It never ceases to amaze me that tragedy knows no boundaries.
I’ll never forget the disquieting feeling when the Thomas Fire, which was the largest fire in California history at the time, was burning through our neighboring community. We could see the flames on the hillsides, schools were closed because of the high content of smoke in the air, and the fire seemed to be unconquerable as the Santa Ana winds were blowing for days at speeds of up to 40 MPH. The most surreal experience came not long after the fire was out and those who had been evacuated were able to return to their homes. I went to help a friend clean up the debris around his yard as the fire had burned up his fence, and while his house had been spared, the only thing left of the one adjacent to it was a chimney.
The Thomas Fire burned over 400 square miles, destroyed over 1,000 structures, and caused over $2.2 billion in damage. It left bare hillsides in its wake, causing horrific mudslides in Montecito during the following rainy season, in which 21 people were killed and over 100 homes were damaged. A firefighter friend who worked both events told me stories that make my stomach turn. Yet, despite this experience, this sort of devastation has become almost commonplace in California due to the dense population, weather conditions, and other factors.
But just recently, my tiny little hometown of Bagdad, AZ suffered a devastating fire that, comparatively speaking, did almost as much damage as the Thomas Fire. Thankfully no one was harmed, but the loss of possessions and disruption to life is no small ordeal for the families affected. Not only this, but the Spur Fire is all too reminiscent of the Yarnell Hill Fire which will forever haunt the residents of Yavapai County, as 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives in a tragic accident.
No Shortage of Sorrow
Fires aren’t the only form of tragedy. Even while serving as a youth pastor in a pristine, suburban community in Southern California, I’ll never forget the week when a student was killed outside his home by a hit-and-run driver, and yet another young man was stabbed to death outside a Taco Bell. Two tragic deaths of two teenage boys within days in the same community is heartbreaking, not only for the families of these boys, but for the friends, teammates, teachers, faculties, and countless others whom these young lives touched. Fast-forward a few years when I moved to Prescott Valley, Arizona, and within six months of my arrival, the news came that two teenage boys had died on the same night from an overdose of Fentanyl.
This is only a sampling of the heartache that affects every community when tragedies of any sort strike. We’re all aware of the tragedies we see all too often in the news, but we also have our own stories of calamity. I could go on to tell of heartbreaking incidents involving people I’ve known personally, as I’m certain most anyone could as well.
Truth in the Midst of Tragedy
The closer tragedy strikes, the more it causes us to ask the ultimate questions of life. As difficult and paralyzing as these events may be, those of us who know Christ must remember that we have answers. We may not have all the answers; we may not be able to explain specifically why a particular tragic event occurred, but we have ultimate answers nonetheless. We know that tragedy and death are a result of the Fall and the general curse of sin upon mankind and upon the world (Gen 3). We know that God is always good, and even when life does not make sense, He is still in control of all things and permits things to happen for His sovereign purposes, as He has promised that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).
“The closer tragedy strikes, the more it causes us to ask the ultimate questions of life. As difficult and paralyzing as these events may be, those of us who know Christ must remember that we have answers.”
But beyond these ultimate truths, we know the good news that, despite the curse of sin, God has made a way for sinners to be reconciled to Himself through the substitutionary death and glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that through faith in Him, we will one day enjoy a new heaven and new earth in which there will be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, only unbroken, joyous fellowship with God forevermore (Rev 21:1-7).
While not every Christian is a first responder in the ordinary sense of the word, and while we should leave the work of dealing with the physical aspects of tragedy to those who have that sort of training, when the physical emergency has been dealt with, there is a lingering spiritual crisis that requires a different kind of care.
Despite all we may know, Christians often feel inadequate to help in the wake of tragedy. “That’s for the experts–pastors and counselors, not me; what do I have to offer!” they say. But if you know Christ, you are more than equipped to be a source of help and comfort when those around you face tragedy. The fact is, you may be the only person who is in a position that can really make a difference…and that difference may have an eternal impact. Just as first responders are stationed throughout cities and wildlands in order to deal with whatever emergency may arise, and just as they must quickly put their training into use in order to save lives and property, so Christians are placed strategically by God in positions of influence and opportunity, and so we must be ready to apply what we know in order to help those who are suffering and oftentimes have no hope.
Sometimes God puts those who feel the least adequate to help in a position which forces them to step out on faith and be bold for the sake of the kingdom (see Esther 4:13-14; Proverbs 17:17). Whether you’re in that position now or not, at some point in your life you more than likely will be. So let me encourage you with a few points on how to help others who are grieving.
1. BE QUIET!
Oftentimes we start speaking because we don’t know what else to do, and even though the things we’re saying may be true and may be helpful at a later time, people who are dealing with the initial shock of tragedy don’t need someone to ram the sovereignty of God down their throats! What they need is a shoulder to lean on.
You may remember that Job’s friends did a good job of this initially. Having heard of Job’s suffering, his three friends came “to sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11). They wept with him and then “they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great” (v. 13). We can take a lesson from these guys at this point. They simply were there for their friend for a time, sharing in his pain (cf. Rom 15).
