How Should Christians Respond to Tragedy?
“You may have been surprised to find no current issue of our inflight magazine awaiting you on board in April. This is because we decided to suspend publication for the entire month out of sympathy and respect for the families of the passengers and crew who lost their lives on March 24, 2015, in the tragic accident sustained by an aircraft belonging to our subsidiary, Germanwings. Their families and loved ones are daily in our thoughts as we mourn with them.”
After four pages of advertisements, these words were penned by the editor of the Lufthansa inflight magazine this spring. The Alps airline tragedy is still close to the hearts and minds of Europeans, much like other tragedies are a thought away in other regions of the world. This spring, as our family traveled across the European continent with our children and finally settled in Romania, we were exposed to different tragedies and sufferings, some which seemed so distant when we lived in our country of citizenship.
Across the globe, online images, somber conversations and even inflight magazines quickly remind us of catastrophes of global proportion – the mass drowning of hundreds of migrants, thousands dead from earthquakes, deaths by train and airplane crashes and the mounting number of those killed by war and senseless violence. How do we respond?
The first and proper response for any Christian is clear – we mourn. Tragedy can and does befall all people, whether on a global or personal scale. We mourn because we empathize with those who are suffering a loss. We mourn because we remember our own pain. But most of all, we mourn because of the deep reality of sin.
As we observe the brokenness in the world, we should first mourn over the sin in our lives. Recognizing and mourning over our sin should lead to repentance. But our mourning does not stop at our sin. Fifty years ago, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a doctor become pastor, preached words that ring as relevant today as they were in his day: “The man who is truly Christian. . . is concerned about the state of society, and the state of the world, and as he reads his newspaper he does not stop at what he sees or simply express disgust at it. . . He mourns because of the sins of others as he sees the moral muddle and unhappiness and suffering of mankind, and reads of wars and rumours of war. He sees that the whole world is in an unhealthy and unhappy condition. He knows that it is all due to sin; and he mourns because of it.” We mourn over our own sin and the sin that has so affected everyone.
At the beginning of his ministry, in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us what one of the characteristic attitudes of a Christian is to be. The attitude of our heart is one of somber understanding, mourning, at the condition of man. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). We are all to be mourners.
It is easy to skip the step of somber reflection while processing tragedy. I often quickly jump to anger and the blame game. If certain rules were in place and followed, the death toll would not have been so high. If people took their medications, this would not have happened. If justice were served earlier in the process, this would not have happened. If they did not feel hopeless, this would not have happened.
Perhaps so. But one truth we know - these tragedies are all a result of sin. This is not how it should be. We mourn over sin, repent of our sin and pray for repentance in others. Then we should be moved to compassion – to comfort.
2. Practice Compassion
After the first major earthquake in Nepal in April, an American woman living with her family in Kathmandu gave an eye-opening interview regarding her family’s response to living in such a poverty-stricken area. When human tragedy abounds, opportunities to show compassion and the love of Christ equally abound. In Katrina Bryant’s words, “That is something I really cherish as a mom: my son has opportunities to be compassionate. It would’ve been easy to ignore someone who needed help. As mothers, we have opportunities to help our children learn that it’s okay not to ignore people and that we can get involved.” In Katrina’s case, her son and husband found a destitute woman with mental health issues lying in a ditch. They attended to her and found a place for her to live and be cared for.
Her son is growing up understanding and practicing compassion. As we practice compassion, our children learn the appropriate response to tragedy. This response becomes normalized and even expected in their young lives. Children learn from and mimic our responses to catastrophic circumstances. If we ignore it, so will they. If we deny it and say “Those things happened far away. That will never happen here,” we lie. We must acknowledge the brokenness and practice active compassion.
We also must prepare ourselves and our children to respond to tragedy before it occurs. This means talking about sin and its effects in our lives, the lives of others and its impact on the earth. All creation, humankind and nature alike, is groaning, waiting for the pain to be over and all to be made right. But while we wait, we live the gospel by repenting of our own sin, which causes personal tragedies, and showing the love and compassion of Christ to those who have lost hope in the midst of larger catastrophes or personal losses.
Heidi Carlson grew up in Portugal, Mozambique and Kenya and has traveled to nearly 50 countries on five continents. She holds a Masters in African Security Affairs and served in the U.S. Air Force for five years, including a tour of duty in Iraq. She moves every 18-24 months, but currently resides on the plains of southern Romania with her husband and three children, ages five and under, where she enjoys exploring the local area, educating her children and working on her cross-cultural communication skills. She regularly writes at www.willtravelwithkids.