The congregation at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., was scheduled to hear a message on marriage given by their evangelism and apologetics ministry co-director Lee Strobel this last Sunday – that was before the tragic event in Aurora in which 12 people were killed and nearly 60 others were injured during a shooting spree inside a movie theater past midnight in the early hours of Friday.
The church, located just 21 miles from the tragedy, almost immediately responded by opening its doors Friday evening for a two-hour open prayer time.
"The community has been terribly shaken by the tragic shooting in Aurora. Christians have been responding with prayer vigils and reaching out to hurting families with support and counseling," Strobel told The Christian Post Friday evening. "Our church swung open our chapel for prayer and scrapped plans for our Sunday services. I was supposed to speak on the topic of marriage, but we've postponed that so I can address the question on many minds: Why does God allow tragedy and suffering?"
Strobel said his message would be about offering hope to affected families and to receive the much needed "very real presence of Jesus in their lives."
In his message on Sunday, he attempted to answer questions such as "Why is there so much violence in the world if God is good?" He told CP he would be turning to God's Word for guidance on how Aurora, the state of Colorado, and the nation can process this issue.
Strobel forwarded his full manuscript to his message on Sunday to The Christian Post. Below is his message.
Why Does God Allow Tragedy and Suffering?
Delivered Sunday, July 22
at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado
It was the worst mass shooting in American history – 70 people shot by a gunman, 12 of them killed, while they were watching the midnight showing of a new movie just 21 miles from where we're sitting. There are no words to describe the anguish being felt by those who are suffering today; our heart and prayers have – and will – go out to them. There are so many tragic stories, so much pain. And many people are asking the question, "Why? Why did God allow this?"
This has been a heart-rending summer for Colorado. First came the wildfires, which ravaged the houses of hundreds of our neighbors – and prompted many of them to ask the question, "Why?"
And those two tragic events are on top of the everyday pain and suffering being experienced in individual lives – maybe including yours. There's illness, abuse, broken relationships, betrayal, sorrow, injuries, disappointment, heartache, crime and death. And perhaps you've been asking the question, "Why? Why me? Why now?"
That "why" question goes back thousands of years. It was asked in the Old Testament by Job and the writers of the Psalms, and it was especially relevant during the 20th century, where we witnessed two World Wars, the Holocaust, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, devastating famines in Africa, the killing fields of Cambodia, the emergence of AIDS, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. And the 21st Century didn't start any better. There was 9/11 and now the Syrian slaughters, and on and on. Why all of this if there's a loving and powerful God? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Several years ago, I commissioned a national survey and asked people what question they'd ask if they could only ask God one thing. The Number One response was: "Why is there suffering in the world?" Incidentally, I did find an interesting statistical quirk – people who are married were much more likely to want to know why there's so much suffering. I'm just sayin'.
But if you've never asked why our world is infected with pain and suffering, you will when they strike you with full force or they come to a loved one. And Jesus said they are coming. Unlike some other religious leaders who wrote off pain and suffering as just being illusions, Jesus was honest. He told us the truth. He said in John 16:33, "You will have suffering in this world." He didn't say you might – he said it is going to happen.
But why? If you ask me point-blank, "Why did God allow the gunman to spray the Aurora movie theater with gunfire just two days ago?", the only answer I can honestly give consists of four words – "I do not know."
I cannot stand in the shoes of God and give a complete answer to that question. I don't have God's mind. I don't see with God's eyes. First Corinthians 13:12 says, "Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely."
So when you ask about specific individual events and want to know why this particular thing happened, we won't get the full answer in this world. Someday we'll see with clarity, but for now things are foggy. We can't understand everything from our finite perspective. And frankly, the people suffering from the Aurora tragedy don't need a big theological treatise right now; any intellectual response is going to seem trite and inadequate. What they desperately need now is the very real and comforting presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. And I'm so grateful that so many churches and ministries of this community are helping them experience that.
But for us, let's focus on the big, overarching issue of why God generally allows suffering in our lives – your life and mine. Friends, this is important: even though we can't understand everything about it, we can understand some things. Let me give you an analogy.
Once Leslie and I were driving from Chicago to Door County, Wisconsin, which is that thumb-shaped peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan. We were driving up the highway in the dark, when it started raining heavily and we hit dense fog. I could barely see the white stripe on the edge of the road. I couldn't stop because I was afraid someone might come along and rear-end us. It was frightening!
But then a truck appeared in front of us and we could clearly see his taillights through the fog. He apparently had fog lamps in front, because he was traveling at a confident and deliberate pace, and I knew if we could just follow those taillights, we'd be headed in the right direction.
And the same is true in understanding why there is tragedy and suffering in our lives and in our world. We may not be able to make out all the peripheral details of why - they may be obscured from our view - but there are some key Biblical truths that can illuminate some points of light for us. And if we follow those lights, they will lead us in the right direction, toward some conclusions that I believe can help satisfy our hearts and souls.
What are those points of light? Let me go through five of them that I've personally found helpful whenever I've been prompted to ask the question, "Why?" The first point of light: God is not the creator of evil and suffering.
This answers the question you hear so often: "Why didn't God merely create a world where tragedy and suffering didn't exist?" The answer is: He did! Genesis 1:31 says: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good."
But if God is not the author of tragedy or evil or death, where did they come from? Well, God has existed from eternity past as the Father, Son and Spirit, together in a relationship of perfect love. So love is the highest value in the universe. And when God decided to create human beings, he wanted us to experience love. But to give us the ability to love, God had to give us free will to decide whether to love or not to love. Why? Because love always involves a choice.
If we were programmed to say, "I love you," it wouldn't really be love. When my daughter was little, she had a doll with a string in the back, and when you pulled it the doll said, "I love you." Did that doll love my daughter? Of course not. It was programmed to say those words. To really experience love, that doll would need to have been able to choose to love or not to love. Again – real love always involves a choice.
So in order for us to experience love, God bestowed on us free will. But unfortunately, we humans have abused our free will by rejecting God and walking away from Him. And that has resulted in the introduction of two kinds of evil into the world: moral evil and natural evil.