A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
(On Saturday afternoon, a 16-year-old in our congregation died in sudden and tragic circumstances. In light of that, I scrapped the scheduled sermon and worship service for the next day and wrote what is below. It seemed odd to simply continue with "business-as-usual." My hope was to address some of the pain and questions I knew our congregation would be coming in with, to help us all find some solid ground when everything else seemed to be slipping away, and to point us all in the direction of healing.)
For I am
convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things
present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor
depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the
love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When tragedy strikes, it
is easy for us to start looking for answers.Why did this happen?Where was
God?Why did God allow this?Why do bad things happen to good people?
The temptation is to rush
in with some sort of response.And if
you’re a person of faith, the temptation is to rush in with some sort of
theological explanation, and my first piece of advice is simply this: “Don’t.”When my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer,
she put together a list she called “Stupid things not to say to someone who has
cancer.”Several well-meaning Christian
friends suggested that she take comfort in the fact that “everything happens
for a reason,” or “this must have been the will of God.”
It sounds like the right
sort of thing to say, but it’s not comforting.It’s not even true.Far from
being comforting, it only leaves people angry with God.Suffering, unanswered prayers, and the
unfairness of life naturally lead us to question God’s goodness and sometimes
to question God’s very existence.Ask
atheists why they reject the idea of God, and this will be among their answers.
The question often goes
this way: “If God is loving and just, then God must not be all-powerful, otherwise
God would stop tragedies from happening.”Or, “if God IS all-powerful, then God must not be loving and just.”Because, if God is powerful, loving, and
just, God would intervene and stop the suffering and tragedy in our world.
In light of what took
place yesterday, perhaps you are wrestling with these questions.What I want you to know first off, is that God
is the Lord and giver of life.God is not the taker of life.
Should we tell a family who has lost their child: “There, there: God needed
another angel in heaven?”Really?If that’s true, then God sounds like a real
jerk to me.And yet, Christians can be
notorious for saying stuff like that – maybe it’s our way of finding meaning or
sounding noble and pious and all that, but really, all we do is tremendous
harm, and the worst of it is we do it in God’s name.
I feel like every time someone says something like that, God just says,
“Whoa, that wasn’t me!”
In the days ahead, many of you will want to know what you can do to help
Sandy and Tyler and M’Kenzie, and Bill and Judy.The first thing I’d say is to not say things
like these.What happened to Dalton
yesterday was not part of God’s plan, it was not God’s will, it was not for
some reason only known to the mind of God.Don’t promise things you have no control over, either, like saying it
will get better, or they’ll get over it, eventually.This isn’t something that’s going away.It’s something we will all have to carry with
Don’t say those things because they’re not helpful.They’re not healing.They’re not true.They’re more likely to turn a grieving person
away from God than toward God – because if God was the one who
caused the suffering, why would I go to God to comfort me in the suffering?
Friends, when you don’t know what to say, you don’t actually need to say anything.Turns out you don’t have to say much to let
someone know you care.Often, a hug, a
smile, a call, a card, and a simple, “I’m so sorry” is all that needs to be
said.That’s all you need to do.
Someone asked me yesterday where Dalton is now.He is safe and secure in the arms of the
Lord, and I believe that with every fiber of my being because I believe the
promises of the Scripture that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor
things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height,
nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from
the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You got that?God IS Love, and NOTHING – NOTHING shall
separate us from God’s love.Not death
(whether at the hand of someone else or ourselves), not angels (be they of
light or darkness), not powers of depression, not depths within our soul that
drag us down and lead us to a point where we feel we have no alternative.
The darkness of mental
illness is something over which persons have no control. Our understanding of
human psychology and mental illness still has a long way to go, but it’s also
come a long way. I’ve heard well-meaning
people tell depressed people to just “turn it over to God,” as if it’s that
easy.But, even after people seek God,
they may still be very much troubled by feelings of failure, hopelessness, or
being unloved, and God understands the difficulties of those feelings and how
truly overwhelming they can be.
