Florida residents riding out Hurricane Idalia had to “swim out of their windows”: Personal reflections on innocent suffering

Florida residents riding out Hurricane Idalia had to “swim out of their windows”: Personal reflections on innocent suffering August 31, 2023

Hurricane Idalia slammed into Florida’s Big Bend area yesterday morning. Some residents who chose to ride out the storm at home had to “swim out of their windows” to escape waves of water crashing through their front doors. It then flooded parts of Georgia and the Carolinas before moving offshore this morning.

In other news, a fire ripped through a rundown five-story building in Johannesburg, South Africa, killing at least seventy-three people as of this morning. Several of the victims were children. And today is the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death in 1997 at the age of thirty-six.

I’ve written often over the years on the subject of innocent suffering and truly believe that God redeems all he allows, even disasters like those in today’s news. At the same time, I don’t want to sound a positive note that would be tone-deaf to those who are grieving. So instead, I’ll offer some very personal reflections that are different from any I’ve shared in the past.

My two great crises

My father died of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of fifty-five. The shock was nearly overwhelming for me and my family. He had been in poor health since his first heart attack nineteen years earlier, but we did not expect his death to come so soon or abruptly. And I had no idea why God would allow such a tragedy.

The other great crisis of my life came ten years ago when our older son was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery and six weeks of radiation treatments. The thought that he could die from this was more than I could contemplate. Watching our son go through surgery and radiation was more grievous for me than I can express in words. To this day, I try not to think about the pain of those months.

Here’s my point: In both cases, I learned the truth of Robert Frost’s observation that there is “no way out but through.” Avoiding the realities we were facing did not make them any less real. Pretending that our pain was less painful did not make it so. Keeping up appearances with others did not change the condition of my heart.

And being anything less than honest and transparent with God only made things worse for my soul.

“O Lᴏʀᴅ, how many are my foes!”

Over these years as a “fellow struggler” (to use John Claypool’s poignant metaphor), both as a pastor and as a human, I have come to appreciate the honesty of God’s word. The so-called “psalms of lament” (nearly half of the Psalms) have become especially important for me.

The first is perhaps the most deeply personal for David. Psalm 3 was composed while he was fleeing for his life from his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15–18). Imagine what this aged king must have felt as his son usurped his throne, staged a national rebellion, and sought to kill him.

In response, David begins: O Lᴏʀᴅ, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God’” (Psalm 3:1–2). I would have followed this very honest statement with a litany of complaints against the Lord, asking him to explain why he allowed this crisis in my life and nation.

David does not: “But you, O Lᴏʀᴅ, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lᴏʀᴅ, and he answered me from his holy hill” (vv. 3–4). He chooses to see God’s unseen presence and providential protection and to cry to him in faith.

Consequently, he can make a statement I find absolutely astounding: “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lᴏʀᴅ sustained me” (v. 5). Even while fleeing from his son’s armies, David can sleep while trusting that God will protect him. As a result, he testifies, “I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (v 6).

And he prays, “Arise, O Lᴏʀᴅ! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v. 7). Then he extends his intercession to his divided nation: “Salvation belongs to the Lᴏʀᴅ; your blessing be on your people!” (v. 8).

Reflections for all who suffer

I take from our psalm two life principles that are relevant for anyone facing life’s tragedies today.

One: David’s prayer invites us to be honest with God.

Psalm 3 and others like it are preserved in Holy Scripture as models of true transparency. They remind us of our Lord’s call to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18); the Hebrew is literally translated as “argue it out.”

Do you need to argue with God today?

Two: David’s example invites us to be honest with ourselves.

My favorite part of Psalm 3 is verse 7, where David prays, “You strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.” This is not pious religiosity but personal transparency. David is honest with his emotions in the moment, secure in the knowledge that he can admit how he truly feels to himself and then to God.

After my father died, I began praying the words I felt I should say, telling God that I was grateful for my father’s life and that I trusted him with our family’s needs. But then, the Spirit somehow opened a door in my spirit to how I genuinely felt at that moment—angry, hurt, and frightened. I was mad at my father for dying and mad at my Father for allowing my father to die.

That evening, I went into our backyard, looked up into the night sky, and shook my fist at God. But he did not shake his fist at me.

He never does.

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