Looking for a Christ-like Response

TowersWhen something strikes us as funny, we laugh.  When we’re in pain, we cry out. When something sad happens, we weep. [1]

Life has a way of helping us build certain emotional boxes, places we put the things we experience, so we can know what to feel about them and how to react. Disappointment, loss, rejection, betrayal, conflict, frustration—each has a box it goes in. We reach into these boxes for suggestions about behavior and attitude, for guidance on the range of appropriate reactions. These categories, these boxes, help us cope and manage. They keep us from “killing flies with shotguns.” And they keep us from shrugging off the difficult and the traumatic.

These boxes are especially important for Christians. For inside them are not just the natural emotions and reactions, the clues to how normal people should behave and what normal people should feel.  Christians look to these boxes to discover Christ-like emotions and reactions.  We look inside to discover how Jesus would act, what he would think.  There is a layer to a Christian’s living found in these boxes, guiding us and teaching us to respond in Christ-like ways to the traumas of our lives.

And then something happens so enormous, so atrocious, it beggars our boxes.  Something happens that we don’t have a box big enough to contain.

The events of Tuesday, September 11, are that enormous. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were so surprising, the results so catastrophic, the pictures so graphic and surreal, the tragedy so vast, we just don’t have a place to put what happened.

And so we find ourselves asking questions of a fundamental sort. What should I be feeling about these events?  What is the appropriate response to such trauma? When the shock wears off, what should be done?

Even Christians ask such questions. But, as Christians, we have questions all our own.  What would Jesus feel about these events?  What would Jesus do?  What is a Christ-like reaction to such evil happenings? 

Is this a time for turning the other cheek or making a whip?

Back to Basics

When something so enormous happens, when faced with events we just don’t know how to handle, we humans tend to go back to basics, to sort through the wreckage for things that are foundational, things we can count on in the confusion.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, most of us experienced an urgent need to touch base with family and friends, to revive patriotic feelings, to seek divine protection.  We wanted to touch base with basic things. Tragedy has a way of clarifying what is really important.

I wish those touchstones – family, country, prayer – were enough.  But they are not.  They can comfort us, but they cannot explain why these evil things happened or how, as Christians and citizens, we are to react to them.  In the days ahead, we will be reaching for other things to help us make sense of the past and guide our actions in the future.

And it is the “reaching” that bothers me.  For I fear we will be drawn toward other “basics,” darker fundamentals, that will bubble to the surface in the weeks and months ahead: a deep desire to hurt the people who have hurt us . . . a hunger for vengeance and retribution and violence . . . to hate, to be consumed with prejudice, to dismiss  and devalue people of a certain race and religion.  I fear we will be tempted to find satisfaction in the suffering of those who have made us suffer.

All around us – at work, in our neighborhoods, in restaurants and coffee shops – we will encounter people who are touching base with this baser side of themselves . . . and justifying it.

What do Christians “touch” at times like these?

People who do not share our commitment to incarnate Christ are free to react to horrible events in whatever way seems good to them.  But Christians are constrained.  We are not free to simply follow our hearts, to join the herd.  God expects us to shape our responses along Christ-like lines.

Especially in times of confusion and crisis, it is vital that Christian people live intentionally, deliberately, carefully.  We cannot permit tragedy and trauma to become an excuse for careless, thoughtless, Christ-less living.  We cannot afford to set aside our convictions and principles during the emergency, thinking to pick them up later when the emergency has passed.  If what we believe and confess cannot shape our emotions and attitudes and behavior during these difficult days, then either our commitment is too weak or our principles are only good for fair weather and smooth sailing.

So what are the principles that Christian people must affirm in times like these?  What ideals and attitudes will ensure that our responses are distinctly Christian? Is this the time to dwell on the God of grace or to emphasize the God of judgment?  Does God want us to love our enemies or does he expect us to burn with righteous indignation?  Should we speak only what is “good for building others up” or is this the time to talk—like Jesus—about “brood of vipers”, “sons of hell,” “murders and wicked men”?  When faced with such a despicable act, do Christians go to war or—especially now—return good for evil?

The Church in the Mirror

Those are the wrong questions.  At least, they are not the first questions we should ask.  Yes, there will come a time when we must sort through our feelings and weed out those which are unworthy.   And, yes, there will come a time when we need to concern ourselves with “them”—how do we deal with people who hate us?  How do we respond to wicked men who would do such wicked things?

