Tragedy, Therapy, and the Missing Peace

Listen to the essay.

Every tragedy pushes upon us a choice: Are we hungry for God or hardened to Him? We wish this were not so. We wish we could bypass our ordeal of suffering and reach the spas lining the orchard-rich river walks of paradise, where:

On each side of the river is the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month of the year. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 22:2, NET

In this verse, the Greek root word for healing is therapeia, as in our word therapy. The image the word depicts, therefore, is not only of medically curing someone — though it certainly means that — but of people becoming whole through ongoing care. What is more, the word does not strictly limit itself to an injury or a disease, but to the meeting of routine needs for rest and renewal, which is why the ancient word therapeia also implied a body of attendants serving a household. We are healed in community. 

Knowing this, consider what John the Beloved says immediately after his description of the healing power — that is, the therapeutic effect — of the leaves of the tree of life:

And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.

Rev 22:3, NKJV

So we see here that healing has as much to do with restoring us to our blesséd role in the household of the Lord as it does in relieving our pain.

But look at the precondition: the curse is first removed. And what caused the curse in the first place? 


Therefore what must take place to end disobedience and the resulting curse? 


So we see that repentance and therapy go together. It cannot be otherwise. 

This pairing is often absent among us when we are in pain or when we see others suffer. We rush from curse to therapy. We bypass repentance. Therefore our therapy becomes a closed labyrinth rather than a path leading to life. 

Let us linger here: Disobedience (“my will be done” instead of “Thy will be done”) brings a curse. That curse brings pain, death, injury, sorrow, sickness, confusion, and crying. But instead of craving repentance, we tend to seek therapy and lose our way to the cure. Or rather, we say, “Cure me such that I may continue on my own way.” 

I am not speaking only of our own personal disobedience to the Lord and His ways. I am speaking of the effects of others’ disobedience on our lives. Like autumn leaves falling to the ground and occluding our path, the effect of others’ sins falls upon us, and we must address the mess. But either way, the effect of the curse comes and with it a temptation to not search our own hearts for the one thing we have control over: not the choices of others, but our choice to draw near to God. And what is drawing near but repentance? 

Authentic repentance is a change of behavior that begins — always begins — with a change of thought patterns. We consciously call to mind His promises.  We deliberately adapt to His truth rather than critique it as if we are in control. We humble ourselves and trust Him instead of our own understanding. And with the rudder of our mind swung about to believe Him, then we do what He says: we change our actions and our words.

This leads to healing not only for ourselves, but for the people we live among, each a member of a network of relationships with a unique history known as a “nation” (Greek: ethnos). And in contrast to how sin can be like dead leaves falling on our ground, our repentance is like freely offered green leaves which contain His healing essence. 

But here is where we often go wrong. A tragedy strikes: we pray for therapy. A disaster befalls the earth: we pray for therapy. A failure of colossal proportions takes place: we pray for therapy. 

We forget to repent; therefore healing does not come. 

Why is this so? Why do we not call for repentance in tragedy? For one thing, it may be cruel and inaccurate, or at least poor timing. We do not want to be like Job’s counselors, who insist that Job must have sinned to have entered such a dark hour of total loss. They demand that he repent. We do not want to be like them; we do not want to rub salt into someone’s wound. Silence, rather than self-righteous salt rubs, better communicates Christ’s solidarity with our sorrows.

And yet, Job himself is salt in his own story; the kind of salt that does not sting with death but brims with life. For Job does indeed repent, but not because his friends’ accusations had convinced him. (They are so off the mark they almost die because of it. Job has to intercede for them.) No, Job repents because he encounters God, and, in light of that glorious love, all things pride-worthy in himself fall away.

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,

But now my eye sees You.

Therefore I abhor myself,

And repent in dust and ashes.

Job 42:5-6, NKJV

So we see that Job responds to his sickness and tragedy in humility. He draws near to God, and God draws near to him. 

But there is a darker shadow to our reluctance to call for repentance: it is grossly unpopular. It implies something is deeply wrong with our condition, our culture, and our current trajectory. It implies that our choices have eternal repercussions. It urges us to course-correct. 

Few want to hear that message. Very few. It is much easier to blame others — and God — for what has befallen us than to search our own hearts and see if we are hungry for Him or hardened to Him for what has happened. 

And yet, this is what catastrophes, illnesses, injustices, and tragedies cry out to us: draw near to God. And by implication: turn away from sin, for one cannot walk in two directions at once. Look at what our Lord says to those who saw themselves as — well, if not more righteous than others, at least luckier than the poor fellows they pondered. Luke describes a time when people recount to Christ the cruelty of the current stern regime while others ponder the fate of those killed in a dramatic accident:

There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed 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 other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5, NKJV

“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Christ makes us all accountable to choose whether we will harden our hearts or humble them in hunger for God. 

Comfort is one of the foremost traits of our Lord. “Comfort, comfort My people!” the Spirit cries through the prophet Isaiah. (40:1). But along with comfort comes conviction. “It is the Lord’s kindness that leads us to repentance,” writes Apostle Paul, who called himself the chief of sinners. (Romans 2:4) The gentle care of the one prompts response to the other. Comfort and conviction go together.

Isaiah and the other prophets boldly agree. Along with Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Moses, and others, he says that sin is the same as self-harming and repentance is the same as healing. “Nothing but repentance can heal your incurable wound,” they write. Whatever else we cry out for that needs healing, the essence is a heart restored to the Lord.

Ruins of the spa at the villa of Roman Emperor Hadrian, A.D. 117-138, Tivoli, Italy.

We are living in the last days. This might not be true in terms of years the planet still has before it expires, but certainly we, the reader and writer, only have a few years left before we expire. It is in that sense that the last days are certainly upon us. 

What will increase in these, our last days?  Two things:

  • opportunities to draw near to God when tragedy strikes and
  • a parallel, increasingly popular resistance to those opportunities. 

These dynamics also go together. Look how John the Beloved describes the response of people to a host of deadly plagues consuming the earth after destruction is released from the abyss: 

But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their [drug-induced] sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.

Rev 9:21, NKJV

“The human heart is as tender as a flower and as hard as a stone,” a Persian proverb declares. The calamities John describes reveal which one we are tempted to choose. 

Let us therefore, humble ourselves and search our hearts each time pain and affliction find us and each time we see it unfold in all its horror on our smartphones and flat screens. Let us not grasp for therapy before we grieve over our distance from the Lord and the separation of those perishing or in great peril. Let us not bypass the call to repentance that intrudes upon our aspired path to paradise. Let us draw near to Him, and He will draw near to us. Let us repent of our sin before we plunge into the spa. He is our therapy, after all, our living water and our healing tree beside. 

© Kurt Mähler

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