“Sometimes God puts those who feel the least adequate to help in a position which forces them to step out on faith and be bold for the sake of the kingdom.”
The primary way to do this is to try to put yourself in the person’s shoes. You may realize that in a particular circumstance, that will not be hard for you to do because you’ve experienced something very similar. We must be careful to remember that no matter how identical our experiences, we can never completely understand the experience and feelings of another person, but God in His wisdom will oftentimes orchestrate circumstances to give His people the opportunity “to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:4).
There came a point after a week of quiet grief that Job began to speak, and what he said was pretty depressing. Even as a strong believer, out of the midst of his despair his words were not gleaming with the theological realities he knew to be true at the core of his being (although some of these came out later). Job was venting his frustration and agony, and that is common for people who are facing tragedy.
Job’s friends did well listening for a short time, but it was not too long before they opened their mouths. They probably would have done well to listen for a while longer before jumping in. We need to learn how to be good listeners, giving people time to get their feelings out and trying to identify how we can specifically encourage them and perhaps even gently correct their thinking when the time is right.
After you’ve been quiet and wept and listened for a while, you’ll earn the right to be heard by the one who is grieving. And at this point, it is right for you to speak (see Proverbs 25:11). However, the first words out of your mouth ought not to be directed to the person, but to God. Prayer is not only an act of dependence upon God; it is an act of love when it is offered on behalf of someone else. Prayer will draw the other person’s attention to God and your words of faith and dependence upon Him will be the most comforting sort you could initially speak.
After prayer, it is appropriate to speak directly to the person. However, what you say is very critical. You want to make sure that your words are gracious, compassionate, encouraging, and truthful.
This is where Job’s friends went all wrong. Rather than offering words of comfort, they increased Job’s sorrow by hurling accusations at him. Not only did this reveal their real lack of compassion, but their wrong theology. They, like most people of that time, believed that God brought tragedy upon individuals as punishment for their own personal sin, and so they set out on a quest to get Job to come clean about some hidden sin that must have been the cause of his calamity. Job’s friends were not only wrong about Job (see Job 1), but their theology was wrong in general.
When we speak, we must be careful about how we say things, and we must make sure that what we say is true. It is right to gently correct a person’s understanding of their circumstances in order to lead them to the truth that will provide hope, but it is never right to beat broken people over the head with sharp words, especially words that carry flawed theology! The driving content of what you say needs to be hope, because hope is what a person facing tragedy needs.
“The driving content of what you say needs to be hope, because hope is what a person facing tragedy needs.”
Certainly the gospel is the ultimate news of hope, and in a tactful way, it is always wise to share the good news of Jesus Christ to a person who is has been stricken by tragedy.
5. ASK QUESTIONS
Just as we struggle to keep our mouths shut initially when we arrive on the scene of tragedy, we have trouble containing ourselves when we begin to speak at the appropriate time. Typically broken people are not very responsive, even to the most profound truths, and so we may have the tendency to rattle on in an extended monologue, looking for a response. A better tactic that will help draw out the person’s feelings is to ask good, open-ended questions and then give him time to answer (Proverbs 20:5). Again, be a good listener and follow up on their answers with more specific questions. This dialogue is healthy for them, and it will keep you from becoming a further source of pain rather than a source of comfort!
6. COMMIT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Sometimes people feel like they’ve listened all they can and said all they know and thus they have nothing left to do or say or offer. If you’ve reached this point, you’ve probably overstayed your welcome. You need to be sensitive to how much a person afflicted by tragedy can handle at the moment. You want to be helpful, not overbearing. But even if you feel like you’ve given all you’ve got already, you must realize that much of what you’ve said will not be remembered. It takes time for a person to begin to process the initial shock brought on by tragedy, and it will be a long road of ups and downs on the way to healing. You must recognize this and be willing to be there for the person as much as is appropriate for the long haul. You will have much more weeping, listening, praying, speaking, and questions to ask along the way. In fact, you will likely find yourself asking many of the same questions and saying many of the same things many times over again. But throughout the process of healing, God may be pleased to use you and your many interactions to bring the person to salvation and/or to draw him closer to Himself…and you can rest assured that He will be at work in you for His good purposes as well.
7. TRUST THE GOODNESS AND SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
We all pray that we will be spared calamity, but in this sin-cursed world, trouble is inevitable. We must be prepared for whatever may come. If and when you find yourself in a position to be used by the Lord, may you find comfort in the fact that not one of us is adequate in and of himself, but through God and His word, we are adequate, being equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17).
How Can You Help the Community of Bagdad, AZ?
In the aftermath of the devastating fire in Bagdad, AZ, we at Firm Foundation have been in contact with authorities and fellow believers in that community and have expressed our readiness to support however we can. Fore more information on how you can get involved, call the church office at 928-515-2303, or reach out to Pastor Lloyd directly at email@example.com.