Question: "Is there meaning in tragedy?"
Answer: When tragedy strikes, it is common for people to ask, “What does this mean?” When we witness some disaster or mass murder, there is a natural feeling that what has happened should not have happened. This innate sense of “wrongness” is a clue to meaning in these events. When we look to find meaning in tragedy, we must have the right perspective. We need to approach the question in a way that allows for a coherent answer, and this is only possible through a Christian worldview. Because God instills meaning into every moment and event in history, through Him we can begin to find meaning in suffering. The nature of this world lends itself to tragic events. Fortunately, God speaks to us, so that we can find not only meaning, but salvation and relief from the sufferings of the world.
When studying physical motion, it is crucial to understand perspective. Speed and acceleration are only meaningful in relation to some other object; this object is the reference point. The way in which the reference point moves affects our perception. The same is true in our sense of right and wrong. For concepts of good, bad, right, wrong, or tragedy to be meaningful, they have to be anchored to a reference point that does not change or move. The only valid reference point for these issues is God. The very fact that we consider a mass murder wrong strongly supports the idea of God as the reference point for our sense of good and evil. Without God, even the events we consider the most tragic are no more meaningful than anything else. We have to understand the nature of this world and our relationship to God in order to draw any meaning at all from the things we see.
God infuses every moment and every event with meaning and gives us confidence that He understands what we are going through. When Jesus instituted communion, He tied the past, present, and future together. 1 Corinthians 11:26 says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup (the present), you proclaim the Lord's death (the past) until He comes (the future).” God’s knowledge of all events means nothing is insignificant to Him. If God knows when a sparrow falls, He certainly knows when we face tragedy (Matthew 10:29-31). In fact, God assured us that we would face trouble in this world (John 16:33) and that He has experienced our struggles personally (Hebrews 2:14-18; Hebrews 4:15).
While we understand that God has sovereign control over all things, it is important to remember that God is not the source of tragedy. The vast majority of human suffering is caused by sin, all too often the sin of other people. For instance, a mass murder is the fault of the murderer disobeying the moral law of God (Exodus 20:13; Romans 1:18-21). When we look to find meaning in such an event, we have to understand why this world is the way it is. The hardship of this world was originally caused by mankind’s sin (Romans 5:12), which is always a matter of choice (1 Corinthians 10:13). While God is perfectly capable of stopping tragedies before they begin, sometimes He chooses not to. While we may not know why, we do know that He is perfect, just, and holy, and so is His will. Also, the suffering we experience in this world does three things. It leads us to seek God, it develops our spiritual strength, and it increases our desire for heaven (Romans 8:18-25; James 1:2-3; Titus 2:13; 1 Peter 1:7).
In the garden of Eden, God spoke to Adam and communicated in clear and direct ways, not in abstract concepts. God speaks to us today in the same way. In some ways, this is the most important meaning to be found in any tragedy. Tragic events demonstrate much of their meaning in the way we react to them. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” This does not mean that God causes tragedy, but that He uses our reaction to tragedy to speak to us. Tragic events remind us not only that we live in an imperfect and fallen world, but that there is a God who loves us and wants something better for us than the world has to offer.