That’s the question I keep hearing in quotes from news interviews. People are stunned. A gunman opened fire randomly on a popular trail, killing three and wounding one before taking his own life. Why would someone do something like this? Along with that question, another one is implied: Why would God let something like this happen?

The authorities will do their best to answer the first question, though I’m guessing the answer will remain somewhat unsatisfactory. What about the second question? Our human minds won’t be satisfied by the answer to that one, either. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord (Isaiah 55:8).

Nonetheless, God does have plenty to say to us when tragedy strikes. His words give us reason to reassess our spiritual lives as well as comfort and hope to cling to even in the most unsettled times. There may be much we cannot know. But there are some things we can say for certain, because God says them. Here are a few things we can take away from this and any tragedy:

1. The world is evil.

People are shocked, and understandably so. “These kinds of things don’t happen around here” is the sentiment I keep hearing. It’s true; our community had never seen something like this before.

On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. Things like this happen all over the world. They can happen anywhere, any time. In fact, senseless violence is as old as Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). Why? Because people are sinful. By nature we are evil. Before the Flood, God saw that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5). And human nature has not changed in the centuries since then. Jesus said, “It is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder…” (Mark 7:21).

The sobering truth is that any sinner is capable of any sin at any time. We should actually be thankful that these kinds of things don’t happen more often! The fact that they don’t is only because God graciously restrains evil in the world, through the “curb” of his law written in the hearts of all people, the working of his Spirit in the hearts of believers, and his divine control of all things. Perhaps it would be good to remember—and thank God for—the myriad times something like this didn’t happen!

These kinds of tragedies also help us to look forward all the more to a world where there will be no evil. “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth… the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more…They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:17, 19, 25). Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

2. Our time is short.

When the ages of the victims range from 33 down to 11, it’s hard to miss this truth. These were people in the prime of their lives, and in a matter of seconds, those lives were ended.

It reminds us all how quickly our time of grace can come to an end. It doesn’t have to be something this violent, either. It could be a crash on a highway, a fall from a ladder, or a heart attack. It only takes an instant for us to face eternity!

Once some people asked Jesus to comment on a local tragedy (Luke 13). Jesus told them not to think that the people who died were being punished. Rather, he encouraged all his hearers to take the event as a reminder to live in constant repentance. When our time is up, we want to be found in faith. “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2.)

Perhaps the older ones among us tend to think about the end of life more than the younger ones. Tragedies like this force us all to think about death—and that’s a good thing. Parents, now is the time to teach our children in God’s Word so that, should God call them out of this world in their youth, they will be welcomed into their Father’s arms in heaven. Young adults, now is the time to make God’s Word a priority for ourselves in order to keep our faith alive and strong and be always ready, should our time come sooner rather than later. Now is the time for all of us to leave behind habitual sins that threaten to pull us away from God, the time to turn to his Word for forgiveness and strength.

These kinds of events also remind us of the urgency of our work as Christians. We want all people to have the hope that we have in a Savior from sin and a place in heaven. It sounds like at least some of the victims held that Christian hope. I take great comfort in that and I want everyone else to have the same. Tragedy puts an exclamation point after the “Go!” that Jesus spoke to his disciples before ascending into heaven. Let’s rededicate ourselves to the urgent work of making disciples by baptizing and teaching. The time is now!

3. God is in control.

It may not always seem like it. If he is, why would he let something like this happen? When tragedy can strike even on a beautiful evening at a favorite family spot, it seems like everything is out of control.

Let me tell you about a young man who lived some years ago, whose life came to a sudden end. By all accounts, he was a very good man. He was kind and loving to his family and friends and even strangers. Yet one day he was killed in a senseless act of violence. He died right in front of his family and friends. They watched the horrific scene unfold before them as if in slow motion but they could do nothing to stop it. They were in shock. They couldn’t understand why he had to be taken from them. He was only 33! To call it a tragedy, to them, would have been an understatement.

But later on they came to see things differently. They came to understand that the “tragedy” they witnessed was actually the best thing that could ever happen to them. It certainly helped to see their loved one come back from the dead and explain (again) why it all had to happen the way they did. Years later, they wrote with pride and joy about the precious blood that was shed (1 Peter 1:19) that purifies us from all our sins (1 John 1:9). Ask John or Peter or Mary or any of those who saw Jesus die on the cross—ask them, now, if they would have it any other way! What was inarguably the most unfair, “tragic” event in history was actually the key to our eternal happiness. It’s how God planned to saved us.

Likewise the tragedies that we see and experience now are also part of God’s saving plan for his people. Not that they pay for our sins; Jesus already did that. But they are part of God’s plan to get us from here to eternal salvation. God has promised, in no uncertain terms, that even the worst things that happen are part of that perfect plan. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8:28). We can’t always see it or understand how it works. But if God was willing to give up his own Son to win us a place in heaven, you can be sure he will do whatever it takes to get us there!

Sometimes that means allowing tragedy to strike. God doesn’t take this lightly. If he commands his angel legions to stand down and allow harm to come to his people, it is only because he knows it is necessary in his plan for our eternal happiness. It is only because he knows how he will use it to bless us. Perhaps it will nudge us back into his Word. Perhaps it will remind us to pray. Perhaps it will give us a chance to witness to others. And when we believers do die, even under tragic circumstances, it is the best thing that has ever happened to us, because it is the day of our final deliverance.

Our confidence in that all-wise and all-loving God need not be shaken by tragedies like this. Instead, let’s turn to him for comfort and strength and trust him all the more. God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear... He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46).

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