By the Grace of God
Today’s blog post is the first that comes as a response to a question posed by a parishioner. OK, it’s the only one so far, but it’s a great question! The question reads as follows:
“I’ve always wondered why, after someone is NOT hurt in an accident, or is spared by some type of tragedy that happens in one’s life, we say ‘God was with me’ or ‘All I can say is by the grace of God, I’m alive’ (I’m sure your family felt that way after your accident when moving to GR). The reason I wonder why we would say that is because then it sounds like God WASN’T with someone that did get hurt, or even died. So I guess my question is this….is that the wrong thing to say? Or to feel? Or to believe?”
We’ve probably all experienced situations that turned out much better than we expected, like getting an A on a test we didn’t study for, or narrowly steering a car out of a near-accident. While we might sometimes be tempted to take credit for our good fortune, at other times we just know we can’t take the credit. It makes no difference whether or not an earthly explanation for averting tragedy can be found. It is ALWAYS appropriate to express gratitude to God for His Providence, which often comes to us in ways others could explain away that exclude the Hand of God being at work. It’s always appropriate to give credit to the grace of God for all the blessings we enjoy.
But all that only seems to apply if things go well. What about the rest of the time? What about the times that God seems to have ignored our pleas for His help, and we find ourselves without the escape we hoped for: the job we applied for, but didn’t get. The follow-up visit to the doctor where the news was not as good as we had hoped. The accident where the Hand of God did not avert a tragedy or disaster. While there is always the “silver lining” of each cloud that passes over, sometime the cloud still brings life-destroying wind and rain. Is this the negligence on God’s part that it can seem to be, or is there something more at work?
I mentioned in my most recent homily that if we want to know when the voice of God is speaking, we have to be sure we know who He is so we can know when the messages we receive are from Him or not. If God is defined as love–as testified by the Holy Scriptures and attested to most clearly in our Lord’s voluntary Crucifixion–then any explanation of the meaning when tragedy strikes must incorporate a God who loves. Always. In every situation. Even when things don’t turn out the way we want. Even when those situations are tragic.
And this is why the central tenet of our faith is needed front and center every day, but especially when tragedy strikes. That central tenet is that Christ came for one reason: to destroy the power of death. Yes, He came to bring us Truth. Yes, He came to encourage us in our faith, hope, and love. But ultimately, He came to die. We see this depicted in the Orthodox icon of His Nativity, where the Newborn King is wrapped in the winding sheet of burial wrappings. He came to die, so that He could conquer the power of death by breaking it from within. He then offers us the way to follow Him through death, which used to be the ultimate end, the ultimate defeat, the ultimate tragedy. He came to lead us through death to life, and to transform that ultimate tragedy into the ultimate victory.
When we Christians encounter death, we’re not spared the sadness that can’t be escaped by the separation that death brings. But because of Christ’s conquering of death, it’s no longer the ultimate tragedy that it used to be. For those whose faith is in Him, death becomes the doorway which opens for us into Eternal Life. He tramples down death by His death and bestows His life to those in the tombs. This changes everything. Because of this, we can say that whether or not tragedy comes, the grace of God is with us. He is with us. Always.
In my first homily at St. Nicholas on August 2, 2015, I preached on the temptation we would all face as time went on to judge the effectiveness of my pastorate by earthly measures of success: whether those measures were numbers of people attending services, amounts of dollars brought in with collections, or a tabulation of baptisms or weddings performed. Instead of any visible measure of success, I suggested that the only true measure of the effectiveness of my ministry as the Pastor of the community wouldn’t simply be whether I led our parishioners to be thankful to God for His grace and mercy when life went our way, as it had when my family and I were spared tragedy despite the horrific accident that had occurred the day before, as we made our move to Grand Rapids. Instead, the true measure of my effectiveness would be whether or not I had worked to prepare everyone so that we could face a tragedy–any tragedy–with all the same faith and hope in our loving God, and in the grace that provides for us whether or not we escape difficulty and death.
The only way to find our way to such faith is to understand ever more deeply the love of our God which led Him to offer His Only-begotten Son, Who Himself did not escape death, but willingly gave Himself over to it, that He might remove the only permanent tragedy we could endure. If we can work to reach this level of trust in God, we can say with sincerity the words of St. Paul, and make them our own: “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). By the grace of God.
If you have a question that you would like Fr. Michael to address, please email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org