Sermon Illustrations on Tragedy


God should Resign if…

Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to explain suffering by saying God too is pained by death but cannot do anything about it. (Elie Wiesel once said in response to Kushner, “If that’s who God is, he should resign and let someone competent take over.”

John Ortberg, Faith and Doubt.

The Importance of Lament to Create a Healthy society

In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah responds to the tragedy and suffering of the fallen city of Jerusalem. The proper response to a tragedy of this proportion is to offer up a lament. The book begins with the poignant words, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” How can it be? In the historical moment of crisis and destruction, it is proper to express to God our lack of understanding. It is appropriate to lament a situation that is not a fulfillment of God’s plan of shalom for the world. The Septuagint translation of the title of this book is “wailing.” Wailing in Near Eastern culture refers to a funeral dirge—when something has been lost or taken away, in this case the vibrancy of Jerusalem, the proper response is wailing. But the lament Jeremiah offers comes with power.

His wailing helps bring closure to this particular chapter of Israel’s history. Through his lament, Jeremiah embraces a troubled history and he is also able to look toward the future. American history tends to be filled with a sense of triumphalism. America’s greatest moments are found in winning wars, conquering economic difficulties, and inventing new modern conveniences. The story of America is often portrayed as the story of tremendous success. There have been, however, times in American history for which we should recognize the need to lament, following the biblical example that calls us to engage in the painful stories as well as the victorious ones. Celebration without suffering can become dysfunctional and provide a myopic view of God’s work. Our story needs to include lament.

Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Moody, 2010.


The Uniqueness of our Suffering

Tragedy gives movement to our story as we attempt to change or give meaning to our taste of death. Yet we are always much more than our tragedies. Each one of us is unique. We have a different name, face, and body from any other person who might be grappling with the same tragedy. Two young girls might have lost their fathers in a drowning accident. Both face tragedy, but do they share the same kind of tragedy? And will both of their lives be marked by that violent intrusion? The answer to both questions is yes.

But what if one girl had been sexually abused by her father while the other girl had a sweet and gracious father? Our story is always marked by the unique plot we have been given. As we engage the inevitable suffering of life, we develop patterns of response that eventually become themes not only of how we relate to our world but of how the world relates to us.

Dan B. Allender, To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future, Waterbrook Press, 2005.


Why I Share

Renowned author Henri Nouwen used the book In Memoriam to tell the story of his mother’s death and his consuming grief. Somebody asked Nouwen, “Why do you do this? Why are you so public about your personal problems?” Nouwen replied, “I always try to turn my personal struggles into something helpful for others.

J. Howard Olds, in Ministry Matters, August 1st, 2008.


The Complexity of Our Tears

One day I was teaching on Capitol Hill and at the end of the afternoon one of my colleagues asked me if I knew a particular woman. I said that I did and he told me that she had been found murdered in her apartment that morning, just a few blocks from where I was standing. I fell back against the wall, screaming inside, NO!

Over the next few days, I found myself rethinking everything that mattered most to me. I still loved my wife, but I thought about her differently—that she was alive and very tender to me. I still loved my children, but I thought about them differently—I wanted to protect them from a murderous world, and was sure that in the end I couldn’t.

I still loved my work, but I thought about it differently—would I be able to teach my students to honestly step into the sordidness of the city and world, knowing that they too might suffer? What I wasn’t sure about was God. Those were dark days for me, as it seemed that I had now seen enough to know that what I had believed about faith and hope and love was not sustainable.

This was one too many stories of horrible sorrow. How could it all still be true in the face of a friend being stabbed to death? And I began to wonder, Is there something that is more true than what I have believed? Is there an account of the universe that makes more sense of griefs like this? We gathered together to mourn our friend’s death, and we cried and cried. While the days are a blur in some ways, I still remember wondering about God and the world, perplexed as to what could be honestly believed…

As the days passed after my friend’s murder, I entered again into the tears of God. It mattered, supremely, that Jesus wept, tearful about our sorrows, weeping with those who wept, and that he groaned severely, being angry at the distortion of life that death is. Years have come and gone since those weeks of great sadness and there have been other days of tragedy, as there will be in the days to come. But I am sure now that I need John 11 to be in the Bible. I need for God to have tears, even, and especially, complex tears, because some days I do too.

Taken from Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good  by Steven Garber, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.11-12. Steven Garber. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Did God Do This?

I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Orlando, Florida, having a conversation with my friend K, from Germany. Her world-class young athlete friend was recently paralyzed as a result of an on-camera stunt that went horribly wrong. K was distraught. She dried her eyes and said, “I struggle believing this is all part of God’s wonderful plan.”

So do I! Do we actually believe we honor God by declaring god the author of all this mess in the name of Sovereignty and Omnipotent control?

W.P. Young, Lies We Believe about God, Atria Books.

