An English folk verse says, “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,” commemorating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and ushering in the celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Day. Here in the United States, we too have a “remember, remember” moment, though ours doesn’t celebrate: it mourns. For us, the digits 9/11 are enough to call to mind terror and grief and a nation—and world—stunned by unconceivable violence.
It was one of those moments that people will never be able to forget, when years later we remember with clarity where we were, what we were doing. I was a child in France when President Kennedy was assassinated, so I don’t have a clear recollection of hearing the news, but I was old enough by the time of Robert Kennedy’s murder to remember everything about the moment: the nuns at my boarding school herding us into the chapel, the whispering, the candles, the urgency of the prayers. At first we’d only heard that he was wounded, and we all prayed intensely for his recovery. We French loved the Kennedys; we took on the USA’s tragedy as our own.
Just as the world took on the tragedy of the Twin Towers. And as we approach the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, for many of us, it’s impossible not to relive at least part of the trauma… and, perhaps, too, the questions. People lost and gained faith in God because of what happened that day. Perhaps you’re one of them. And the cry from all of humanity echoes what C.S. Lewis has repeatedly called the fundamental issue of faith: the problem of pain. Why did God allow 9/11 to happen?
The truth is, we don’t know. We may never know. We live in a world with ragged edges. But blaming God is perhaps getting the whole thing backward. Writing in The Times of London, Auschwitz survivor Dan Cohn-Sherbok said that he never once questioned God’s action (or apparent inaction) while he was an inmate:
It never occurred to me to associate
the calamity we were experiencing with God
—to blame him or believe in him less,
or cease believing in him at all
because he didn’t come to our aid.
God doesn’t owe us that, or anything. We owe our lives to him.
If someone believes that God is responsible for the death of six million
because he doesn’t somehow do something to save them,
he’s got his thinking reversed.”
Pauline Books & Media has a slender volume of work by the great English writer G.K. Chesterton, called Way of Wonder: I commend it to you. One of his greatest insights, however, was expressed not in a book but in a newspaper: an article in The Times once asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” In the correspondence that followed, the shortest letter was by far the best:
In response to your question, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ — I am.
Yours faithfully, G. K. Chesterton.
God didn’t set 9/11 in motion any more than he did the Chernobyl disaster, or the Holocaust, or the famines that sweep Africa, or the repressive military juntas across the globe. That’s all down to us: to people. We kill, not just to survive, but for pleasure. We covet wealth and power and don’t give a thought to who might be hurt as a consequence. We mismanage resources and disregard others and then look for someone to blame when it all goes wrong. Where is our moral responsibility?
C. S. Lewis wrote, “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.”
Life’s pleasant experiences have often been seen as tokens of God’s goodness. But the Bible tells us that God uses suffering to underline our physical frailty, to remind us that we are not immune from the consequences of sin, to teach us that there is more to life than physical health and strength, to encourage us to look to him for help in coping with the pressures and pains of living in a fallen world, to develop depth of character, and to learn how to be sensitive and sympathetic to the needs of others.
Where was God when religious fanatics killed those 3,000 people?’ Exactly where he was when religious fanatics killed his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the clear teaching of Scripture. Those who combined to have Jesus crucified were “wicked men,” yet his death was according to “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23).
September 11 was a wake-up call. It warns us that evil is real, that life is brief and fragile, and that death is certain. Even more loudly it tells us to prepare for a final day of reckoning when “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12) who will “judge the world with justice” (Acts 17:31).
And to come back to Chesterton’s letter to The Times, we can be certain that if God’s judgment were to be on the basis of our own thoughts, words, and actions, then our case would be hopeless and we would justly be condemned to spend eternity in hell, consciously enduring the appalling punishment we deserve.
But… that won’t happen. On the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the place of sinners, God is willing to wipe your slate clean. If you will come to him in true repentance and faith, turning from sin and trusting Jesus Christ, all your sin will be forgiven, you will have peace with God, and when your earthly life is over you will spend eternity in God’s sinless, painless, deathless, glorious presence.
Recently we offered a mini-meditation series on St. Francis de Sales’ Courage in Chaos, and one of the things that we highlighted was that no matter what befalls us here, this isn’t where it ends. We’re all sitting in a waiting room that’s adjacent to our real life, our real home: eternity with God in heaven.
Let’s face it: just as it does every year, September is going to bring its blues with it. Many of us will feel depressed, angry, grief-stricken. We’ll turn again to the Internet and its countless articles and videos and commentaries on the events of 2001 to re-live the horror of that morning.
Perhaps this year we can change one thing about our remembrances. Perhaps instead of asking, “Why did God allow this to happen?” we can ask, “How can we help the light of Christ shine?” Perhaps instead of asking, “Where was God?” we can remind ourselves that even in the worst pain, God is always, always with us.
And perhaps we can carry one other thought that will help us, not just through this day, but through every day. We’ve heard countless stories of those who were supposed to be in the Twin Towers that morning, but weren’t—caught in traffic, forgetting something they needed to go back home to retrieve, arguing with recalcitrant children, missing a bus. Perhaps the next time that we feel frustrated while we’re sitting in traffic, when we miss a bus, when our kids are making us late, we can stop and thank God that these very difficulties once saved lives, and that perhaps—just perhaps—they might be saving ours as well.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir