Remembering 9/11/01

Today marks the 9th anniversary of 9/11. I imagine you, like me, were stunned by the events of that day. In the days shortly after it, I wrote an article for our congregation aimed at helping us think biblically about what had happened. I am posting it today as a reminder as we remember those horrific events.

Seizing the Opportunity and Speaking with Grace (Colossians 4:5-6)

            September 11, 2001 will be a date not easily forgotten. You probably, like I, watched the events in a state of disbelief. This is an almost unfathomable act of evil. Obviously, reaction to this horror has run the gamut from shock to rage. As believers, we should take great care that our response to this tragedy is God-honoring. In the words of Colossians 4:5-6, we need to make the most of this opportunity while speaking with grace in a way that honors God.

Reactions Unworthy of Those Who Know God

            The potential for sinful responses is not limited to unbelievers—too often God’s people also react in a fleshly way. Therefore, we must guard ourselves against unholy impulses and actions. Please allow me to challenge about some of these.

We should not react with sinful attitudes and words that are based on and promote ethnic caricatures and stereotypes.

            It has already become clear that many are too ready to lump all people of Arab descent into the category of terrorist or as an enemy of America. This is wrong. The kind of people who committed these atrocities are, in fact, a very small minority in the Arab world. Although seldom recognized, there are Christian (read non-Muslim) communities among the Arabs even in Palestine. These communities would have nothing to do with these terrorist activities. In addition to these, not all Muslims are committed to the radical stance of those who consider themselves on jihad, or holy war against infidels.

            As Bible-believing Christians who wear the label, fundamentalists, we should be aware of how unfair and inaccurate it is to transpose the actions of a small circle of radicals to an entire group. For example, we have all tried desperately to put distance between biblical Christianity and groups like the Branch Davidians, or, before that, the followers of Jim Jones. In spite of our efforts to make a legitimate distinction between biblical fundamentalism and radical extremists, many people wrongly continue to lump all fundamentalists into one stereotyped group.

            The same wrong mindset can happen here. The Arab people, as a whole, have not committed these barbaric acts. A sub-group of Arab people, committed to a radical vision of Islamic domination, have done this. The bottom line is that Arab people are also made in the image of God, so we must be very careful not to violate God’s Word with our speech and attitudes. James 3:8-11 urges us,

8But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?

Whether we like it or not, we cannot honor God by slurring those who bear His image. Certainly, we can condemn terrorism and terrorists, but that is not accomplished by ethnic slurs and stereotypes. God has established a permanent moral guideline to deal with the evil act committed by these cowards. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). The sanctity of human life which rules out ethnic slurs also established the basis of capital punishment. If these terrorists were backed by an organized effort to commit mass murder, and that seems clearly to be the case, then the righteous response is to prosecute this by judicial or military means. 

We should not react with sinful self-righteousness and judgmentalism that assumes that we sit in God’s place.

            There is another dangerous reaction that must be avoided by Bible-believing Christians, and that is the tendency to claim on God’s behalf that this horrible crime is an act of His judgment. Of course, on the most basic and generic level, since it was a sinful act of sinful people, it is an outworking of God’s judgment. Man’s original and on-going rebellion against God has led to a downward spiral of degeneration, a part of which is presented in Scripture as God giving mankind “over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom 1:28). Murder is among the list of things “which are not proper” included in v. 29. Mankind left to itself morally disintegrates as a result of God’s judgment on sin.

            But to go beyond that and argue that this particular, horrible incident is a direct act of God’s judgment against the sins of America, of New York City, or against some specific kind of sin within that city or our country is to go beyond what can be said without specific revelation from God. We know that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God’s judgment because the Bible tells us so. We know that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians as God’s judgment against it because the pages of Scripture provide us with God’s own interpretation of that event. The thing we lack with regard to this terrorist attack is God’s authoritative Word that it was an act of His direct judgment. It may or may not have been; we cannot speak for God if He has not spoken.

