Caring For Those In Crisis: A Pastor’s Response To Zack’s Death

Caring for those in CrisisThis past Friday, the Mayberry folksiness of Eastman was jolted by the depths of evil. The story of how three-year-old Zack was cruelly beaten to death has brought sadness to most every home in the area. And now as his family and the community grapple with the tragic death of this beloved toddler, the questions of “Why,” “How,” and “What now” begin to fill our brains. We want to know, “Where was God” on Friday, March 14, 2014.

How to Care For the Community

God was sitting on his throne in heaven (Col 3:1). He was not caught off guard. Nor was he in heaven wishing he could intervene but lacking the power to act. Our God had the power to stop little Zack’s death. He also had the power to save my son from death last summer. But he chose not to appear either on March 14, 2014 or on July 16, 2013. Although none of us fully sees into the mind of God, the Bible does reveal why Jesus delays his return and allows evil to go on unchecked in many forms.  

In 2 Peter 3:9-10, we read that, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Jesus hasn’t come again because he wants to save sinners. When Jesus returns to earth, he will descend with a flaming sword to judge the wicked. Once he breaks through the clouds, sinners will have no hope of salvation. Consequently, God waits not because he has forgotten justice, not because he powerless to stop evil, and not because he cares little about human suffering. He waits so that he can extend grace and salvation to the lost.

As believers, we should long for Jesus to return, praying for him to come quickly and end the violent suffering that Zack and many others have experienced. On that glorious day, babies will no longer die; old men will not tire (Isaiah 65:20). Until then, let’s redeem these evil days by proclaiming the gospel to a lost and dying world. When Jesus was asked in Luke 13 about why certain men suffered a violent death, he responded by calling men and women to repent. When our community asks about this tragedy, let’s share the gospel. Christ is coming back! “The day of the Lord will come like thief and the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 2:10).

How to Care For the Family

               I confess that I have no idea what Zack’s family is experiencing.  But the scriptures do provide Christians with a framework for ministering to those who are suffering. Below are nine principles to follow as we seek to minister to broken hearted,    

  1. Be with those suffering. The first step towards ministering to those who are grieving is to grieve (Rom. 12:15). Jesus wept when he went to see Lazarus (John 11:35). Job’s friends understood this principle as well, initially sitting with Job in silence for seven days because they “saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).  
  2. Meet physical needs. The best way to demonstrate our love of God of others is to practically minister to those in crisis (Matt. 4:10; James 2:18).      
  3. Don’t assume you know why a person or family is suffering. I do not know specifically why I or others suffer. And quite frankly, no human being can know “why” apart from divine revelation. To presume to know the divine reasoning for why someone suffers and why someone else rejoices is the height of human arrogance. By appointing yourself god, you will only bring despair and pain to those who are hurting. God’s thoughts are far higher and better than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). Resist the temptation that overcame the disciples in John 9 and Job’s friends.
  4. Do not encourage sin. In many physiological circles people are told to get angry with God when they suffer. However in scripture, we are told to respond with faith and trust (Proverbs 3:5). We should hate all human sin and mourn the fallen pains of nature. But we should not encourage those who are suffering to blame God as Job’s wife did. Rather, we should encourage them to be like Job and not “sin or charge God with wrong doing” (Job 1:22).  
  5. Point the broken hearted to the God who comforts the weak. Romans 8:28-39 is by far one of the best passages for developing a theology of suffering. But I would not open to Romans initially.  Begin with God’s goodness. Offer the hurting expressions for their grief and reminders of hope by turning to Psalm 23, or Lamentations 3:1-26, or Psalm 34. Remind them that God is here and will care for his children.
  6. Encourage them with the truth that babies and innocent children are taken to heaven at death. David was able to stop grieving for his dead son because he knew his son was in paradise (2 Sam. 12:23; I Kings 14:12-13).
  7. Speak truth in love, seeking to edify. Everything we post on Facebook or tweet should be done to encourage and help the family, keeping their situation in mind. Refrain from gossip and idle chatter (Eph. 4:29).
  8. Continue loving them in the days ahead. As Christians, we should respond to crisis, but ministry continues for a lifetime (I Peter 4:10-11).
  9. Pray for them, asking God to love them, comfort them, and meet their needs through his divine power (Col. 1:11).

