A grieving nation seeks answers – where can we find them?

How do we process the tragic events of March 15th? Will we find not just the common grace we know so well, but the saving grace we need?

Photo: Mark Baker/AP

New Zealand is a country saturated in God’s common grace. I sometimes feel that these islands are about as close to heaven on earth as you’ll find. We have our problems, but we’re served by stable and accountable government that has ensured religious freedom, prosperous without being ostentatious in our wealth, filled with astounding natural beauty, a place that people from all over the world choose as their home (48 cultures are represented at my son’s school alone). Christchurch, my home, is as friendly and tranquil as any small city on Earth, and New Zealanders are a people of quiet strength—not brash and self-seeking, but resolute and generous.

Maybe above all, we’re a peaceful nation. Since moving here from Australia nine years ago, I’ve occasionally joked with friends that you could be forgiven for seeing an army vehicle full of soldiers drive past and thinking “oh no, another cat caught up a tree”. Aotearoa has been a place of almost unparalleled safety.

We are, by any human measure, uncommonly blessed.

But heaven on earth is an illusion, as we were reminded in a shocking and horrendous way on March 15. In a moment, we experienced a flash of unrestrained evil when a heavily armed white supremacist entered two mosques and killed 50 people in a horrendous, calculated terrorist attack.

It has left us shell-shocked, angry, confused, exhausted, and fearful. But most of all, it’s left us grief-stricken. We are a nation in mourning—for the dead, but also for our shattered sense of peace and tranquility. In a place of such abundant blessings, it’s rare to be confronted with such unfettered evil.

In our grief and anger, we’ve now spent more than a week searching for an appropriate answer—and that search includes God’s people. Christians in New Zealand have responded in many ways, yet we know we’re only scratching the surface. We know this attack has left a deep wound in our national psyche that will be with us for years, and will require many multi-layered responses.

Through the fog of our emotions, we know that the distinctive Christian reaction must be gospel-centred and Christ-glorifying. That may sound like motherhood and apple pie, but it’s easier said than done. At a time like this, it could be easy for Christians to go with the flow and be swept along with the tide of public response.

In many ways, that wouldn’t be a disaster, because the collective responses so far have been everything you’d hope for: poised, decisive and compassionate leadership from our Prime Minister; universal condemnation of acts of hatred and violence; outpourings of collective grief expressed with peace and sympathy; an affirmation that Muslims belong here as equal partners in our nation; a desire to preserve freedom of religion; perhaps even an awakening to the truth that religion hasn’t been entirely blotted from the landscape of our public and private lives.

But as disciples of Jesus Christ in Aotearoa, we simply must go further. We must respond in ways that only we can.

That should begin, of course, with fervent prayer. We’ve prayed for the victims’ family members and loved ones, for first responders, for our Prime Minister and our government, and for each other. We’ve prayed that God would ease the fears of our Muslim friends, and that there would be no desire for ‘revenge attacks’ of any sort, either here or abroad. We’ve prayed, more earnestly and genuinely than usual, “Come Lord Jesus”.

Perhaps we’ve even prayed for the terrorist.

I’ll admit that I’ve found this last prayer almost impossibly hard. At a prayer meeting I attended last week, someone bravely volunteered, “We should pray for the shooter”. Of course we all knew it was right, but it felt so counter-intuitive.

I’ve never felt the weight of Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, more than I have since the attack (even though it was Muslims and not Christians who were targeted). Christopher Hitchens felt the weight of these words, and utterly rejected them. He called it “perhaps the most immoral [injunction] of all” and vowed “that I will not do”. “I know who my enemies are. … I’m not going to love them,” he insisted. “You go love them if you want; don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them and destroying them, erasing them, and you can love them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all. It’s a wicked idea and I hope it doesn’t take hold. … What a disgusting order.”

He’s right, of course—ifthere isn’t a loving God at the heart of the universe. But if God saved a rebel like me, and if God saved a committed persecutor like my apostle, who am I to decide who’s beyond the bounds of God’s mercy?

It’s time for Christians in New Zealand to ask whether we’re willing to take Jesus at his word and love our enemy. How could we love this individual? How could we love a person who’s so filled with hate, who sought to inspire hatred in others, who has committed such evil and caused so much pain? Only by remembering that while we were still sinners—while we were God’s enemies—Christ died for us. Will we let this evil man be to us as the Ninevites were to Jonah? Or will we take the chance to reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, allowing it to drive us to prayer even for this man and his salvation? The hardness of his heart must be unimaginable—but we believe in a God who brings life from death and can break even the hardest of hearts.

