The massacre of students and faculty at Virginia Tech has brought our nation to its knees in mourning and prayer for the families, friends and loved ones of those whose lives were so mercilessly taken. No one can really fathom the troubled heart and mind of the young man who caused this tragedy. His family, friends and loved ones are also devastated. Commentators, psychologists, counselors, leaders pass one by one across the vast media stage attempting to make sense out of something so random, heartless and painful. This event forces us to ask the inevitable question: Why does God allow so much death, suffering and heartache? I had to come to grips with this in my own life.
The author, who lost beloved son Austin to a drunk driver.
On February 21, 1996 when he was 21 years old, my son, Austin, was driving to work when a drunk driver crossed the highway and slammed head-on into my sonís car. Austin was wearing his seat belt, and his airbag deployed; he was killed anyway. The driver didnít die, but he was seriously hurt.
After the tragedy, there were times when I would be ambushed by anguish. I would groan deeply and double over clutching my stomach in pain of loss. Iíd fall to the ground and cry out and sob. I would yell at God and ask, "Why? Why did you take him from me? I canít bear the pain!" I would think of all the atrocities in the world that God allows, of the six million Jews murdered by Hitler and of all the terrorist attacks on innocent people. "Why, God, donít you come here and do something about all this?" I cried out.
We all experience pain and suffering. Some have suffered much more than others. Some people feel the pain of others deeply. Sometimes there is someone to blame, someone to whom we can direct our hatred and bitterness. In those instances we lash out at the offender and attempt to deliver the pain and suffering we feel upon them in a type of revenge. But the pain and bitterness and anger only grow in us, and we find no relief in that. I know because I regularly speak to groups of people hurt by drunk drivers, and among those people Iíve met men and women with a hatred that has twisted their lives.
I searched for a reason for my suffering and emptiness. Soon after Austinís death I was able to tell the drunk driver at his sentencing that I forgave him and wished with all my heart that he would be freed from carrying this burden the rest of his life. But if my bitterness and pain was not from hating that man, why was I continuing to suffer?
Sometimes we can't identify a perpetrator, and we see the pain as senseless and without cause. Perhaps the pain is caused by disease or a natural disaster or a freak accident or inexplicable depression. Sometimes we blame ourselves and eventually self-destruct. But when we are out of options, or when we have vented our emotions on others, we finally turn our rage upon the real source of our anger: God.
After all, since he is God, then he is at least guilty of failing to render aid. If a heart surgeon is walking along the sidewalk, and a stranger drops to the ground at the surgeon's feet in an apparent heart attack, we would revile the surgeon who passes by. The surgeon, of all people, could have saved this stranger. He or she had it in his or her power to save the dying person and failed to render aid. We would shun such a person and even consider that surgeon evil. The surgeon may as well have killed the heart-stricken victim by negligence.
Austin, a student and model, adored his dad--until his
At first we hesitate to curse God for his seeming reluctance to intervene. After all, if heís the one who allowed such pain, or caused such pain, he could wreak some horrible vengeance on us for our impudence. He could "strike us down with lightning," as the saying goes. Or cause our business to fail or our relationships to sour. But sometimes weíre in such pain that we donít care if he hears us and takes offense because we resent him for what he has done or failed to do. We hate him for claiming to be all-powerful and then standing by as evil is poured out upon us. With just one wink of his eye, he could have disrupted the plans of the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center.
Where are you God? Where were you when those innocent people were destroyed in New York? If you exist, if there is a God who cares, then why do I experience such pain and suffering in my life? Why should I believe in a God who cares?
And yet, something happened to me. Somehow the burden of my grief was lifted from my shoulders. Somehow the joy of my life was restored. It came as God revealed an important truth to me: that I blamed himónot for taking my son, but for failing to protect him. I had to actually say, "God, I forgive you for not protecting Austin." In that moment, the burden of my pain was lifted and the healing started in my heart.
I still hurt. I still miss my son. But Iím no longer bent over in the pain of anguish. A peace has flooded my heart that is beyond human understanding; it is supernatural. When I was at the end of myself, God reached out and healed my bitterness. The help came from outside of myselfóoutside of this world. It came from the only one with the power to truly heal and forgive.
Why? And why did it come to me and not to others? And why did it take so long?
I remember times when my children would come to me with a friend in tow and ask if the friend could stay the night. Not tonight, was my answer. "But why?" they would whine. "Because I said so," was my reply. When they continued to plead, I would have to take them aside for a reprimand. I would explain that as the father, I have a much wider view of what is going on. I consider issues that never enter my childís head. Perhaps my answer to the "why" would necessarily hurt the feelings of the friend, perhaps we are having a surprise party for my child that I donít want to give away, or perhaps I had simply planned for some exclusive family time that night. Whatever the reason, trust in my judgment is required, because Iím the parent and Iím older and wiser and can see further ahead. And because I love my children, and they know it, and because I have demonstrated my love to them. I might be able to explain the "why" later, but sometimes not.
Why did I have to wait three years to discover that I needed to forgive God for not protecting my son? Why did God not protect my son? But he is God. He does exist. He can see much wider and further than can I. I choose to trust him. He is not demented and he is not malevolent. He truly wants whatís best for me. He loves me with a perfect love. He watches my every move and he is aware of all I encounter and will encounter. So I have nothing to fear. Iím in good hands, caring hands.
I got into those hands by choice. Trained philosophers are better equipped to write about the importance of choice and free will in the debate about the existence of God. However, I do know and can say that Godís love is free for the taking. We only have to receive it. We need only to open our hearts to it. I was correct: my son was Godís to begin with. If God created us, he has every right to us. And so we can place ourselves in no better care than the God who designed us and loves us. He has given up that right to us so that we can come back to him of our own free will, of our own choosing. He is simply waiting to pour out his love and peace and joy and to take our burdens upon himself.
God already carried the heaviest burden ever. When his son Jesus Christ died on the cross, he took all the guilt of our sin upon himself. And yet he said in the Bible, "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest, for my burden is easy and my yoke is light." Jesus was God and because he was God, he was able to carry the burden of the world like a fly on a camelís back. It was easy for him. He wants to carry our burdens; they add no weight to his load. He pleads for the privilege of bearing our worries and concerns and pain. For although he can carry our burdens with a leap of joy, one little particle of our pain, our suffering, our anxious thoughts will crush us. It will kill us. It was killing me.
God in Jesus Christ is the heart surgeon standing on the path crying and pleading to help us. For, indeed, we are the ones dying of heart failure. He is begging us to put our trust in him, in his expert hands. But so often we push him away with the last vestige of our strength and say, "No, I donít need you. I will get better. I can heal myself. Or someone else will come along and heal me."
Donít wait any longer. Simply tell him you accept him. Reach out and ask for his forgiveness for your reluctance and belligerence. Forgive him, if necessary, and then discover his love flood your heart in return.
Mitch Land is professor of journalism at the University of North Texas.