A Journey with God Through Tragedy

On July 11, 1991, our daughter Andrea and her boyfriend Scott Martin drove from Dallas to San Marcos, Texas, for the weekend to stay with a female friend and visit the campus of Southwest Texas State University. Shortly after they arrived in the early hours of July 12, the friend's roommate, who had been taking hallucinogens, opened fire with a 22 caliber semiautomatic rifle, emptying a fifty shot clip into the room. Andrea and Scott were killed. The friend was wounded. The perpetrator is now in prison.

This was written in 1992, a year after Andrea's death, and was sent to friends and acquaintances in a family newsletter.

Most of you who are reading this newsletter knew of our daughter Andrea's death last year. Soon afterward, we sent a letter to all who had responded to our grief, expressing how we felt at the time about such a tragic event.

Since then, we have had many inquiries about how we are doing. More than a year has now passed; the initial trauma is gone and life has returned to a normal, though changed, routine. It is time for a reflection from this more distant perspective. Perhaps these thoughts will encourage some of you who have lost someone you love.

There are two main streams of questions that must be addressed to give an understanding of "how we are doing". First is the personal issue; the fact of the loss itself, the grief, the void in the family, the adjustments in family relationships, the different outlook on the future. The second issue is our Christian perspective; how we understand such tragedies, how God can allow something like this to happen, how we respond to God. For the Christian, the personal issues cannot be explained by themselves; they can only be understood in light of his understanding of who God is and how he works.

The apostle Paul said as much in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13)

Although the Christian and the non-Christian share the same human qualities and the same life experiences, the one with Godly faith and knowledge will respond in a far different way than one without faith.

The question that leaps ahead of all others in this kind of situation is "why?". Why did this happen to me, to my family? Is God punishing me? Is he trying to tell me something? If so, was there not another way? Is he even involved in it at all? Does he care?

I am convinced that God cares for me. He cares for my family. And he cared for Andrea. The fact that God cares for us, his children, is a pervasive teaching of Scripture. A sparrow falling to the ground does not escape his attention; he numbers even the hairs of our head; he sent Jesus his son to die for us, so that we could have fellowship with him for eternity; he loves us with an everlasting love; he takes our cares, because he cares for us. And in addition to the almost endless declarations and examples of his love from Scripture, I have experienced his care for me personally over my years of Christian experience.

But was God involved in this tragedy?

This question confronts us with the whole question of how God operates in his creation and especially with his family. Many Christians never ask the question until tragedy strikes. They live as though he is an absentee landlord and only call on him when the plumbing goes out or the roof leaks. But for those who yearn for a truly meaningful relationship with Jesus, this is an important if perplexing issue. We want him to be involved in every aspect of our life, but between the twin problems of sin and of evil men we are not sure if he is in charge and intimately involved, or in charge and only occasionally involved, or not involved at all.

Hannah Whitall Smith deals with this question in Chapter 12 of The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life. She poses the problem as follows:

One of the greatest obstacles to an unwavering experience in the interior life is the difficulty of seeing God in everything. People say, "I can easily submit to things that come from God; but I cannot submit to man, and most of my trials and crosses come through human instrumentality."

...This is no imaginary trouble, but is of vital importance; and if it cannot be met, it does really make the life of faith an impossible and visionary theory. For nearly everything in life comes to us through human instrumentalities, and most of our trials are the result of somebody's failure, or ignorance, or carelessness, or sin. We know God cannot be the author of these things; and yet, unless he is the agent in the matter, how can we say to him about it, "Thy will be done"?1

Here then is her answer:

What is needed, then, is to see God in everything, and to receive everything directly from his hands, with no intervention of second causes; and it is to just this that we must be brought before we can know an abiding experience of entire abandonment and perfect trust.

...To the children of God, everything comes directly from their Father's hand, no matter who or what may have been the apparent agents. There are no "second causes" for them.2

The author proceeds to quote extensively from the many Scriptures that indicate God's control over the earth, its kings and kingdoms, and all that is in it. She concludes:

To my own mind, these scriptures, and many others like them, settle forever the question as to the power of "second causes" in the life of the children of God. Second causes must all be under the control of the Father, and not one of them can touch us except with his knowledge and by his permission. It may be the sin of man that originates the action, and therefore the thing itself cannot be said to be the will of God; but by the time it reaches us it has become God's will for us, and must be accepted as directly from his hands. No man or company of men, no power in earth or heaven, can touch that soul which is abiding in Christ, without first passing through his encircling presence, and receiving the seal of his permission.3

A most elegant and succinct statement of these concepts is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

Chapter III. Of God's Eternal Decrees

1. God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.4

Chapter V. Of Providence

1. God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

3. God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.

I accept the view that God is in charge, and is intimately involved; that these concepts, though difficult, reflect the teaching of Scripture. Any lesser involvement of God in his creation leaves us at the mercy of chance and of evil men. But if God indeed is in everything, and the acts of evil men can only take place with his permission, then we can have confidence that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him, to those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

And so, with regard to Andrea, I must conclude that God, the great creator of all things, who upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, did allow a man's evil act to be the means by which he ushered Andrea into his presence at the tender age of twenty.