And if this man’s heart remains hard, we can be thankful for a God of perfect justice, a God who is far angrier at this man than I will ever be. Be thankful that the Bible says, “Be angry and do not sin” (not “never get angry”).

As we reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, our thoughts also turn to our Muslim friends. And make no mistake—they are our friends. I don’t know exactly what the Muslim community in Christchurch and New Zealand will want or need as they continue to deal with this tragedy—beyond the usual kinds of love, care and support, of course. But whatever they need is what they should get. They have been targeted in a truly horrific way, and Christians should be the first to stand up against any form of hatred that would target a person or a group of people because of their religious beliefs. The victims weren’t just Muslims; they were also fellow human beings, made in the image of God and precious to him. We long for freedom of religion and safety for all people. We long for friendship with Muslims.

Of course, Christians and Muslims disagree with each other about ultimate truth, and we long for opportunities to discuss those differences and proclaim the truth about Jesus and the grace he offers. We pray that God would use these events to draw people from all walks of life—including the Muslim community—to a saving knowledge of his Son. But none of this means that we hate each other, that we want to hurt each other, or that we need to fear each other.

Our thoughts then turn to our nation—a nation searching for hope. This, of course, is something that we as Christians are uniquely placed to offer. We have a hope kept in heaven for us, secured by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, freely available to our friends and neighbours. In the coming weeks, Kiwi Christians must be especially prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15).

But how will we be equipped to do this? It begins with fixing our hearts and minds firmly on our Saviour. As Peter wrote, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord.”

Now is a time for Christians to revere Christ as Lord, to honor him as holy (as if there were ever a time notto do this!). As we fix our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be equipped to make a meaningful defence of our faith and share the unique reason for our hope. As we revere Christ as Lord, we’ll be grief-stricken but not crushed as we confront the suffering of this life, remembering the hope kept it heaven for us, experiencing God’s sustaining grace. As we remember the grace and truth found in Jesus, we’ll be moved to step forth in his name, perhaps acting as modern-day Good Samaritans towards those around us, in hopes that others might see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven.

To put it another way, we won’t meet the challenges or take the opportunities of this moment by simply tagging along in the tide of secular love and support—as real and wonderful as that may be. We’ll meet the challenges of this moment if we revere Christ as Lord—if we remember that he alone is our salvation, that he alone is the ultimate hope of a broken and hurting country.

For as much common grace as Aotearoa has experienced, we are a nation sorely in need of God’s saving grace. This bountiful land is spiritually arid.

To say this is not to diminish the wonderful ministry happening in many churches and other ministries (on university campuses, for example). But it’s beyond dispute that secularism and spiritual apathy hold sway in these islands. We’ve received so many good gifts from the hand of our Creator, but we’ve turned our back on him.

Eight years ago, Christchurch experienced a series of devastating earthquakes, the worst of which claimed 185 lives. Since then, I’ve often turned to Luke 13:1-5 when helping people to process those dark days. In that passage, Jesus speaks about both a horrible massacre attributed to Pilate and a ‘natural disaster’ in the form of a collapsing tower. He insists that neither incident constitutes the specific judgement of God against the people involved, yet in both events he saw a universal spiritual wake-up call.

In the past, I’d drawn an analogy between our earthquake and the tower in Siloam, but I’ve had to admit that we didn’t have a local analogy for Pilate’s awful massacre.

Until now.

In less than a decade, beautiful, tranquil Christchurch has experienced two moments of devastation. This is no evidence that we’re facing any specific judgement—and anyone who claims otherwise is wrong. Yet these moments have shocked us to the core. How will we respond? The outpourings of common grace within the first two weeks of this tragedy are abundant, and for that we can be enormously thankful to God. But will we also experience God’s saving grace?

Will we as a nation soften our hearts towards our Creator? Will we find not just the relief that we want, but the hope that we need? Will we, as the people of God, add to the outpourings of love with the most loving acts possible—our prayers to a mighty God and our words of gospel hope for our lost neighbours?

* An edited version of this article was published on The Gospel Coalition website on March 26, 2019.

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