And not only does God
understand, I understand, and I care, and whatever any of you may be going
through, please, know that I’m willing to listen and help in any way I
can.If you’re struggling with
self-destructive thoughts and habits, don’t go through that alone.I promise no shame, no judgment, no guilt –
just a desire to see you healthy and full of life and thriving.
I am well-aware that in a
group of people this size, statistically, it is highly likely that one or more
persons here today are dealing with destructive thoughts that make you feel
like you’re at a dead-end or you’ve got nowhere to go. Listen, if that’s where
you are, I want you to come talk to me this week. In fact, I expect you to come
talk to me.Or maybe you don’t want to
talk to me, and you’d rather talk to someone else, and I’m willing to bet that
there are other people here today who would be glad to talk to you and help you
before you do something that can never be taken back – if you would be willing
for people to talk to you, would you please put your hand up?
Even Jesus prayed on the
cross, “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?” Do you know the response
that came from heaven when Jesus prayed those words? Nothing. Deafening
I can’t overstate the
significance of that. Jesus – the son of God, who was himself God – knew what
it felt like to be alone and abandoned and forgotten. Jesus – who was sinless –
knew what it felt like for his deepest and most earnest prayer to be met with
silence. And so when someone feels alone in the world, when they feel
friendless and hopeless, that is a very real feeling that even Jesus himself
experienced. Those feelings don’t make someone a sinner or suggest that they
have some defect or flaw of character, because even Jesus himself struggled
with the very same feelings.
God is well aware that
people are subject to harmful and self-destructive thoughts. That doesn’t make
them wicked people. It makes them ill.Jesus
is the Great Physician – who came to heal all illness, including mental illness
that may lead to people doing things that are harmful to themselves and those
they love.God’s mercy and love and
grace is big enough to cover that.There
are those who leave this life too early, and God has special understanding and
mercy for those who take an incomplete in life.
I just can’t imagine God –
the God of Love, the God whose heart and love and grace is bigger than we can
ever know – I can’t imagine God holding the events of yesterday afternoon
against Dalton.God grades on the curve
– and where mercy and grace are needed, God supplies it all the more.
Was this God’s will for
Dalton?Hell, no.Again, any god who willed this, who wrote
this particular tragedy into Dalton’s life story is a god I would want nothing
to do with.No, this was not the will of
God.The Scriptural witness is clear:
God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good.Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know the plans I
have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jesus promised us that we came so that
we would have life and have it abundantly and to the full (John 10:10).All of this witnesses against God having anything to do with a life tragically cut short
– that when life does end too soon, it was clearly
not the will of God.
Since yesterday afternoon,
I have imagined the conversation God and Dalton had when he arrived in
heaven.I imagine God saying, “Dalton,
you knucklehead, you are here way too soon.This was not what I wanted for you.This was not my plan or will for you.I wanted so much more for your life.This was not the way I wanted your life to end.There was so much more I wanted you to know
and experience, so much I wanted you to do – you’re not supposed to be here,
yet!So yes, I am so disappointed to see
you here so soon, yet, I love you.You
are my beloved child.I know the
difficulties you’ve had, the feelings you’ve had, the mistakes and shortcomings
and decisions you’ve made that I wish you hadn’t.And, my grace is sufficient for you, for this
and every time of need. I am sorry for the pain and torment you went through,
and my love for you is greater than all those thoughts and feelings, and my
grace is greater than even this destructive thing you have done.”
You see, we have a God who
weeps when we do.Who grieves when we
do.God knows what we’re going through –
he lost a son once, too, you know.We
don’t have the promise that God will make the pain go away or shield us from
tragedy, or that if we’re good, godly people, bad things will never happen to
us.I wish, but it doesn’t work that
But the things that break
our hearts also break God’s heart.We
have a God who enters into our suffering and takes it on himself.As his hands and feet, we are called to enter
into the suffering of others and walk with them through it.And I know for the Davis family, you are
already doing that and will continue to do that.
Where is God?God is with us, particularly as the people of
God show up where love and grace is needed the most.