God could have miraculously intervened, but he didn't.

He could have providentially delayed their arrival in San Marcos by an hour, until the situation would have resulted in a different outcome, but that was not in his plan. I can only submit to these facts: God is in charge, he is intimately involved in the affairs of men, and especially of his children; he loves me, and he loved Andrea; he allowed this terrible deed to happen; and I still trust him.

When someone dies at the age of ninety we usually do not ask why God allowed it. It is within the normal order of the events of life. It meets our expectations of how long life should be. And so we may be sorrowful but we are not thrown off course by it. I remember my grandparents, three of whom died in their eighties. (One grandmother died before I was born.) Pa Reynolds was a farmer, and I recall riding the plow-horses, and carrying water from the spring, and killing and cleaning chickens for Sunday dinner. Papa Treat took me fishing and bounced me on his knee and told me stories. Grandma Treat used to buy little round watermelons for me to eat on the back porch in the summertime. I have never had a watermelon as an adult that was as good as my memory of those little round ones. I had those wonderful memories and the years of relationship with my grandparents, and I was sorrowful when they passed away in old age. But although their death was a loss, it was not a theological problem to me. And I do not recall other family members being perplexed with the question "why". They had lived long and full lives, and their passing at that stage of life was reasonable and normal.

Our relationship with a child is also full of memories. I remember seeing Andrea at the hospital just after her birth. My heart sank because her head was misshapen from the pressures of the womb and birth. What relief a few hours later when it had adjusted to its smooth, rounded normal shape! I also recall the State Fair of Texas Look-alike Contest when she was about two years old. She had a burgundy colored checkered dress, and I had a shirt of the same material. Andrea inherited my curly hair (mine is only obvious when it is long, which it was in those days). Between our frizzy, curly hair and checkered outfits, we won first place hands down.

These are only two examples of twenty years of memories. Yet I think that what characterizes our relationship with a child is not so much the memories as the hopes, plans, and expectations for the future. We want to see them grow up, to get their education, to experience romance and marriage, and establish families of their own. As Christians we want to see them grow in spiritual stature, and develop Godly lives. We want to see who they will be, what they will become. We want this not only for them, but for ourselves. As parents we get immense satisfaction from seeing our children do well. They reflect on us, and we see them as an extension of ourselves. We desire the benefit of grandchildren. In a sense we want our lives to continue after we are gone. And we want the security of knowing that someone will be available to us in old age.

When a child dies, these hopes, plans, and expectations are terminated. The event is outside the normal order of life and what we expect of it. We are faced with significant unexpected loss, the fragility of life, and the fact that we are indeed not in control. It raises questions of who we are, and our purpose for being here; of who God is, of his involvement in the affairs of life; of how to understand such events. It raises the question of "why?".

The fact that God is in charge and intimately involved in our affairs provides us with an idea of how God operates in the world and allows us to have confidence in God even though bad things happen.

It gives us a basis for peace and rest in the midst of turmoil because we know that God has not left us alone. But although we may have some understanding of how tragedy fits into the grand scheme of things, that does not give us automatic answers to the "why" question for a specific event.

On some occasions God may give knowledge of his reasons. A Scriptural example is that of David, who, after sending Uriah to his death in order to take his wife Bathsheba, was told by the Lord through the prophet Nathan,

Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife...The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die. (2 Samuel 12:9-10, 13-14b).

The child became sick and died. Much later, his son Absalom was killed as a result of his rebellion against David. These events were the result of sin, both that of David and of Absalom. David suffered much grief over these losses, but he did not have to ask why they occurred. He knew why, by means of God's revelation through Nathan the Prophet.

There are also occasions in which God gives us, through prayer and reflection and the ministry of others, insight into a tragic event.

