord, and how their theological convictions and their understanding of apologetics informed the way they dealt with this tragedy. In other words, they had a robust Christian worldview. And when I say “robust,” I mean more than just their belief that Jesus died for their sins.

The Christian worldview is so much more expansive than the central truths that sit on the threshold of the Christian relationship with God. In other words, those fundamental beliefs are at the doorway. They’re what we put our trust in to get into relationship with God. But the Christian worldview and the way it influences our life is so much more than those basic and necessary beliefs. It’s sad that so many Christians are still just inside the doorway, in terms of their views. They don’t know enough about Christianity to richly inform their lives the way the truths of Christianity, which are the truths of reality, informed the life of Neil and Anna as they faced this tremendous challenge emotionally, spiritually, and personally.

I’d like to read to you a section of what Anna wrote in reflection soon after her newborn baby died. This picks up at the point in which they realized that their baby is not just sick, but she will likely die, lost to them, at least for this time.

Anna Mammen wrote:

Caroline’s death was now a very real possibility [based on the news they’d just received]. I remember everything turning black and feeling like the bed was going to open up and swallow me. I felt my heart had been ripped from my chest, and that I was freefalling into the blackest abyss I could imagine. And I didn’t know what to do. I kept asking, “What do I do? I don’t know what to do! How can this happen?”

I also remember saying, “How will we go on? How will I raise my first daughter, Mary Katherine?” Neil [her husband] held me, and we cried, and I sobbed. And then my mom came in, and she cried with us, and I sobbed, and we prayed, and then my mom left us alone, and I sobbed some more.

And then Neil started feeding me...and feeding me...feeding me lines of Truth. He gently said, “She’s not ours. We don’t deserve her. This happens every day, all over the world. We’re not special. We will go on. We will have more kids. We will not let this harden us.” And I was comforted.

Now, you may think that those are strange things to say and to take comfort in, but let me tell you why it wasn’t for us. You see, when I met Neil, he had two passions that stood out. One was for something known as apologetics: investigation to questions such as, “Is the Bible True?” I mean, really capital-T True, or is it full of errors? Is it a book of fairy tales and wishful thinking? How can you trust that it’s accurate? Isn’t it just a copy of a copy of a copy? Is there solid evidence that Jesus ever even lived at all, much less died and rose again? Are the places and people in the Bible real? What sources outside of the Bible can back up the Biblical accounts of history? Is there enough evidence to be convincing? Would it hold up in a court of law? How does evidence for the Truth of Christianity compare for the evidence of other religions?

Now, why I’m bringing this up is because in that moment, up until that time—the worst day in my life—I was so thankful I didn’t have the added burden of questioning my belief and faith in God, and that’s because I hadn’t made the decision to become a Christian based on tradition or emotion. I had a faith that stood upon reasonable evidence.

Second, Neil and I both grew up in homes passionate about theology. For the nine years we’ve been married, we’ve enjoyed discussing the tough questions of life and death and God and reality, questions like, “Is God good? Uninvolved? Indifferent?” “If God is good, why does He allow suffering in the world?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “What about miracles? Who gets them, and when, and why? Are they only for the really good people? How does my faith play into miracles?” “Does God punish His people?”

We read and chew on and discuss and argue and go to conferences and listen to podcasts on long road trips about these issues, because we find them interesting and worthwhile, and they are part of the diet of our lives. So, when I found myself face to face with that black abyss, Neil fed me the statements of solid conclusions we’d already thought through, and it stabilized me.

I know that for me, personally, cherubs and clichés of guardian angels and some fuzzy picture of an old man in the sky with a long beard wouldn’t have been enough, as my daughter lay dying 30 miles from my house. In fact, tradition and my religious upbringing instantly vanished, and couldn’t have been less important. But Neil reminded me of these Truths, and I grabbed hold of them, and they were my lifeline.

Then she explains, one by one, what Neil meant by the statements of Truth that he fed her that were reminders of what she knew, and stabilized and comforted her in the midst of this tremendous loss, though clearly it did not take away the pain of the loss.

I think this is an important part of their perspective on their tragedy and a point that I want you to get, which is the reason that I’m reading Anna Mammen’s words. Here are the Truths: “She is not ours. We don’t deserve her. This happens every day all over the world. We’re not special.” Here’s what those things meant. Here’s the substance of them.