The Hope of Tragedy

Hope of Tragedy

The accelerator was slammed hard against the floor. With one hand I gripped the wheel and with the other I tightly clutched the hand of my tearful wife. Only moments before, she had bled significantly. Having buried our first born son only two months earlier, we thought that these frantic last few minutes foretold calamity. Our wearied souls which seemed to be only loosely held together by the glue of hope were now bracing for the smashing blow of a miscarriage.  And as we raced toward the hospital amidst a flurry of cellphone activity, I looked at my sweet wife and said, “It seems we are cursed.”

I had sunk to this state as I examined the irony of our despair. I am a children’s pastor. I have even dedicated my ministry to “reaching the next generation for Christ.” Pictures of a little stick figure family were on my business cards and scattered all throughout my church’s children’s ministry. Yet, our home’s tranquil silence has never interrupted by the cry of an infant. My wife and I had no little ones to great us with a “Hi daddy” or “I love you mommy” when we walked in the door. Twice we had prayed specifically for children. And twice God had blessed us with babies in the womb. And now it seemed God would take both of our children prematurely. My heart was crushed by grief. I truly wondered if God knew how much I could handle (I Cor. 10:13).

But God had not failed me. Somewhere during the process of grieving for my firstborn son and celebrating the conception of my second child, I had made this new baby my hope. I had convinced myself that I could keep ministering to families because I would soon have a family. I could handle the despair of leaving a maternity ward without a baby because I had the promise of walking out with a baby strapped into a car seat. I could deal with the empty cradle because it would have a new occupant in about eight months.

By making the baby my hope, I had taken my eyes off of Christ. I had made a created thing my hope. Consequently, I could find only despair. The Psalmist warns: we are not to “trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no salvation” (Ps 146:3). No baby, youth, teenager, or grown child can give us joy everlasting. Because they are infected with a sin nature, they will die, they will make foolish choices, and they will leave us hurting, unfulfilled, and hopeless. But as I remembered later that night via the Holy Spirit, all believers still very much have hope!

As believers, we always have the good and loving comfort of our heavenly father! I felt cursed because I had left Christ. But God never left me, and he will never forsake any of his children (Deut. 31:6). When children die, or declare that they are not Christians, or brazenly reject the word of God to embrace sin, we should utter the words of Lamentations 3:19-24:

My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

Yes, we have grief. Yes, we join with the cries of “Come, Lord Jesus!” But we have hope. God’s love does not leave us in the midst of suffering. No, it encompasses us through scripture and the ministry of others. We can have hope because God’s character does not change with our circumstances. He is still good, merciful, compassionate, just, and long suffering even when we lose everything that is dear to our souls. God will uphold us through every trial. “Remember child of God, you are a sheep that can never lose its Shepherd, a child that can never lose its Father” (Spurgeon, p. 156).

Moreover as believers, we have the hope that everything including the death of a baby and the foolish actions a rebellious teenager are under his control. And all of these events are planned by God to benefit us, the people of God. Even the hardest most unwanted trial is for our benefit so that we may be perfect and complete. Romans 8:28 makes this truth every so clear. As Charles Spurgeon wrote, “This is the best promise of life” (p. 242) And no matter how many children we lose to death or to sin, we still know that we have an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” As Spurgeon notes, “our highest, best, and most vital interests are beyond even the shadow of harm” (p. 216).

Now some might question if God really does use evil to accomplish his loving will. I simply direct you to the cross. Can we think of anything more horrific than killing the son of God? Yet, God used this most evil act to save you, me, and every believer. The wickedest act of all time accomplished the greatest good for humanity (I Peter 2:24). If God can use the vilest event in history for our good, he can and does use our specific sufferings for our good! We can join with Joseph declaring, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).

That frantic night, I was not cursed. My idol was smashed by the realities of a cruel world, but God had remained true to his word. Several hours later because of God’s mercy and compassion, I repented of my false hope. Over the next three weeks, my wife and I made several frightful trips to our doctor’s office with no assurance of the baby’s survival. Thankfully by God’s grace, our second child appears to be healthy growing in the womb. But, this baby can never be our hope. Regardless of how long this baby lives and regardless of whether it becomes a corrupt politician or a revered saint, we will always have hope and joy because of who our God is.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ and righteousness!”

Works Cited

Spurgeon, C. (1999). Beside Stil Waters: Words of Comfort for the Soul . Nashville: Thomas Nelson.