It is Well

If you ever travel to Jerusalem and are looking for sites to see, beyond  all the ‘must-see’ sites related to Ancient Israel, the Temple Mount, and the sites associated with Jesus, you might venture to the American Colony Hotel. If you do so, you have the opportunity to see the handwritten lyrics of a song, written right on the wall.

It’s not so much the lyrics themselves that are worth seeing, as profound and moving as they are. But the story that is behind the lyrics. The song, or hymn, is “It is Well” by Horatio Spafford. Spafford lived in the latter half of the 19th century, and was a very successful lawyer and businessman, marrying and raising a family in Chicago. He was also a man of deep faith and an elder in the Presbyterian Church. Spafford’s life involved a series of searing losses that would cause even the most steadfast follower of Jesus to question their plight. The first major tragedy took place when his four year old son died, followed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, in which a major real estate investment was burned to the ground.

Two years later, the family had decided to take some time away with friends, sailing to Europe in November. Horatio, having a great deal of work left to do, decided to stay home instead of joining his family on the trip.

On the second of December, Spafford received a telegram that came from his wife Anna “Saved alone. What shall I do?” Spafford’s four daughters (Annie, age 12; Maggie, 7; Bessie, 4; and an 18-month old baby) all drowned when their ship, the Ville Du Havre, struck an iron sailing vessel somewhere in the Atlantic.

Horatio immediately sailed to England to meet his wife. It was on this journey he wrote these words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain:) It is well (it is well),

with my soul (with my soul),

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed His own blood for my soul.


My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!


For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:

If Jordan above me shall roll,

No pain shall be mine, for in death as in life

Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.


And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight,

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;

The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,

Even so, it is well with my soul.


Most of us can hardly grasp what such a loss might be like. It’s almost unbearable to even consider. But Spafford’s faith kept him going, and not only that, it led him to eventually move to Jerusalem to serve people of all backgrounds.

At first, the Spafford’s moved into a house and began meeting with other Christians in a small society. Eventually, the movement outgrew that space and they moved into a larger house, which eventually became a hostel and then a hotel. It’s still there, and still serves a reminder that when all seems lost, it can still be well with our souls.

Stuart Strachan Jr.


Platitudes not Necessary

Writer Harriet Sarnoff Schiff has distilled her pain and tragedy in a book called The Bereaved Parent. When her young son died during an operation to correct a congenital heart malfunction, her clergyman took her aside and said, “I know that this is a painful time for you. But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never sends us more of a burden than we can bear. God only let this happen to you because He knows that you are strong enough to handle it.” She looked at the pastor and drew the logical conclusion. “So,” she said, “if only I were a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive?”

Every pastor and mature Christian learns, sooner or later, that there are times when the best thing we can do for one another is simply to cry together.

Andy Cook

A Turtle Dropped from the Heavens

Aeschylus was the founding father of Greek tragedy. He believed life was vicious, the gods were brutal, and all were doomed to meet a tragic end, either at the hand of fate or the gods, neither of which cared about the sickness unto death that is the pitiable plight of human life.

As legend has it, Aeschylus was walking around one day when an eagle soared overhead, a turtle in its talons hoping to crack its shell and enjoy a tasty meal. As misfortune would have it, Aeschylus’s bald, shiny dome caught the eagle’s eye, and mistaking it for a rock, the eagle dropped the turtle from high in the heavens, and poor Aeschylus met (or didn’t meet) his maker by way of a turtle dropped from the heavens.

Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer p.38. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Ted Turner Losing His Religion

Ted Turner. He is 71 years old (written in 2014), and still in the news. With a net worth estimated around $2.3 billion, Turner has made an impact on cable television, news reporting, and major league baseball. He has given $1 billion to United Nations causes, and was once married to Jane Fonda. Through it all, Turner was never boring. Outspoken at every turn, Turner’s few missteps have included harsh statements about Christianity.

“Christianity is a religion for losers,” he said in 1990. On another occasion, he joked that the Pope should step on a land mine. He once asked some of his CNN employees who were wearing ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks?” Turner even blamed his divorce from Fonda on her decision to become a practicing Christian.

Interestingly, Turner grew up in a Christian Home, and at 17, planned on being a missionary! “I was very religious when I was young,” Turner told Michael Eisner. “I was a born-again Christian. In fact, I was born again seven times including once by Billy Graham. I mean, I know it inside and out.”

But Turner lost his faith when he watched his sister die from a rare form of lupus, at the age of 20. For five years, turner said, “I prayed 30 minutes every day for God to save her, and he didn’t. A kind and loving God wouldn’t let my sister suffer so much. I said, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you.’” (Sources: “Conversations with Michael Eisner,”, Fortune magazine article, May 26, 2003.)

Andy Cook


The World’s Finale

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.


God should Resign if…

Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to explain suffering by saying God too is pained by death but cannot do anything about it. (Elie Wiesel once said in response to Kushner, “If that’s who God is, he should resign and let someone competent take over.”

John Ortberg, Faith and Doubt.

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