            I am reminded of a resolution submitted to a resolution committee that I served on. Following an earthquake in California, it made the incredible claim that since the epicenter of the earthquake was in Hollywood, it was an evident sign of God’s judgment on the moral decadence of that community and of the entertainment industry. To the surprise of some others, I objected to the resolution because I found it impossible to prove that God had intended an earthquake for this purpose. The objections to my objection stopped when I asked the simple question, “So next time an earthquake destroys a fundamental, Baptist church, are we to conclude that it was God’s judgment on that church?” The plain fact of life in a sin-cursed world is that catastrophes happen to both the righteous and the unrighteous. The same must be said about terrorist activities.

            If we are not careful, we can embrace the wrong attitude that Jesus Christ confronted during His earthly ministry. At one point, His disciples saw a blind man and supposed that this blindness must be due to someone’s sin, either his or his parents (John 9:2). To this “Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (v. 3). In other words, God’s providence was not so easily pigeon-holed as to tie every “bad” thing in life to a specific matter of sin. God permits some things so that His own power and glory may be displayed. The tendency to assume God’s direct judgment as the basis for every tragedy is as old as Job’s friends, and, just like then, it is wrong.

            Please do not mistake my point, I am not denying that America is sick with its own sinfulness or that New York City is not representative of the moral decline in our country. I am simply arguing that we cannot make dogmatic assertions on behalf of God—we are not His press agents. If God has told us that He did something in order to send judgment in response to the specific sinfulness of people, then we must speak. But He has not done so in this case, so we should not speak on His behalf. 

How Then Should We Respond?

            It is not enough to rule out certain reactions, we also need to focus our attention on proper biblical responses to tragedies and terrors like these. I would like to suggest three important responses that should characterize Bible believers in the face of such horrific evil and enormous tragedy.

We must recognize God’s sovereign right to rule, even when He permits men to act in barbaric ways that contradict His both His character and Word (Ps 115:3; Lam 3:32-33; cf. Hab 1:2-12; Ps 76:10).

            There are only two options in assessing this kind of situation: either God could have or could not have stopped it from occurring. I hope that you do not believe that God was unable to stop it. To think that would be to deny what the Bible clearly teaches about His omnipotence and sovereignty. So, how do we defend the Bible’s teaching about God’s right to rule and His righteousness when things like this happen? Put bluntly, if you God was able to stop these barbaric attacks and did not, how can we claim that He is a righteous God?

            To this we must first reply that God is never the source of evil and God never entices men to commit evil acts (James 1:14-15). Such barbaric behavior finds its source in the depraved heart and mind of man, not God. Additionally, we can clearly affirm that murderers evidence their true father is the devil (John 8:44). These terrorists were doing the work of the devil, not God. Their religious fanaticism is filled with hatred and murder because it is a religion of satanic inspiration.

            But, we must also defend God’s rights and righteousness by reminding ourselves that it is only His preserving grace that restrains such barbaric behavior from being the common place experience of human existence. If left to himself, man is not progressively moving toward higher forms of enlightened behavior and moral development. The sad reality is that violent crime is a rampant problem in our country. And, the even sadder reality is that millions of unborn babies are murdered every year in our nation. The barbaric nature of these terrorist acts is diminished by these realities, but it should vividly remind us that our civilized world is not a righteous world. It is only God’s restraining, or common, grace that has preserved our nation from experiencing these atrocities previously. We have not been protected from them by any inherent righteousness.

We must recognize that, historically, such tragedies have been used by God to awaken people to their impotence and mortality.

            Times of national tragedy, whether military, natural disaster, or economic collapse often serve as a shocking reminder of our inability to control life and guarantee our future. Those reminders can serve as a good context for the truth of God to be proclaimed and call people to trust in Him. God warned the people of Israel about the dangerous of complacency and a false sense of self-sufficiency:

10Then it shall come about when the LORD your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, 12then watch yourself, that you do not forget the LORD who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deut 6:10-12).

I cannot think of any more powerful exhibition of our inability to control life than the powerless feeling we all experienced watching those planes crash into the World Trade Center towers, and that was only multiplied when those twin towers crumbled to the ground. In spite of all the talk of overcoming these attacks, it is abundantly clear that we cannot guarantee safety and we cannot control the future.