Sheldon Vanauken, in his book A Severe Mercy, describes the "Shining Barrier" he and his beloved Davy erected around their relationship. Through their courtship and subsequent marriage, the Shining Barrier was their defense against any encroachment of the world or of self-interest against their love, their relationship, their us-ness. Even children were ruled out by the Shining Barrier. They became Christians, and in time were faced with the erosion of the Shining Barrier as God began to assert his priority over their lives. Davy's submission to the Holy Spirit's drawing of her to himself was more complete than Sheldon's. Though both were involved in the Lord's service, Sheldon had difficulty yielding his oneness with Davy to God, and letting God have complete access within the Shining Barrier. When Davy died of a liver ailment in her thirties, Sheldon in his grief shared his feelings with C. S. Lewis, his friend and spiritual mentor from his days at Oxford. He told him the details of the Shining Barrier, of their desire to stay in love and let nothing come between them, even children. Lewis replied concerning the Shining Barrier, in part:

One way or another the thing had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in which it could have died tho' both the parties went on living. You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true and how very frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from US you have been led to US AND GOD; it remains to go on to GOD AND US. She was further on than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on.

Vanauken goes on to observe,

It was death - Davy's death - that was the severe mercy. There is no doubt at all that Lewis is saying precisely that. That death, so full of suffering for us both, suffering that still overwhelmed my life, was yet a severe mercy. A mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.7

Vanauken then acknowledges,

Of course I hadn't known I was jealous of God. It was an almost unthinkable thought, and it remained unthought - and even more unthinkable - while I was pleading for Davy's life in the hospital months and pouring my strength into my total commitment to her. But the jealousy was there. And God knew.8

This remarkable insight brought healing and spiritual strength to Vanauken. Yet the question remains: Did God take Davy at that particular time for the purpose of accomplishing a work in Vanauken's heart? Or are his purposes in it still unknown to us, and the work in Vanauken's heart an incidental good that came out of it as we would expect from Romans 8:28, which tells us that "all things work together for good to them that love God"? I believe that we can never answer these questions with certainty.

We must never forget who we are, and who God is.

In him we live, and move, and have our very being. He is very near to us, yet he is far above us. His ways are higher than our ways. He sees the universe in a glance; we see only that which is close to us. He is intimate with eternity past and eternity future; we see only now. He is the king; we are his subjects.

God reveals to us the knowledge we need to live a life that is pleasing to him (2 Peter 1:3). But he doesn't tell us everything. And so we must be content with what he allows us to know, and profit from the insights he gives us.

I am convinced that, in most cases, God does not give us the specific reasons why tragedy occurs. They are wrapped up in his eternal plan for his creation and especially for his children.

...How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! (Romans 11:33).

It is his intention that we should relate to him by faith; that we should have confidence in him even in the absence of complete knowledge.

...The just shall live by faith. (Romans 1:17).

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1).

...without faith it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6).

At this point I do not know why Andrea was taken. I cannot answer the "why" question. I do not have any sense that it was related to somebody's sin, or that God intended some specific good to result. Perhaps God will give me some insight later on, but probably I will not have understanding until we are united in the next life.

But this is truly not a problem for me. I would like to know why, but I do not have a compulsion to know why. I am content that I and my family are in the hands of a God who does all things well, and I am satisfied to leave it as a matter of faith and trust.

I can also truthfully say that I have not been angry at God because of this loss.

This is a tribute to God's mercy and grace toward me, because it is not the way of the natural man. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, and the keeping of the promise that he will not allow us to be tempted above what we are able to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).

A part of his grace is that he had allowed me to ponder these issues over the years and develop an understanding of how hardship and tragedy fit into the Christian life before I had to contend with a loss of such magnitude. So the loss, when it occurred, did not clash with my understanding of Scripture. I did not have to rethink a lifelong viewpoint to handle the loss. God does indeed prepare us for what he expects us to face in life.

I write the above paragraphs with great reluctance, because of the risk of seeming super-spiritual, or self sufficient, or even arrogant. Some may see it as saying "I've got it all under control; aren't I spiritual?". I admit that I desire to be a spiritual person, and recognition of that from my peers is important to me. But what I have said is how I feel and think at this time, and I am very aware that it is the Holy Spirit that works in me to produce his fruit; it is not my natural tendencies. I cannot predict how I might respond to another tragedy, or how I might handle another's hardship. I can only ask and expect God will enable me for whatever he calls me to.

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12).

We face a grave danger to the spiritual life in circumstances such as these. The problem arises when we encounter a life experience which does not match our concept of who God is and how he operates. We believe God is just, and then something very unfair happens to us. We believe he is watching over us, and we experience a severe hardship. We believe he gives victory, and we seem to lose on every hand. What is the problem? It is the problem of creating God in our own image. We impose on him our own ideas of what is just and good and victorious, rather than accept what he teaches us about himself. We do not see things from the same perspective that God does. Our concept of a loving Father does not include our suffering, but God's does. So we have a mismatch between our experience and our expectations of God. The believer here has two choices. He can by prayer and study and counsel revise his concept of how God deals with him, and grow thereby, or he can become angry, disenchanted, and judgmental toward God. Let us never choose the latter path.

Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. (Hebrews 10:35-36).

When a death occurs there is always the question of guilt and regrets.

Did I treat her as I should have? Was there anything I could have done to prevent this from occurring?

I am not aware of any preventive act that could have been taken. On Thursday July 11 Andrea called me at work to tell me that school was finished for the week and she and Scott were going to San Marcos as planned. We talked for a few minutes and said goodbye. It was our last conversation. I had no sense of impending problem. In fact, my wife Pat and I both felt that the weekend in a small university town like San Marcos would be safer than in Dallas. In the early morning hours of July 12 we received the call from the hospital that Andrea had been shot. A few minutes later the second call came; she had not survived.

The Lord did give us some warning. Pat had been burdened with a spirit of intercession for several days prior to that weekend. She had prayed for hours, not knowing what the burden was for, but presuming it was for our daughter Grace who was going through a difficult time. And Grace's husband John had a strong sense that something serious would happen that weekend, but he too assumed it had to do with his own family. We viewed it as a word of knowledge. But it was partial knowledge, as though seeing through a glass, darkly.

Andrea had some difficult years growing up. Our relationship was seriously strained at times. But in the last couple of years she had been pulling out of those difficulties, and our relationship had been healed and restored. I was doing a lot of the fathering activities that I had not been able to do during the earlier teenage years. I am grateful that God took her during this good time rather than in the midst of the hard times. I have warm feelings about the relationship we had.

Still, I have a few regrets.

Andrea had been a sensitive child, and I wish I had been able to respond more effectively to those needs through her younger years. At the time, I felt I was doing well as a father; in retrospect, I think my understanding of a sensitive type personality was limited and I did not give her all that I could have.

This may seem trivial, but I wish I had given her a new car, or at least a newer one. I know that a person's life does not consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses. But I would have enjoyed her joy in receiving it.

Pat and I both have been made more sensitive to the fragility of life. About a month after Andrea's death, our son John had to leave for Texas Tech in Lubbock. He drove out alone in his pickup, and I was very apprehensive about it. The fear of possibly losing John was an irrational one, but it was real. John graciously called us while on the way and again when he got there. I know that God does not give us a spirit of fear, and he has helped to diminish it. But we still have more concern about the safety of our other children than before. We still experience grief at the loss of Andrea.

Sheldon Vanauken said, of his loss of his wife Davy, But grief is a form of love - the longing for the dear face, the warm hand. It is the remembered reality of the beloved that calls it forth. For an instant she is there, and the void denied. It is not the grief, involving that momentary reality, that cuts one off from the beloved but the void that is loss.9

Andrea cannot be replaced. It is the void that is left that we experience, the fond memories that cannot be duplicated or repeated. I can no longer write the humorous little poems that she appreciated, or help her make plans for school and work. I will not again enjoy her sitting in my lap and convincing me to give her money or let her do something that I intended to do all the time anyway.

The loss also extends beyond Andrea herself. Although rarely a subject of discussion, there was the expectation that she would someday have her own family, with children that we would enjoy as grandchildren. And there was the expectation that she and her family would be available to us in our latter years.

So how do we deal with the loss?

It is a combination of many things. We trust God to take care of us. We enjoy all the blessings that come from his hand. We enjoy our remaining family that God has provided for us. We have our son John, our daughter Grace, and two grandchildren. We love and appreciate them. They are God's gifts. We accept the love and support of Christian friends. And we seek opportunities for ministry and service to the Lord.

But perhaps the greatest balm comes from the hope we have in Christ, that not only will we see him face to face for eternity future, but we will also see those we love who have known him. Andrea by God's grace knew Jesus as her Savior, and while we are laboring here on earth she is now having a good time with the Lord. This is a temporary situation, and I look forward to seeing her again.

Where there is pain, the Lord brings healing. We are experiencing his healing. Tragedy often causes families to fragment, but Pat and I are still committed to each other and I believe our faith and our relationship have strengthened through this period.

When hardship comes, let us remember the words of James:

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12).

Bob Reynolds is a layman with an interest in writing. He has served in churches as teacher, deacon, elder, and associate pastor. He and his wife Pat, a Christian counselor, live in Dallas. Both serve on the Board of Advisors of Flame Fellowship International. Bob holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University, and an MBA from the University of Dallas. He also has attended Dallas Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.