John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min.
On September 9, 2001, I preached a sermon from Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. Psalm 139 contains King David's joyous reflections upon the truth that God knows. Throughout King David's obstacle filled life, he learned the security of living in relationship with God. David's Psalms express his certainty that God knew and understood the depths of his words. So, he poured them all out before God in times of tragedy, crisis, and when godless foes attacked him.
Two days after preaching the sermon on Psalm 139, the tragic events of 9/11 took place. People gathered together to pray. How comforting it is to know in times like those that God knows and understands the depths of our words when we pour them all out before Jesus in times of tragedy, and crisis.
According to Psalm 139, God knows the very depths of your soul. God knows what you are saying to him in prayer even better than you do. Isn't this what we are told in Romans 8:26 about the Holy Spirit helping us. 26 "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."
As we focus on prayer, remember last year's national tragedy, and focus on the tragedies of our own or of others, I want to dig further into Christian prayer and human tragedy.
Human tragedy cuts deep. It is very painful. The Bible says in Ephesians 6 that your real struggle with tragedy, suffering, and evil in the world is not a fight against people on earth. You are fighting against spiritual powers of evil that attack outwardly through others who yield themselves to evil attitudes and actions. You also fight against spiritual power of evil that attack your soul in hope of leading you into evil attitudes and actions. The strongest attacks upon your soul always come in times of great tragedy and crisis. These attacks can be overcome through prayer. You can do this by asking God daily to grant you wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Then, God's grace will save you from weak resignation to the evils you deplore.
Fulfilling the Bible's call to be angry and yet not sin is very difficult when you are in the middle of a painful crisis. Barnacles on a wooden ship are as bad for the ship as for anyone who knocked up against them for their cuts are painful. Some find their lives shipwrecked after such experiences with the barnacle like tragedies of life by becoming a barnacle themselves. Ever heard the phrase, "hurt people, hurt people"?
If you forever nurse the pain, you will never be free to love again. Also, if you do not feel the pain of your experience with the barnacle like tragedies of life, then you become numb and remain naive. Feeling the pain and giving it to God for his healing work as well as his dealing with those responsible in prayer is the biblical way to a better day. This is much healthier than feeding the pain and holding onto it as if that is somehow going to accomplish something. Not to forgive digs a dark and dreary day. However, to forgive brings about a better day.
To forgive means taking others off of your hook and placing them on God's hook. Such a prayerful response by God's free grace through Jesus Christ can make you a better person. I am convinced that a lot of people's lives' are shipwrecked in a crisis by their living in self-pity. Bitter self-pity, unfocused anger, loveless fears, and wounded pride will shipwreck you unless you stop and change your mind as well as your heart from the bondage of unforgiveness to freedom through forgiveness. Such freedom comes only after pouring your heart out completely to God in prayer.
Also, you can prayerfully refocus the energy of your anger. You can focus your energy to work toward making the world, your country, your state, your county, your schools (shooting), your community (political assassination, racism), your families (spouse abuse & child abuse), and your hearts free from the sins that leads to inflicting terror into people's lives.
Very often in times of tragedy, you feel abandoned by God. You may find it difficult to believe that with God's help, your life can be rebuilt. Yet, the good news of rebuilding with God's help is the Bible's message for you today.
It is easy to sail along life in your own strength and wisdom, when life is smooth sailing. However, no one's life is without tragedy. Disaster and heart-ache will inevitably hit you. There's sorrow by death. A woman dies, leaving her husband with three small children to raise. A car accident claims the life of a couple's only son or daughter. A senseless boating accident caused by someone' drunken and reckless condition takes the life of someone's fiancée just a few days before the wedding.
While some are the soul survivors of a departed spouse, others experience multiple losses in their life over a short time. In one three year period, a lady lost her father to cancer, her mother to senile dementia, her husband after 31 years of marriage, her talented son in an accident. Many were the nights that she went to bed hoping that she would never wake up. Because of her faith, she knew that she could no more take her life than the life of someone else. Through it all she never doubted God's love and mercy for her, yet she did not always feel his presence. She did however reach a point where she could no longer bear the pain of her losses. She prayed to God for help. He brought I Thessalonians 5:18 to her mind. It speaks of giving thanks in all things. It does not say give thanks only when your life is going right. Nothing in her life changed outwardly, but she did gain a heart for gratitude that changed her. Truly, without her faith, she would either be a miserable person or dead. The hymn "I need the every hour" probably became very dear to her.
Neither the book of Isaiah nor the rest of the Bible make any claims that rebuilding is easy. No, rebuilding after any tragedy or crisis in our lives is tough and takes time. Isaiah and the Bible does say that with God's help through prayer whatever rebuilding needs doing will be done by God's grace and power.
God still controls the world, even your world with unexplainable suffering. Your mind can neither contain nor control all knowledge. The important truth is that God can be trusted in the worst of circumstances as well as in the best. Thus, living by faith means far more than simply accepting suffering as a part of life. Living by faith means growing in your relationship with God, knowing his care and love more deeply as you trust God more thoroughly in prayer.
The author of "It Is Well With My Soul" must have been a great person of prayer to have written this hymn after such a personal family tragedy.
As you intercede for those most directly impacted by 9/11 and other tragedies, pray that each one will experience the reality of God knowing and understanding the intensity of their souls.
As you intercede for those most directly impacted by 9/11 and other tragedies, pray that each one will see their fight is not against other human beings, but against the spiritual power of evil that attacks their soul in hope of leading them into evil attitudes and actions.
Pray for God to help them fulfill the Bible's call to be angry and yet not sin. * Pray for people to not nurse the pain forever, but to feel the pain and give it to God in prayer for his healing work.
Pray for the healing of those whose lives are already or almost shipwrecked by bitter self-pity, unfocused anger, loveless fears, and wounded pride.
Pray for people to refocus the energy of their anger toward making their country, state, county, community, workplaces, schools, churches, marriages, families, and hearts free from the sins that leads to inflicting terror into people's lives.
Pray for people to believe and keep believing that with God's help, their life can be rebuilt
Pray for others to know that God still controls the world, even their world with unexplainable suffering. Pray that they may trust God in the worst of circumstances as well as in the best.
God our hope and refuge, we confess that anger and hatred have held on to us. Healing has begun, but loss is still real. We are not in control. We don't like being vulnerable. We still want security or the illusion of it. We still want our enemies to be annihilated and for our lives to return to safety and Shalom. Forgive us and heal us. Raise us to new life. Strengthen us in the way of compassion and justice. Fix our faith on you so we know that nothing can separate us from you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The National Sermon Project selected "Prayer and Tragedy" to be included in a book of sermons preached in remembrance of September, 11 by David James Randolph. My sermon appears with that of Dr. Robert H. Schuller and other distinguished preachers.
Randolph, David James. Editor . CANDLES IN THE DARK, FLAMES FOR THE FUTURE: PREACHING AND POETRY IN TIMES OF CRISIS. Albany, CA: New Way Media, 2003.
From May 28-June 4 2003, this sermon was a feature article on the former Asbury On-Line Institute.