For God’s people, however, tragedy and trauma are always an occasion for self examination, for penitence and confession, for rededication and recommitment.  The question of prime importance at this moment is not, “Who are they?” but “Who are we?”

When Israel suffered a drubbing at Ai,[2] it led to soul-searching and tent-searching and an awareness of the presence of sin in the camp.  Israel repented and reconsecrated herself.  She didn’t sit around wringing her hands over the wickedness of the Amorites.  She didn’t retreat back into fear and impotence.  Tragedy led to conviction.  Conviction led to confession.  And confession led, eventually, to boldness.  God’s people were stronger after the tragedy than before.

In 586 b.c., Israel suffered the greatest single tragedy of her history.  The armies of Babylon fell on Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, tearing down the walls, killing and raping and carrying an entire generation into captivity.  What should Israel do with such a trauma to her national and religious life?  Should they explain what happened by appeal to the long-standing geo-political struggle between Persia and Egypt?  Should they look to the underlying economic motives of the forces tearing at their nation? 

In fact, God’s people took the opportunity to look at themselves through the clarifying lens of those awful events.  Israel had bumbled along for centuries, led by wicked kings, corrupted and compromised.  God’s people had ignored God’s law, running after other gods and taking more comfort in ritual than in righteousness.  Once again, tragedy led to conviction and confession.  And penitence gave birth to boldness.  The boldness of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The boldness to rebuild the Temple and restore the walls and resurrect Israel’s relationship with God.

The early church faced a time of real tragedy.  The Romans and the Pharisees had conspired together to execute Jesus of Nazareth.  The disciples huddled, timid and afraid, in an upper room.  When at last they found the courage to come out and give witness to a risen Lord, the religious leaders were waiting.  They arrested Peter and John, determined to put them on trial and nip their preaching in the bud.[3]  The whole church gathered and waited.

It could have been a devastating moment for the infant church.  As it happened, Peter and John were released. But they could have been executed.  Who would have led the charge then?  The church might have listened too closely to the threats of the Sanhedrin, muting its witness to avoid persecution.

Instead, these first Christians prayed.  Their Lord has been crucified.  Their lives have been threatened.  But they’re not bemoaning the wickedness of their enemies. They’re not discussing strategy for countering the influence of the Sanhedrin.  They are remembering some important things about their God.  And they are discovering some important things about themselves. 

They are doing something audacious.  They are praying.  And in the skeleton of that prayer, we find a box big enough to put the tragic events of September 11.

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”

They don’t begin by rehearsing the wicked things that have been done and calling down vengence on the wicked men who have done them.  They are remembering that their God is greater than any petty evil.  He is the creator of all.  He is not cowed or defeated by the puny efforts of mere mortals to thwart his plans. He takes chaos and creates order.  He takes opposition and works his will.

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.”

“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.” (Ac 4:25-27)  

These Christians recognize that there is anti-God activity in the world.  They quote from the Psalms—evidence of evil a thousand years before the cross.  And certainly they are seeing evil at work in their own time.  Conspiracies against the Anointed One.  Plots against God’s plans.  So what else is new?  God has always had his enemies.  The innocent have always had their adversaries.  Some nation, some king, has always raged against the Lord and his people.

“They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

God is never ignorant of their plots.  He knows the pain they are planning to cause.  The way in which God has constructed this world does not often permit him to step in and prevent evil from happening.  He does not keep Job from suffering.  He does not protect Joseph from his brothers.  He does not stop his Son from going to the cross.  But he knows beforehand what will happen and makes his plans to redeem their evil with his good.

“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Here lies the crux of the prayer.  Notice there is no call for fire from heaven, no invitation to rain down justice on Pilate and the Romans and the God-deaf leaders of Israel. The point of the prayer is not about judgment on them … it is about courage for us. And once again, if you look closely, you see the pattern of self examination, rededication and boldness. 

“Listen to their threats,” they beg God.  But it’s not really the threats they are praying about.  It’s their reaction to those threats.  The threats have frightened the church. The threats are threatening to stifle their witness. They are tempted, because of the cost of speaking, to be quiet and lay low.

