Colorado wildfires consumed inhabited acreage like the ground was covered with lighter fluid earlier this summer, and a then guy opened fire in a full suburban Denver movie theater. Tragedies are to be expected in a world east of Eden. Saying so is not calloused. It is realism—biblical realism. And yet realism is a thing that must be handled with care when reality is particularly harsh. This is not a scientifically verified opinion, but I gather from making my way in the world with others that most people don’t “do” the harsher realities of life well, for many reasons. That the default mode of many in the Aurora movie theater was to assume at first the shooter was some kind of actor is only a small proof of the overall percentage. The shooting, even as it really happened, seemed surreal. What does this say? It says most of us are in but not of reality.
Frankly, this aggravates most thinking Christians, similar to how the general population’s preference for portliness aggravates the disciplined nutritionist. But if the nutritionist chooses to denounce American eating habits amid the Tuesday evening crowd at Golden Corral, taking her stand for dietary righteousness between diners’ second visits to the chocolate waterfall and cotton candy machines, she’s seen to be spoiling the pig-out. Likewise, if the Christian’s response to a nationally attuned tragedy is to scold the American public for their blinkeredness regarding fallenness—You’re shocked this happens? This is the stuff of a world in rebellion against God, people!—we’re seen to be discourteous, insensitive, and harsh, leveraging the nation’s grief in order to make an ontological point.
Yes, this stuff does happen in a world in rebellion against God. Just so. The marvel, really, is that it doesn’t happen more regularly. I think of John Piper’s NPR interview some years ago after a tsunami devastated parts of South Asia. He handled that harsh reality with great care. After establishing a perimeter of gospel theodicy for why the world is subject to various travails and hemorrhage, and that God subjected Himself to it personally in the sufferings of Jesus, Piper said (with Luke 13 in mind) that every such occurrence of tragedy in the world is a call to repentance, a repentance he practiced too. The comfort is found in the call. God gives grace to the humble.
Other Christian leaders have spoken to Aurora kinds of reality with similar incisiveness. That will continue. It’s needed every time we stare at carnage on TV screens with mouths agape. A less than considerate realism seizes the moment to say, So you want God to stop that evil, but not your own little, everyday evil?
That’s true, of course, and a powerful apologetic. It has a place in discussion. It gets people inside their assumptions, something Jesus mastered. People do indeed assume themselves to be kinder and more merciful than God.
But there is a pace and timing to theodicy. In our what’s-your-reaction-to-this society, too many rush in too quickly to say too much. The best thing Job’s friends did was “sat on the ground with him seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). Then when they spoke…see Job 42:7-8.
The best thing we have to say anytime to anyone is the gospel. It speaks to suffering both self-induced and inflicted, shouts victory over every sin and pain and death. Christians need to hear the gospel over and over again because we never quite fully believe we’re that loved and graced by God, so we fall back into gospels of sin management and behavior modification. Likewise, everyone needs to hear over and over again why we need the gospel because we (the world) never quite fully believe we are that bad or bad off before God, so we fall back into idealisms about human nature and our overall security. As Meister Eckhart put it, “God is at home. We are in the far country.”
Whatever festering ideas motivated the theater shooter—perhaps Satan himself took over James Holmes’ psyche—regardless, James Holmes has personally participated in the Edenic rebellion of old just as Cole Huffman has. James has done so only more spectacularly and nihilistically than Cole. The scope of his damage in the world is greater than mine, not the fact of being damaging.
The gospel thereby doesn’t leverage realism but level it. It gives me empathy and compassion for victims, for that really could be me too. It gives me patience with questioners, even scorners, for I too once was really blind but now I see. It gives me a renewed revulsion of my own sin when I’m repulsed by another’s, for I too have really hurt and damaged others—and could do a lot more damage still but for God’s grace to me and rule over me.
Cole Huffman has lived in Memphis with his family since 2003. They are known around town as the "Huffman Party of 7 1/2": wife Lynn, sons Caleb and Colson, and daughters Helen, Holly, and Caley Kate. (The "1/2" is the family dog, Cal.) Cole serves as Senior Pastor of First Evangelical Church and blogs at www.colehuffman.com.