Where is God when Violence Happens in Churches?
We want the world to make sense. If God allows a lunatic to walk into a church and murder people while they are worshiping Him—how can we continue to believe He is listening to our prayers, or that He exists at all? It shakes us to our core—we are horrified, saddened, and infuriated. We feel in the deepest possible ways how wrong this is.
We look around the crime scene and we wonder, "where is God?"
We should pay special attention to the first places our eyes and our hearts try to find Him. We might learn that we have some false notions of who our God actually is, and where He can be found.
Here are five places we will not find Him and the one place He has been all along:
1. We will not find Him in safety.
If our first thought is that God failed to keep His promises to the victims who were martyred for their faith in the Texas Sutherland Massacre (and other recent shootings), then we may have a distorted notion of what God's promises actually are. If the first thing we do is either check to make sure our concealed weapon is still there to protect us, or fantasize about getting one as soon as possible — we may be looking for God in safety rather than by faith in Jesus. God may keep us safe, but He will not be found in the pursuit of safety.
"I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them." Revelation 6:9-11
2. We will not find Him in comfort.
If our first thought is that God didn't hold up His end of the deal by giving the victims an abundant life of blessing and protection from the ugliness and violence of this world, then we may be putting our hope in false ideas about what the Gospel actually proclaims. We are followers of Jesus—who was poor, homeless, despised and constantly under the threat of violent opposition. A wealthy man once said he wanted to follow Jesus, to which Jesus warned him that he wouldn't like it:
"But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” Matthew 8:19-21
"And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Matthew 10:38-39
3. We will not find Him in retaliation.
If you're like me and your first thought is murderous rage against the vile criminal who walked into a peaceful church and killed people while they were worshiping God—targeting babies and children with his deranged black heart—it might be a very human response but it is not where we will find God. We may be tempted to call down fire like James and John but that is not the mission of the church.
“Lord, should we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them saying, "You don't know what spirit you are of." Luke 9:53-55
"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:9
4. We will not find Him in fear.
If our first reaction is a temptation to hide, to stay at home because we are afraid to gather boldly with believers for fear that something might happen to us, then we have failed to understand the spiritual war we are battling. We are not to retreat, we are to be strong and courageous—no matter how it looks all around us, we have been promised victory and glory, but we must walk by faith and not by sight. If we are looking for God, we will not find Him by cowering alone.
"I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Matthew 6:18
"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm." Ephesians 6:12-13
5. We will not find Him in despair.
It might be tempting to give up—to rage against the heavens and close our heart to God. It might seem like the only way forward is to embrace the void, fall into the blackness and declare, "I will have nothing to do with a God that allows such terrible things to happen." When we do this, we set ourselves in the place of God and we make ourselves His judge—even when we try to believe that He is not there.
This is never the path to peace, meaning or sanity.
In doing this, we embrace the very meaninglessness that allows evil to exist in the first place. It's only in the delusional mind of the person who thinks there is no God (or they themselves are God) that violent and murderous acts can be embraced and carried out. If God is not the standard of what is right and good, then there is no standard other than what each person thinks is right in their own eyes. Embracing despair and hatred for God is the very thing that led the murderer to walk into the church and do what he did.
"The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good." Psalm 14:1
1. We will find Him in the Cross.
So, where should we look to find God when something this terrible happens? Where should our eyes look to find meaning and answers? How can we make sense out of the evil that is all around us?
Most churches have a visible reminder of where we can find our hope when deadly tragedy strikes close to home—a lot of Christians even wear it around their neck. Does it seem strange the way the church has lifted up the symbol of Jesus' death? Why would they want to think about crucifixion? It was to remind them that death cannot stop us because it is not the end.
Since the beginning, it has been impossible to discourage the church by acts of terror and violence because that's how it was born. It was by Jesus' death on the cross that the power of death was destroyed.
The attitude of the church has always been an echo of Jesus' words, ""Don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28) In the same chapter, Jesus said that He didn't come to bring immediate peace but the violence of a sword, that He was sending His church out like sheep among wolves. Then He showed us exactly what the life of faith was going to look like as He was nailed to a cross and bled to death saying:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
Our hope isn't that we're going to escape a bloody death—maybe we will, maybe we won't—no promises. Our hope is that no matter what happens to us, we will also rise. Death will not be the end. Why else do you think the early Christians buried each other with crosses on the grave markers? Many of them were killed by enemies while worshiping and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus, too. They had all seen people murdered on crosses—why did they embrace the cross as a symbol of hope?
You know why. Just like Jesus rose from the dead, He promised they would, too.
"The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to us who are experiencing salvation it is the power of God." 1 Corinthians 1:18-19
I want life to make sense, too—but I'm right there with you. When unimaginable evils happen, I'm tempted to look for God in safety, comfort, and revenge. When I can't find Him there, I get scared and start to doubt everything I believe about His goodness. I might not have written this for you, I may have written it for me. I need to remember that the one place we are promised to find answers for the evils in this troubled world is in the cross of Christ.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
This world only makes sense when we look at it through the light of that truth.