They’ve done it before.  When Jesus was on trial, not a single disciple stood up to speak on his behalf.  Of the dozen who followed him daily, of the hundreds he healed, of the thousands who ate his bread and heard his teaching, not one had the courage to cry out, “This is wrong!”  When he hung from the cross, Peter was hiding.  When he lay in the tomb, his followers huddled in an upper room.  After his resurrection, they sat around powerless, Spirit-less, until fresh fire drove them into the streets with the message, “He is risen!”

But the authorities don’t like that message.  They want the speaking to cease.  And, to make sure it does, they issue dire threats.

How will the church respond?  “Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Forgive our timidity and our cowardice. For too long, we’ve been quiet.  For too long, we’ve not said what must be said. We confess.  We repent.  Make us your witnesses indeed.  And let us speak with great boldness.”

The signs and wonders are tools of boldness. The church is an instrument of boldness. But it is the boldness itself that is the greatest work of God.

Boldness for the Times

Look at what happened on September 11. Look and do not look away.

What do you see? Evil? Bearded men with turbaned heads and the gleam of murder in their eyes? Burning buildings and fleeing victims? Stunned rescue workers sorting through wreckage, hoping for some sign of life in the rubble?

Yes. We see all those things. We hate the evil. We weep with the victims. We experience shock and rage and stunned grief.

But God’s people see something more. They look at the tragedy and the see beyond it to themselves. What do these events tell us about the church? What do we learn about ourselves, our character, our mission in the mirror of this blunt trauma? Is God speaking any word to us through this horror?

Might he be asking us to build a box around these events, out of which we draw not just the normal reactions of revulsion and fear and anger, but conviction … penitence … and boldness?

It isn’t enough for Christians to despair at the evil in the world and wring their hands about wicked men. It isn’t enough for us to grieve and mourn. Like God’s peole at every redemptive point in history, we have to respond to tragedy by falling to our knees, remembering some important things about our God, and discovering some important things about ourselves.

“Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”

Our God is still greater than any petty evil. He remains the creator of all. He cannot be defeated by mere mortals working to thwart his plans or his people. Out of this chaos, he will create order. And we are his instruments in that task.

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? Why do rulers gather together against the Lord and against his people?”

The evil reflected in David’s Psalm and Christ’s cross is seen now in the flames of New York and the Pentagon. There is evil at work today just as in times past. So what else is new? The innocent have always suffered. Some nation, some king, has always raged and fumed and sputtered. September 11th is not unique. Violence like this has happened before and will happen again.

“They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Our God is not surprised by these evil actions. He know what Osama bin Laden was plotting. He saw the mind of that twisted man. But God has constructed this world in such a way that evil can still happen. He knows every sparrow that falls to the ground, but the sparrow still falls. He does not ste in to prevent horrible things from happening. He does not eradicate suffering. He does not protect his people from crosses they are called to bear.

But he knows the suffering to come and makes his plans to redeem every evil act with his own good. You and I are part of his plans.

“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Here is the point. The proper response of God’s people to this tragedy is not lamenting wicked men or standing paralyzed in the face of so great a loss. The proper response has little to do with them and with that.

This tragedy affords us the opportunity to see ourselves as we have been and now are. It lets us measure ourselves on the scale of something bigger than our comfortable routines and our narrowed perspectives. It makes us question whether we are equal to the needs of a post-September 11 world. It drives us to our knees and to an acknowledgement –hat we have been sleeping while Satan relentlessly scours the earth for people to eat alive. It breaks us to confess how far we have lived beneath our calling. It prompts us to cry out for another chance to be the people God wants us to be. It sets us praying for courage and for boldness.

We need a miracle … but not just the kind God works through us … the kind that only God can work in us. The sort of miracle that he bestows on a broken church. The miracle of a fresh start and nobler living. The miracle that we, his people, might be better, more faithful, more Christ-like after the tragedy than before.

When we have no box large enough to contain an enormous wrong, when our lives are not big enough to contain the responses required of us, we can build bigger boxes, bigger lives, to help us be equal to the moment. Or, more honestly, we can appeal to the One by whose power and Spirit such large lives are created. With a loud plea for boldness and with the help of the Carpenter who stand ready to turn a world upside down through us, we have a chance to make a tangible difference in a world gone wrong.

[1]     Preached at the Otter Creek Church on September 16, 2001.

[2]     Read the account in Joshua 7 and 8.

[3]     Read the events of Acts 3 and 4.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.