“She’s not ours.” [Neil] meant that she’s God’s. She, like you and I, were made in His image, with a purpose and a set number of days, and has a life beyond the nine months [while she, Caroline, was growing in her mother, Anna] and the nine days on this earth. While we pray she touches your hearts and she changes us, makes us more sensitive, softer, and loving, makes this world a better place, beyond all that, she is a soul eternal. She isn’t a concept in the past tense. She’s her own precious person, still existing right now.

Neil said, “We don’t deserve her.” He meant we are fallen. We are imperfect people who fall short of the glory of God, yet He saved us. Every good gift, including the nine days with Caroline, comes from Him. Throughout our marriage, Neil has made comments, whenever blessings have come our way, that we are undeserving of them. We get a new car, and he’d at some point say, “You know, we don’t deserve this.” When we bought our home, at some point, he’d comment, “We’ve been so blessed. You know, we don’t deserve any of this.” And then I’d respond, “I know, I know. You’re right.” And when Mary Katherine was born, we said the same thing. So when he said, “We don’t deserve Caroline,” I knew exactly what he meant, and I agreed, and the blessing of our coming to the conclusion that we don’t deserve something, that we aren’t owed or entitled to anything by God, is that it stops the root of bitterness and anger from taking hold and growing.

In other words, what she’s saying is she could be thankful for what she was given, because that’s on the plus side. And she was only given nine days with her daughter Caroline, but she didn’t even deserve the nine days, and they take those nine days as a blessing, and see the blessing that continues to follow, even after Caroline is gone.

Neil said, “This happens every day, all over the world. We’re not special.” Again, that’s true. We are no more special than any of you. No one escapes suffering or death. When I look out across this room, my heart aches for what I know many of you have gone through, and are going through, in all kinds of scenarios, and even now, with our daughter right over there, [dying, as it turned out] throughout the course of this week, we’ve heard from some of you the tragic stories of your lives. And we’ve commented to each other, “How are they surviving that? Now, that would’ve been so hard. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to lose your mom, to face cancer, to suffer abuse, to manage chronic pain day in and day out.”

Then she concludes, after offering these reflections for our encouragement the things that have encouraged her, she says:

This is not the last of our suffering. And whatever you’ve been through, it’s not the last of yours, either. We aren’t special. And finally, Neil also said, “We know where Caroline’s going, and we will see her again.”

I know it must still be tremendously difficult for them. You can pray for God’s mercy to be heavy upon them, as I have been, and it will a long, long time before they get out from underneath the moment-by-moment pain of losing that baby.

Isn’t it interesting how knowledge of the Truth makes all the difference? And isn’t it sad how those who have not been enriched in knowledge of the Truth, both in the apologetics that were mentioned—the reasons why we believe what we believe—to hold us firmly during the tough times, and the theological understanding of how God works, who He is, and the reality that we’re not special.

As Christians, we’re not rescued from the contingencies of living in a fallen world. People all over the world suffer, including Christians. Sometimes people say, “Why would God allow this to happen to me?” Why wouldn’t He?

Tom Brewer, one of my first teachers in Christianity, said to me when I was but a year or so old in the Lord, “Jesus is not the bridge over troubled waters. But He will pull you through the troubled waters if you can stand the tow.” I have had many, many occasions to reflect on that as I faced my own troubled waters, and pled with God to rescue me out of them...which, as it turns out, He almost never does. When you think of the things that you’ve faced in your life, the hardships that have confronted you, and the times that you’ve prayed for God to change it, to end it, to take it away, to rescue you, to relieve you of this burden, how many times has He actually answered the prayer in that way? I would suggest, probably precious few. That certainly is true in my case. In fact, I can’t think, in 36 years, of any time when I have faced some crisis that I had some miraculous rescue.

The observation of my own life—and I think this is something the Mammens would agree with in the trial they’re facing right now—is that God doesn’t usually rescue us out of troubles, but rescues us in them, rescues us through them. Sometimes He does rescue us out of it by some sovereign act of grace. But generally, that doesn’t happen. By His sovereign act of grace, He rescues us through it. And when we look back on it after it’s over, we say, “I’d never want to go through that again.” But isn’t it true that most of the time we look back and say, “I’m glad I did go through it for what God did in me in the midst of that”? And that’s the way He rescues us.

It’s a good thing before trials come to put our thoughts in proper order about how to deal with difficulties and tragedies that God allows in our lives, and not to let them shake us from what the Truth is, if we are in possession of it.

[The above article is a transcript from a Stand to Reason radio commentary.]