“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”– Revelation 2:7
Earlier this week the world woke up to devastating news—news which we had already been grieving for a few days. The tragic deaths of Ryan and Lora Smith and their four-year-old son, Caleb, have pierced the hearts of the American-expat, Georgian, and Azerbaijani communities alike. This family who had been living in the country of Georgia for the last several years, and who were so intent on remaining here that they even acquired Georgian citizenship, were murdered while on a camping trip less than an hour’s drive from the capital city of Tbilisi. At the time of this writing, the factors surrounding this horrific crime continue to change depending on who tells the story. The Georgian government has released conflicting reports, and as a result, news articles covering their deaths have changed as well. This abrupt taking of life remains shrouded in mystery. But I do not want to write about the circumstances of their deaths. I want to ponder two questions: who were the Smiths, and why do bad things happen to God’s people?
Yes, I said “God’s people.” Why? Although the abundance of news articles currently blanketing the internet speak of Ryan’s fabulous carpet business, of Lora’s English classes in a local school, and of their desire to build a park for kids in their community with their own money, Ryan and Lora Smith were first and foremost missionaries who were sharing their lives and their Christian faith with those in the southern, mostly-Azerbaijani populated region of Marneuli, Georgia. I first met the Smiths four years ago at an international church service in Tbilisi. My path would later cross with Ryan at conferences and other events. I envied his knowledge of the Azerbaijani language, his inroads into the local community, and his knowledge of the culture. His passion for his work, love for his family, and gift for working with people have all been highly attested to. The Smiths were “God’s people,” serving Him by reaching out to this impoverished, difficult, and spiritually needy region of the world.
Why did this happen? Why this family? In our sorrow Scripture whispers to us on behalf of this family, “Death is working in us, but life in you.” We believe that God can and will take this tragedy and use it for His glory. Why in this manner? It all seems so meaningless! To our questioning hearts Scripture shouts to us on behalf of this family, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.”
What is God’s answer to us? It is not meaningless! There is purpose in the suffering and even death of the believer. It is producing something heavy—an eternal weight of glory—for them. Although it seems to be producing only grief in my life now, I shift my eyes from the seemingly meaningless death of friends and colleagues to the rock-hard truth of Scripture. “Look to the unseen, my heart! Look to that which is invisible to the naked eye! Look to the eternal!” There is wondrous glory, reward, and honor granted to this family! I choose to preach to my heart and mind, “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed…” For the Smith family, this glory was revealed the moment they departed this sinful, fallen world, and stepped into eternity.
As noted by John Piper, one of the most seemingly senseless deaths in the Bible was that of John the Baptist. Due to the whimsical offer of a king after the dance of a girl at a party, John’s head was cut off and laid on a platter. “Meaningless!” we scream. But what was Jesus’ evaluation of John? “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.”
Commenting on the passage in Second Corinthians, chapter four, John Piper says, “Not only is all your affliction momentary. Not only is all your affliction light, in comparison to eternity and the glory there. But all of it is totally meaningful! Now that is a very controversial statement because of all the insane suffering there is in the world. Every time something horrific happens an interviewer will say ‘Meaningless.’ That is what it looks like…. This text says, ‘Our light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight.’ It doesn’t say ‘will be followed by an eternal weight of glory.’ That would be good enough. But that’s not what it says…. I’ll venture this. Every millisecond from the pain of your fallen nature or fallen man, every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that…. If anybody says to me that a believer’s suffering was meaningless, I’ll be quiet, probably, because they’re hurting really bad. But I’m going to come back eventually and say, ‘It wasn’t meaningless…’ It’s doing something! It’s doing something! Of course you can’t see what it’s doing. This is the main unseen thing verse eighteen is talking about. What’s the unseen you’re supposed to look at? You’re supposed to look at the promise of God in verse seventeen that says your pain is doing something for you. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. Either you see it with the eyes of faith, believe it because the text says it, or you lose heart.”
Why do bad things happen to God’s people? Every morning I wake up wishing this tragedy had never occurred. I grieve that we live in a fallen, broken world. Injustice reigns. Calamity befalls believer and unbeliever alike. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. We find our solace in the sovereignty of God. We find our peace in the meaningful sacrifice of the Prince of Peace. We find our way through the pain of loss by means of the unseen gain produced by suffering. As Job said, “Though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.” He also wrote, “And after my flesh is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God.” And so, as Job, we treasure the words of God more than our necessary food. And we choose to believe that God is working all things together for good to those who love Him. While our hearts grieve at the unspeakable loss, and while tears roll down our cheeks as we consider the loved ones of the Smiths, we choose to look to that which is unseen, to the unchanging Scripture that both whispers comfort and shouts truth to us in our pain.
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?– I John 5:4-5
MIA Confirms American Family Murdered in Dusheti — Georgia Today 7/9/2018
Father, toddler son shot dead in Georgia; mother falls into ravine while fleeing attacker, officials say — Fox News 7/10/2018
Dream-Weavers’ Deaths Leave Georgian Town At A Loss — RFERL 7/11/2018
None of Our Misery is Meaningless — John Piper
Overcome — Jeremy Camp