            One of the most amazing moments for me in watching the coverage came during a press conference by New York mayor, Rudy Guiliani. When asked what made the difference between the condition of those who still were alive under the rubble and those who had been immediately crushed, a clearly wearied Guiliani responded simply, “The will of God.” I am not suggesting that this any more theological significance to his words than the simple confession that it was out of human control. But that is exactly my point—when people begin to recognize this simple fact it may be signaling an open door for God’s people to point people to God.

We must clearly articulate that such barbaric acts of cruelty are not the inherent by-product of religious faith, that genuine Christianity considers such destruction and murder as sin that will incur the wrath of God (Gen 9:6; Rev 21:8).

            We should not hesitate to condemn murder at every turn, even if it comes under cloak of religious belief. Murder is not right and those who practice it will face God’s wrath for it. There is no basis in biblical faith for the imposition of faith upon people against their wills or at the threat of their lives. Dogmatic commitment to the supremacy of Jesus Christ and the exclusivity of salvation in Him need to be defended while at the same time condemning the kind of radical fanaticism that motivated these murderous acts.

            Proper biblical faith in the true God does recognize that He will bring about final judgment in a way that will be thoroughly righteous. The apostle Paul sets forth the case in Romans 2:5-11,

5But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. 9There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11For there is no partiality with God.

Pertinent to our point here are the truths: (1) that there will certainly be a day of judgment upon for all people (vv. 9-10), (2) that the judgment will be done by God Himself at His appointed time (“the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God”), and (3) that this judgment will be thorough and impartial (vv. 9-11). Believers are content to wait for the revelation of God’s wrath and not take things into their own hands.

            Also, New Testament Christianity is not to be spread through means of military might. Contrary to the mindset of Islamic fundamentalists, Bible believing Christians recognize that faith in Jesus Christ is a result of spiritual rebirth, not coercion.

We must remember that, as believers, it is right to do good to all men and that we ought to feel and show compassion for those who have and are suffering horribly as a result of these crimes (Gal 6:10; Rom 12:15).

            If any people should be moved with compassion about this kind of situation, it should be those who understand the eternal ramifications of the actions taken by these terrorists. The loss of life has been horrendous, and the spiritual ramifications of this should break our hearts. And, it is only from broken hearts that we can express the solemn truth about the eternal consequences of not knowing Jesus Christ. But we also should have compassion on a creaturely, temporal level. Just as we should rejoice with those who rejoice, we need to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). A Christ like response to tragedies like this is to exhibit genuine sympathy with those who have lost loved ones, who have been injured themselves or will care for those who have been injured.

            I honestly don’t know all the implications of these biblical principles, nor can I say how each believer should respond precisely. What I do know is that any attitudes, actions, or words that reveal callousness toward genuine human needs, whether spiritual or physical, is wrong. Remember, the second chief commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Rom 5:14), and genuine love is always demonstrated (1 John 3:18).

We must commit ourselves to pray that the Word would spread rapidly so that it will be glorified and we must commit ourselves to the task of proclaiming God’s Word as the source of hope in this life and for all eternity (2 Ths 3:1; Col 4:2-6; Ps 73:25-26).

            Since everything that God does is intended to promote His own glory, we should assume that at least one clear purpose of His permission in this case is so that His glory can be made known. Given what I have said above about the opportunity provided by calamities and catastrophes, we should realize the means by which God will reveal His glory is the saving power of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we need to really seek the Lord for open doors for the Word and the boldness to go through them (Col 4:3-5; Eph 6:18-20). It may be that God will graciously send a time of revival among His people and awakening in our country.

 At a time like this the truth of Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 stands out in sharp relief:

2It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. 3Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. 4The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure. 5It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man than for one to listen to the song of fools.

The events of September 11, 2001 vividly demonstrate that life is fragile, and the evident fear that it is has produced can serve the purposes of the gospel. Believers should carefully, compassionately, yet clearly seize this moment to communicate the need to turn to Christ in faith now. Perhaps there will be multitudes of men, women, and children who will cry out like the Philippian jailer did when his world was rocked by an earthquake. May we be committed to be ready with the same answer Paul offered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). 

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