Some Thoughts on Newtown, pt 1: Our Suffering God

It’s been a few days since the horrifically tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, less than 50 miles from my home.  I’m generally averse to responding quickly to things of this magnitude.  Although those who react first and loudest often receive the most publicity, seldom do the first things out of our mouths prove helpful in such cases.  So now that I’ve sufficiently missed any chance at generating a healthy bump in page clicks, I’ll share a few thoughts.

First and foremost, whatever we might say about this tragedy, we must allow it to align with the person of Jesus.  If the questions that arise pertain, for example, on the nature or character of God, then our answers must resemble the Jesus of the Gospels.

The New Testament writers consistently reflected on the life of Jesus and came to the conclusion that they had witnessed God in their midst.  Matthew gave Jesus the the title Immanuel, Hebrew for “God with us” (1:23).  Along with many similar statements, Jesus declares in John’s gospel that he “and the Father are one” (10:30).  Paul proclaimed him as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), and Hebrews states, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3a, NIV).

Anything we might conclude about God in the face of this or any other tragedy, must resemble the person of Jesus we encounter in the gospels.

That out of the way, my thoughts turned to an aspect of Jesus I don’t often like to think about.  In Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples what folks are saying about him (v. 27).  The responses are varied, but then Jesus puts the question to them: “‘But what about you?’ he asked.  ‘Who do you say I am'” (v. 29a)?  Peter, ever with a quick reply (see paragraph 1 above), declares “You are the Christ” (v. 29b).  Truth be told, Peter hits the nail on the head here.  Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, Israel’s long awaited king come to redeem and restore the nation from centuries of oppression.

Then Jesus says something that shocks his disciples and ought to shock us as well.  “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (v. 31, NIV).  Jesus recognized that the Christ was destined to suffer.

This was not an unknown tradition.  Isaiah had written about the suffering of the Lord’s elected servant centuries earlier:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.  Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness. … He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.  He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. … He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.  By oppression and judgment he was taken away.  And who can speak of his descendants?  For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.  He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.  Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand (52:14; 53:2-5, 7-10, NIV).

We like to proclaim passages like Daniel 7, in which the Son of Man receives “authority, glory and sovereign power,” in which “all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him” (v. 14a).  We like to shout along with Peter that “God has made this Jesus … both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  We like to announce that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15).  And we should.

But we must also, in the same breath declare the means by which God set Christ on the throne of heaven.  Christ achieves his victory over evil precisely by allowing evil to rule have its way with him.  NT Wright puts the awesome plan this way: “The story of Israel was to be the story of how God was going to deal with evil.  He would draw it onto one place, allowing it to do its worst at that point.  And he himself … would go to that place, would become Israel-in-person, in order that evil might do its worst to him and so spend its force once and for all” (How God Became King, 207).  Jesus was vindicated because he followed the Father’s path perfectly, and that path led straight through the jaws of the enemy.

Whatever else we might say about God and Sandy Hook, we must say that God is entirely acquainted with suffering.  We must say that knows and experiences the pain of the slain children, of the grieving families, of the Newtown and global communities, even of the young man Adam Lanza.

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