By Candice Lucey, Crosswalk.com
Mass shootings, such as the one at the Covenant School in Nashville, TN, and at Robb Elementary School in Ulvade, Texas, are appalling tragedies. Nineteen children and two teachers were murdered in a place which should have been safe. Now, in the United States, no place feels safe: shootings have occurred in churches, grocery stores, clubs, and schools.
Americans are outraged and horrified, naturally: how can a good God allow mass shootings, which seem to happen on a regular basis in the United States? Here are four ways a Christian can respond to their neighbors and friends who understandably struggle to comprehend a world where little children lose their lives in a classroom.
1. Don’t Preach, Listen
Talking is part of healing, but “when the natural healing process is interrupted, the result is PTSD.” Ellen Hendriksen explains the nature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which at its heart is “avoidance — turning away from anything that reminds us of the incident, including talking about it.”
Talking about trauma is one of the most healing acts possible. An internal monologue receives only an internal answer, which becomes distorted, and confused, especially when events make no sense.
When trauma is inexplicable, “turning the unspeakable into language is necessary to make sense” of it (Ibid.). Everyone affected by a mass shooting or any form of violence needs a chance to speak without judgment.
Burying those feelings does not make them go away or lead to healing. Like any wound left untreated, even if the skin closes over, an infection can bubble underneath and poison the whole person.
The survivor needs an opportunity to safely say what is on his or her heart without facing judgment. Silently listening to a torrent of anger, a landslide of fear, requires tenderness and self-control; it’s an act of love. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).
The model for this process comes from the Psalms, such as 109, which moves from anguish and confusion to anger and finally to prayer and worship. “Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love! Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it!” (vv.26-27).
The Lord always listens, which might be one reason he is often silent during times of tremendous grief — he is crying with us. And since the Psalmist can lament uninterrupted, he eventually returns to sincere and comforting confidence in the Lord.
2. Pray, Pray, Pray
“And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23). Before Jesus began his ministry to the lost and hurting, he spent 40 days in the wilderness, praying.
When the devil came to him, Jesus was steeped in prayer. In prayer, he put on the armor of God and used the Scripture as a sword and shield against the Evil One’s schemes so that, at his most vulnerable, he could resist his enemy.
This is the defense he took with him into society, to cover others, to bring them his mercy and truth, and to arm them likewise.
Jesus’ example to us is this: go to God before offering help because prayer is our first defense against the harm Satan wants to cause.
Satan’s signature is all over a mass shooting, but his best work is in the division he causes later, where some well-meaning friend inspires anger in a person whose spouse or child has been gunned down.
Satan’s glee must increase as nervous comforters bring casseroles and wield thoughtless chatter. Jesus, in his sinless perfection, started his day very early with prayer (Mark 1:35).
He knew he would be meeting desperate, traumatized individuals. Christians, in their sinful imperfection, need prayer in order to approach the survivor of a mass shooting with appropriate words and silences; with compassion and discernment.
And remember the power of prayer. When Paul and Silas “appeared like two victims caught in the chaos of a merciless, purposeless world.” Scott Hubbard points out that they remembered: “God can deliver us from the sorrows that wrap around us like chains.”
Prayer is not a lame last resort. Prayer changes people, starting with the person who is praying. Josh Weidmann argues, “We need to pray for God to change people’s hearts, causing them to love good and hate evil; and we need to pray for God-honoring societal changes, which might reduce, if not eliminate, mass shootings. We need to pray that God would bring justice to those who would wreak such chaos.”
3. Be Real about Suffering
After an unspeakable event has occurred, facile statements are unhelpful, insensitive, and untrue. Things are not alright, and they will not be alright on this side of heaven.
The world is broken. The believer knows that everything will ultimately work out to God’s glory and for our good. Christ will come and heal everyone, restore, and heal all creation.
For now, however, believers and unbelievers alike walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23:4). The darkness seems more powerful than the light, but we also know what darkness is because we have seen light.
This was Paul’s experience, but he still painted a realistic picture of persecution. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
He experienced brutal violence and, though he still rejoiced, Paul wrote about his suffering. Josh Weidmann, speaking to parents whose children are rightly afraid and confused, wrote, “We cannot ignore the real presence of sin and evil in these moments.”
Avoidance does not help children process what they know is true; they just get their information from sources, which do not promote hope in Jesus. Avoiding the matter with sappy, empty encouragement suggests that the Lord does not have a meaningful answer.
What, then, is his answer to pain and fear? How could Peter say “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you”? (1 Peter 5:7). Peter was no stranger to violence.
In spite of all that he suffered and all the suffering he had seen, Peter gave his anxieties to the Lord because he saw that Christ had defeated evil.
He understood personally what it meant to rise again as a new creation in the Lord, and this gave him the hope he needed in order to live through the rejection and torture he would face.
He knew he could trust Jesus’ promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Jesus tells the truth about death so that his promise of life is all the more powerful.
4. Offer the Hope You Live By
The Christian clings to hope in his resurrection power when the news is just one blood-soaked tragedy after another. Christians remind each other that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
They are honest about the brokenness but secure in the hope of Christ’s presence now and his promise that the pain will end when he returns.
The grief will be over. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Christ is with us, but he is also coming. What should Christians do when they meet unbelievers who are angry and searching?
When Christians meet people who are searching for a reason to carry on living in a world so full of fear and hatred, they can offer Christ’s love.
One pastor in an article by Kate Shellnut said that Christ is “the only hope we have. He’s the only thing that provides a future. He’s the only one who can bring peace where there is nothing but lostness and struggle and anger and fury and confusion.”
Another pastor alludes to the alternative: where violence becomes the response. Evil gets the upper hand.
Pastors from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association who respond to mass shootings report that giving people a chance to grieve, comforting them, encouraging them, and offering the hope of Christ has “been shown to reduce the severity or longevity of trauma following a mass shooting.”
We must choose words and timing according to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we need to show up, offer support, and give our time.
When we do, the evidence suggests that grieving hearts are often desperate to hear that the Lord is angry about what the shooter did, he is hurting with the loved ones left behind, but his good plan will prevail.
Light and Life
Paul told the Philippians that he was able to lead many to Christ simply because he never lost hope in the midst of suffering.
God will always use evil for good, so behave sensitively, always lean on the Holy Spirit, and do not force the issue. Christ might work through you simply by your actions.
Let him meet mourners in the way he deems best, but the most important thing a Christian can do to show Christ’s love is to be a warm, real person, a friend, and a servant. The most important service is bringing one’s own faith in Jesus into the midst of suffering and just being there.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.