My friend Andre and I were blasting down a dirt road in the Florida backwoods in his dad’s brand new 1975 Delta 88, a car so big that only a few minor modifications would be needed to turn it into a combat vehicle. We were approaching 60 mph when the road suddenly took a 90-degree turn. Andre slammed on the brakes and yanked the steering wheel, but speed, gravel, and sudden turns are a recipe for disaster. We skidded sideways off the road, rolled several times down a small embankment and landed at the edge of the swamp.
As the dust settled, I saw the stump of a 3-inch pine protruding through the firewall. The rest of the tree was on the hood and the now crumpled roof. How we missed a giant live oak is still a mystery. It certainly wouldn’t have snapped in two.
The car behind us came to a halt, and a panicky man ran down to see what he thought would be certain carnage. Seeing us stunned but still alive, he started to yell at me. My first thought: Why are you yelling at me? I then realized that I was now behind the steering wheel and Andre was in the passenger seat. (Seatbelts? What are they?) The man was calling me a dumb so-and-so, relieved that we weren’t hurt and angry that we’d been so stupid. The doors wouldn’t open, so I crawled out the now much compressed window, trying to explain that I hadn’t been the driver. To this day I still have vivid, slow-motion memories of the wreck, the oh-no feeling as we flew off the curve, the tumbling around the interior as the car rolled over and over.
For some reason I wasn’t killed that day. Not so much as a scratch, in fact. Same for Andre. (Not sure what happened after his dad found out he’d wrecked his pride and joy, though.) I wasn’t a Christian at the time, and I’m pretty sure Andre wasn’t either. Yet God spared us, even in our extreme foolishness. Why?
These questions are haunting. Why, when disaster strikes, do some people live and some die? I don’t know. But I do know I need to be careful about how I talk about it.
How many times do we see people attributing their survival to God? Just last February a tornado struck Jackson, Tenn., demolishing buildings at Union University, a Southern Baptist institution. Many students attributed their survival to God’s providence:
God was present before, during, and in the aftermath of the events of 2.5.08. I know it’s hard to think about because so much damage was caused. … With collapsing buildings, it is a shock that no one was killed. That was God and if you can’t recognize it, then you need to put on some glasses and open your eyes.
A book about the storm promises that “remarkable eye-of-the-storm accounts from 20 survivors will show you both God’s power in nature and his gentle hand of grace.”
But people were killed from that storm system. Twenty-three, in fact. Why did God not deliver them? There’s a pretty good chance that some of them were Christians, too. Did they not have enough faith? Did God’s “gentle hand of grace” not extend to them?
I know a retired general who speaks of praying with his soldiers before a major operation. Even though the mission was eventually aborted in disaster, none of his soldiers was killed. He credits God and prayer. But in fact eight men in the aircrews did die — horrible, fiery deaths as two aircraft collided during refueling. Why? Did the general’s prayer not cover them? They were, after all, not in his unit. How can you credit God for “saving” everyone’s life when in fact not every life was saved?
My point is that we can sound very callous and parochial when we credit God for saving us or those close to us when in the same circumstances others died. It comes across as smug and insensitive. It’s not so much letting the devil take the hindmost; it’s that the hindmost don’t seem to figure into our calculations. So long as we and our loved ones are safe, death and disaster elsewhere don’t seem to matter.
Imagine how an unbelieving world hears this. The truth is that sometimes God spares fools and not believers. It’s an enduring mystery of His sovereignty. He “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” He says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It is not dependent on us. Truly, His ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts.
I lived an extremely foolhardy youth while still an active enemy of God, and I have survived some extremely dangerous situations since. Yet He reached down to save me, and I stand today, alive and more or less in one piece, as testament to God’s mysterious sovereignty. So when disaster strikes I praise God for those spared, and with the same breath I mourn those who are lost. I don’t dare to presume His reasoning in the process.