December 5, 2015

Paris, San Bernardino, and My Adventist Defense Mechanism

, translator, Bible researcher, and author from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

I couldn’t help myself.

I had just finished preaching the opening message of a revival weekend series as a guest speaker at a church west of Toronto, Canada. Taking young Samuel as an example, I had spoken about the need of leaving every worldly distraction aside to focus on listening to God’s voice.

But that Friday evening as I walked into the lobby of the hotel where I was staying, several big television screens and the overall buzz in the room made it clear that separating myself from the world, even during the Sabbath hours, would be easier said than done.

A terror attack was unfolding in Paris that would ultimately kill 130 people.

As I hurried up to the elevator and silently interceded in prayer for the scores of victims in a senseless massacre, a startling thought crossed my mind. What if a Seventh-day Adventist brother or sister was among the diners and concertgoers, a person caught in the wrong place at the wrong time on that Friday night of Nov. 13?

It was so highly unlikely, but yet we are getting used to finding church members listed among those affected by tragedies in recent months. An Adventist woman, Sarena Dawn Moore, was among the nine people slain during a shooting rampage at a college in the U.S. state of Oregon on Oct. 1. Just this week, another Adventist, Amanda Gaspard, was injured in the mass shooting that killed 14 in San Bernardino, California.

It seemed so improbable that an Adventist would get caught in the line of fire in Paris. But the mere thought of it made me feel even more restless on that November night.

By the time I got to my room in the seventh floor, however, my “Seventh-day Adventist defense mechanism” had started to kick in. There are various ways of describing this phenomenon but, simply put, it starts with our overarching explanations.

Overarching Explanations

Every time I see my 7-year old son bury himself for hours in assembling a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, I am reminded that as human beings we are wired to make sense of our surroundings. God created us to like and strive to find understandable patterns, logical sequences, and predictable developments. No matter whether you are a cloistered philosopher, a lab scientist, or a baseball shortstop, you feel naturally compelled to find an “underlying frame,” that “behind-the-scenes structure” that makes reality more predictable and easier to digest and manage.

In this sense, Seventh-day Adventists sometimes like to think we are one step ahead of everyone else. In a world mired in a maze of conflicting worldviews and self-defeating explanations, we have good reasons to believe that the “Great Controversy” metanarrative is still an unsurpassed way of coming to terms with what divine revelation foretells about our pristine past, our tortuous present, and our glorious future.

We are positive that we are in the gloomy interim that divides — and connects — the Garden of Eden with the Eternal Eden. While others scramble to make sense of the senseless, Jesus’ assertion that “an enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28) is still an unbeaten way of coping with disease, disappointment, or disarray.

Floods? Starvation? Disease? Executions? No worries, Bible prophecies are being fulfilled all around us. Soon and very soon, Jesus will surely come and put an end to all the mess we as sinful human beings have created, making instead “all things new” in a world with no more tears, nor death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain (Revelation 21:4, 5).

Understanding and accepting this framework certainly brings a huge relief! We know where we come from (from the hands of a benevolent Creator). We know what we are doing on this Earth (bearing witness to God’s character and preparing a people to meet the Lord). We know where we are going (to live with the Lord forever in a perfect world made new).

Coupled with this “What-I-am-doing-you-do-not-understand-now-but-you-will-know-after-this” approach, however, we often become unrelenting casualties of the “causality trap”: We try to make sense of reality by pontificating on causes and effects, assigning or absolving blame according to our personal scale of values. Examples to support our position seem to be everywhere. After all, you know you can’t go on a joyride on an Interstate at 120 miles per hour (195 kilometers per hour) and expect your local law enforcement officers not to notice. Even if they didn’t, your car may eventually end up upside down or hurled against the odd lamppost.

The dynamic tension between punishment and reward puts our minds at ease. We believe “the angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them” (Psalm 34:7). Thus, according to this faulty logic, when deliverance is absent, a lack of fear of God may be surely present.

Usually, the harshness of our verdicts seems to depend on the level of attachment — or lack thereof — to the issue at hand. It is not the same to “hear of wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6) as to be forced to leave your home in the middle of the night and run for your life amid straying bullets and an approaching shelling.

This eagerness for putting all the pieces of our puzzle together is neither new nor striking. When Jesus walked on this Earth, He was approached more than once by people trying to come to terms with current events. But while people’s search for answers may hardly seem startling, the answers Jesus provided certainly were.

Personal Trepidations

On at least one occasion, people told Jesus of a specific act of violence “with secret satisfaction,” as Ellen G. White wrote in Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 212.

The researcher Luke puts it this way: “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all othermen who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’” (Luke 13:1-5).

That’s it. In just one verbal stroke of heaven-given discernment, Jesus turned a worldview discussion on theodicy and human merits into a personalized enterprise. The clue, Jesus says, is not establishing worthiness or assigning blame in order to understand, but using the evil we see as a clarion call to examine our own lives.

In the first case — the Galileans killed by Pontius Pilate as they were offering sacrifices in the Temple — we might infer they did something to trigger the violent response, albeit excessive, of the Roman procurator. In the second one — the 18 killed by the tower of Siloam falling on them — we might conclude it was an accident, a “random” death-producing act resulting from living in a world of pervading sin. One way or the other, Jesus moves His hearers away from delving into self-soothing rational explanations to cause them to reflect on their personal salvation.

Without God and without repentance, every one of us is bound for eternal death. Death could come to us as the natural result of our own wrong choices, as the “unmerited” consequence of a random act of violence or a weather-related catastrophe, or by “natural causes,” the anticipated ending of every human being living in a world of sin. As the apostle James puts it, “What is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). Thus, whether we die tomorrow or in several decades time, our memory will eventually be blotted out for good, unless every one of us personally repents and gets hold of the One who said, “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).

While current events certainly point toward the completion of the work of evil on this planet and anticipate the glorious appearance of our Lord, we should never let the opportunity pass to use the sad state of affairs in our world for personal revival and reformation. “‘Return to Me … and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 1:3). God is so eager to save us, that He is willing to use any method available to call our restless attention in order to bring us closer to Him.

And yes, when push comes to shove, He may even use the Satan-induced throes of unspeakable evil.