I sat in the church waiting for the service to start. The people filed in mostly dressed in dark colors of mourning. One after another, ten, twenty, a hundred, five hundred…over a thousand. The memorial service was for a young police officer killed in the line of duty. I was friends with his parents. They were my first Life Group leaders and had a significant impact on my walk with God.
It was 2006 and five days before Christmas, a gunman’s bullet pierced the heart of this Oceanside police officer during a traffic stop. Three gang members, who were drinking nearby and watching the traffic stop, decided to open fire on the police officers. Danny Bessant was killed. He was 25. He was a husband. He was a father to a 2-month-old who will never know him. He was a son. He was a friend. He believed in God, was a firm follower of Christ and walked his talk.
And three teenagers chose to end his life.
During one of the hearings, Dan’s father, Steve Bessant, made the following statement to the judge.
“The enormity of this crime can’t be overstated. On that night, on that terrible night, our family was torn apart. It’s as if a bomb exploded in our lives and we will never be the same.”
That “bomb” impacted so many people. So many of us remember the exact moment we heard that Danny had been killed. We broke with his parent, Steve and Jeanne, and his wife Katlyn.
Being relatively new in my Christian faith, I watched closely as Steve and Jeanne navigated their grief, the publicity, the court hearings, and their unfathomable loss.
I understand that we live in a fallen world and we often see evil overtake good. We see tragedy, loss, and illness. During these times our faith can be shaken. We may question God. We may question His goodness, His mercy, even His existence. We may put on a strong face, yet our heart rages against the Lord.
There are stories after stories of those who experience tragedy, blame God and move away from Him. My husband’s father died suddenly when he was 11 years old. The family said, “God took him.” To this 11-year-old that seemed very unfair. It took 40 years for him to return to his relationship with God; to lose his anger and understand that his father died because we live in a fallen world and death is part of it.
God originally desired us to live without evil and suffering, sheltered within the protection of the Garden, but we had other plans.
So, back to the Bessants. Two of the shooters received life in prison without parole. Twelve and a half years after Dan was killed, the 3rd shooter received 25 years in prison. Steve Bessant addressed the court and spoke directly to the now 28-year-old man, who turned to look at him as he was talking.
“I don’t have to look at you to know why you murdered Danny,” Bessant said. “I know why you murdered Danny. You did it out of the hardness of your heart.”
“I forgive you for killing my son,” Bessant said. “You have a choice. . . . I pray that you make the right choice. You have the hope of returning to your family before you reach middle age, let that hope drive your actions.”
God’s grace is defined as undeserved favor. Grace cannot be earned; it is something that is freely given. Steve extended this grace, God’s grace, to the young man who killed his son.
Still today, I am somewhat speechless.
I watched Steve and Jeanne lean into God, rely on His strength, His character, His grace, His mercy throughout the darkest time of their lives. And, through this their light shined. They glorified God over and over and over again.
In our fallen world, terrible things happen. Many people can experience trauma from such events. However, trials and tribulations are guaranteed on this side of heaven for all of us. Even innocent children and good people will experience them. Think about Jesus. He was perfect and yet He endured some highly traumatic experiences.
And, with each trauma, the door opens just a bit for Satan, our enemy to check in and see if we want to dance. Do we want to rail against God, blame Him, disregard Him, belittle Him? Do we want to take matters into our own hands and no longer choose God? Do we choose ourselves? Choose the world? Choose sin?
Even if we recognize the source of evil as arising within the heart, we still have to face the question of why evil exists in the world. Like Adam, many times we blame God for allowing suffering to happen in our lives. If we are sick, lose work, or a loved one dies, we immediately ask God how He could have allowed it. God, however, did not intend this evil in His original plan, as suffering entered into the world because of sin. Sin is to blame for physical evil and death, not God. As a result of the Fall, God does allow physical evil to occur in the world, even as He uses it to bring about a greater good.
Through physical difficulties, God shows us that the world is not our true home (and is not meant to be an earthly paradise any longer) and that we are made for something more. We cannot get too comfortable here on earth. Suffering reminds us of this and our need to trust in God.
When Emotional Alarm Bells Ring
When our brain is exposed to an intense situation of potential danger, God uses our emotions as a warning system. Anxiety, fear, sadness, and anger all let us know something isn’t right, that danger exists, or that we’re not seeing things accurately. Then our mind scans our memory banks to search for information that can help us assess the current situation. Once we have that data, our thinking centers determine how to react and with what intensity.
Viewing difficult situations with Godly lenses and responding in healthy ways strengthens our brain chemistry. We grow psychologically and we become more spiritually mature. The Bible calls this “renewing the mind,” and it leads to transformed, abundant living. When adversity presents itself, God is sovereign. On this side of eternity, we may never know why certain traumatic experiences happen. We do know, however, that He wants to use hardship to make us stronger. Just as any good parent, coach, or teacher sees the incredible potential and promise of a child and uses adversity to grow those in their care, God knows our potential and future and wants us to achieve what we are capable of.
