I recently saw the new film United 93. Though not a pleasant experience to view, this gripping and realistic film is a worthwhile one. About 15 minutes into the movie, I was not sure I wanted to relive this horrific day that is so permanently etched into our collective memories.
Though painful, it was powerful to experience this fateful day from the perspective of the passengers on United 93. You wonder if you would have been frozen with fear, or more like some of the courageous passengers like Todd Beamer, who overpowered the terrorists and sacrificed their own lives in order to save many others. You again feel the outrage we all felt the day after this horrific and brazen attack on innocent Americans.
After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, I remember I was asked one question again and again. "Why did God allow this?" Some even suggested it was the "judgment of God." I don't agree with that.
Jesus spoke about a "current news story" of His own day, in Luke 13:4-5. A tower had apparently collapsed in Jerusalem, crushing a group of eighteen men. Referring to that local headline, Jesus asked the rhetorical question, "'Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will also perish'" (NLT).
Did these people who died fall under some special targeted justice of God? Did they get their comeuppance because they were all notorious rebels and God-haters, and judgment fell? No, Jesus was saying that the bottom line is that people die. And here was His point: "You'd better be careful, because you might die too! You too are a sinner, and this could happen to you as well. Those people weren't any worse or better than you!"
Tragedies happen. Wars happen. Accidents happen. Illnesses happen. Cancer happens. We live in a broken, fallen world, and nobody's exempt. It could happen to me. I could get hit by a car or die in a plane crash or succumb to a heart attack-or have a tower fall on me. One out of one people on earth die! Enoch and Elijah may have dodged that final bullet, but besides these two, there are no exceptions. Lazarus may have been raised from the dead, but in a few years, he had to die all over again.
This doesn't mean that God is unfair. It doesn't mean He has singled me or anybody else out for special judgment. If I die, it just means that it was my time to leave this earth. And that time will come for everybody.
The Bible says, "It is appointed unto men once to die..." (Hebrews 9:27 KJV). One meaning of that word appointed in the original language is "reserved." You've got an advanced reservation for when you will leave this world for an eternal destination. There's a ticket with your name and time of your departure on it. That's not a gloomy, pessimistic view of life if you belong to Jesus Christ. If you're a Christian, that whole concept of inevitable death is flooded with hope! You know that when you pass from this life, you will step immediately into the majesty and radiance of the Lord's immediate presence, and live with Him forever. What's not to like about that?
Paul told his friends in Philippi, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain...yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Philippians 1:21,22-23 NKJV). You would never hear that imprisoned apostle saying, "Well, if I've got to die, then I've got to die. Not much I can do about it anyway." No, to Paul, dying meant coming out ahead in the game! Stepping out of this life into the next was the best thing he could imagine. Being in the presence of the Lord Jesus wasn't just "better," it was "far better."
The simple truth is that tragedies have wracked this planet since Adam and Eve were pushed out of the Garden of Eden, and they will continue until Jesus Christ returns to earth to set up His rule of righteousness. But God in His mercy can also take the tragedies of life and use them for our good and for His eternal glory. Nothing is wasted! Not one sigh, not one tear, not one groan in our spirit.
In the book of Genesis is the dramatic story of Joseph. His wicked brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. But in what could have been the ultimate moment of payback, Joseph instead said, "'But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive'" (Genesis 50:20 NKJV).
That means God can take the most evil deed and work in spite of it. And even work through it and in it. Romans 8:28 tells us, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (NKJV). This includes what we perceive as "good things" as well as "bad things."
It's hard for us to understand how a bad thing could ultimately work for the good of anyone. In themselves, there's certainly nothing "good" about illness, car crashes, war casualties, or terrorist attacks. But God, in His infinite wisdom and love, somehow takes all the events of our lives — both good and bad — and blends them together ultimately for our good, the good He intends for our lives.
Sometimes God can even use pain and suffering to get our attention to bring us to faith. The Psalmist wrote, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word" (Psalm 119:67 NKJV). C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar and author of The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, wrote, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world" (The Problem of Pain, 91). Sadly, for some of us, God has to use His "megaphone" in our lives. It's the only thing that will get our attention.
I was a guest on Larry King Live a while back, and the discussion turned to the very topic I am addressing in this article. I told Larry King about a lady who had come to our church one Sunday morning after discovering she had breast cancer. She had seen our television program and wanted to find out how to get right in her relationship with God. The Lord had allowed this tragedy to get her attention. Larry interrupted me and asked, "How do you know it's not a crutch? I mean, I have breast cancer; I’ve got to pray to something."
I responded, "Thank God for that crutch. Larry, He's not a crutch to me; He's a whole hospital."
Larry smiled and said, "Good line!" Then he turned to his director and said, "Write that down." But it wasn't a line. It was the truth. The gospel truth.
The story of Johnny Cash’s life and spiritual struggles offers hope to anyone who has had trouble staying on the straight and narrow path—and reminds us that God redeems broken lives and makes them whole again. My new book, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon is a fascinating look at a unique and talented musician and follower of Christ!