Understanding God, His plan, and Biblical principles for living, especially during adversity as Paul writes so much about, allows us to not just survive despite adversity but to have resiliency that allows us to thrive because of adversity.
There are five key truths that the Scriptures teach us about trauma and suffering.
1. That God is present and in control of our suffering
First, God is present and in control of our suffering. In times of great suffering and pain, we often feel the farthest from God. Where is He? Has He forgotten me? How could He let this happen? This was also the case in the lives of great men of faith in the Bible. Look at David (Psalm 13:1), Jeremiah (Lamentations 3:8) and Job (Job 9:16). Even Jesus at the height of his pain cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
From our limited human perspective, pain and suffering seem contrary to our idea of a sovereign God who is good and loving. We think that God blinked and wasn’t able to stop this traumatic event or He isn’t really a loving God. We forget that Adam chose to sin and that we live in a fallen world, full of suffering. Suffering should not cause us to question God’s sovereignty, as Job so clearly understood (Job 2:10). God is sovereign despite our circumstances. He created all things and He controls all things (Deuteronomy 4:39; 1 Chronicles 29:11; Psalms 103:19; Daniel 4:35; Colossians 1:15-17).
2. That God is good and cares for us
Secondly, God is good and cares for us. We have all heard this statement, “How could a loving God allow __________?” Fill in the blank with any horribly traumatic event that occurs here on Earth. People often use this statement to argue against not only the love of God but also the very existence of God. But God does love us and that is evident in our redemptive history. The creator of the world made a way for disobedient, powerless creatures to come into an eternal relationship with Him. He is patient and gracious. He became one of us (John 3:16) and then sacrificed Himself for us (1 John 3:16). Self-sacrifice is the ultimate act of love (John 15:13). God is indeed good and He longs to be in an ever-deepening relationship with us.
3. Through our trials and suffering we have an opportunity to draw closer to God
In James 1:2, we are told to “consider it pure joy” when we go through difficult times. What kind of strange mental gymnastics does God want me to do? I’m supposed to be happy when I’m in pain? No, not at all. Even Jesus was sad when he went through difficult times — at Lazarus’s grave, in the garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross. The third truth we are called to recognize is that through our trials and suffering we have an opportunity to draw closer to God.
During the easy times, we often become self-reliant, forgetting our need for God. It is in the hard times, when our faith is tested, that we recognize our need for complete dependency on Him. James tells us that persevering through difficult times develops a mature and complete faith (James 1:4). We are ever being conformed to the image of Christ and suffering is a necessary part of that transformation (Romans 8:29; Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 2:21).
4. Jesus understands what it is to suffer
Jesus understands what it is to suffer is the fourth truth. We do not worship a distant, unapproachable God. We worship a God who knows what it is to be human (Hebrews 4:15). He knows what it is to suffer (Hebrews 2:17-18).
Just think about Jesus’ life for a moment. He didn’t experience just one traumatic event during His time on Earth. His whole life was full of suffering. The prophet Isaiah told of His suffering hundreds of years before His birth (Isaiah 53:3-5). He was born into unimaginable poverty in a country occupied by a cruel army (Luke 2:1-7). He narrowly escaped a mass slaughtering of children that was ordered because of His birth (Matthew 2:16). He was physically assaulted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11), persecuted because of His teachings (Luke 4:28-29), thought insane by His family (Mark 3:21), betrayed by His own disciple (Mark 14:43-45), deserted by His friends (Mark 14:50), falsely arrested (Mark 14:56-59), publicly humiliated (Mark 15:16-20; Luke 23:8-12), beaten to the point of death (Matthew 27:26), and then slowly and painfully publicly executed by crucifixion as a common criminal (Matthew 27:33-39).
We can take great comfort in the fact that God can relate to us on our level, He understands what it is to suffer.
5. Our identity is grounded in Christ
Finally, our identity is not defined by traumatic events or suffering but is grounded in Christ. God does not see you as a victim. He sees you as His child. The scriptures tell us that as children of God, we were chosen before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless adopted sons and daughters, lavished with grace, redeemed, forgiven, given spiritual wisdom and understanding and marked with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:4-14). We are in Christ! We sit at the right hand of the Father! We have His righteousness! We must not allow tragedy or circumstances to define who we are or how we live. We have His very life within us and we must choose to live out of that truth.
Steve and Jeanne Bessant will always be the parents whose son was gunned down by three gang members. In many ways, this will define them for the remainder of their lives, yet, before Danny’s death and certainly after they continue to glorify God. They walk in His light and remain in Him.
In times of darkness, I always think of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It reminds me that Satan sits in the darkness just waiting.
Walking in light with you…
For God and you