In the wake of the horrible tragedy that occurred recently when a gunman entered a movie theater and opened fire, some remarkable testimonies of God’s providential deliverance have emerged. So you STILL think God is a merciful God? tells how the author and her children escaped the theater unharmed. A Miracle Inside the Aurora Shooting: One Victim’s Story relates how a bullet entered one victim’s brain through a previously undiscovered birth defect, causing the bullet to miss the brain itself.
Of course, some will attribute the circumstances to happenstance or luck. But others wonder, why does God deliver some but not others?
In Rosalind Goforth’s book How I Know God Answers Prayer, one chapter details the miraculous bur harrowing account of her family’s deliverance during the horrors of the Boxer rebellion in China in the 1900s. She says:
Many times we were asked in the homeland to tell the story of our escape during the Boxer uprising, and often the question was put, “If it was really God’s power that saved you and others on that journey, then why did He not save those of His children who were so cruelly put to death?” For a time this question troubled me. Why indeed? One day when seeking for light on the matter I was directed to Acts 12. There I found the only answer that can be given. We are told in verse 2 that James was put to death by the sword; then the rest of the chapter is given to the detailed record of Peter’s wonderful deliverance in answer to prayer (vv. 5, 12).
She goes on to say that a great many people were praying for them and that undoubtedly had a lot to do with their deliverance.
But some pray and are prayed for, yet still die or suffer. What then?
Hebrews 11, that great “Hall of Faith” passage tells of many marvelous things God wrought through the faith of His people. But then verses 36-38 take a turn from all that deliverance and provision and answered prayer:
And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
Why were these not delivered? The text doesn’t say, but they are commended just the same as the others: “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (vv.39-40).
In the New Testament, John the Baptist was beheaded. Stephen was stoned. James was killed. Layton Talbert asserts:
But martyrdom is no less providential than deliverance, and the martyrdom of these men was as providentially superintended by God as was the martyrdom of His own Son. Such deaths are neither a failure on God’s part nor a victory on Satan’s. They are a part of the outworking of God’s all-wise and always good purposes. (Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God, page 198).
He goes on to relate:
You have probably heard that “the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.” A veteran missionary to Colombia, South America, once explained how experience and personal Bible study led him to modify that saying. “The most fulfilling, joyful, and peaceful place to be is in the center of God’s will,” he concluded. “But it is not necessarily the safest.” This is not heresy — unless we measure orthodoxy by conformity to cliche rather than to Biblical realism. (p. 198).
The quote is taken from the article “Peace, if not safety,” and the missionary, Timothy A. McKeown, goes on to make these statements, also quoted in Not By Chance:
It seems to me that the Bible is full of examples of God’s people often-not occasionally-being placed in unsafe, uncomfortable, and dangerous situations.
Most prayers in Scripture focus not on the personal safety and benefit of believers but on the power, majesty, testimony, and victory of God over his-and, of course, our-enemies.
The Lord calls us to obedience in spite of the “costs”-not to personal comfort and safety!
Dr. Talbert continues:
Our death is as much a matter of providence as our life. It may seem tragic or ignominious or accidental. But God’s providence rules over the tragedy, the ignominy, and yes, even accidents. Moreover, we must labor to think God’s thoughts, to maintain God’s perspective (p. 199).
He goes on to point out that the deaths of John the Baptist, Stephen, and James were not the end of them, in two senses. 1) They go on to life in heaven with God, our true and ultimate home, and 2) their influence and testimony continue on. This is true in our times as well, as illustrated by Jim Elliot and the other four missionaries who were killed by the tribe they were trying to reach, Gracia Burnham’s husband, and any saint of God.
In On Asking God Why by Elisabeth Elliot, she included a chapter called “On Brazen Heavens” written by her brother, Thomas Howard. After describing times when God has not answered prayer, at least not as the person praying wanted, he says:
Turning again to the disclosure of God in Scripture, we seem to see that, in his economy, there is no slippage. Nothing simply disappears. No sparrow falls without his knowing (and, one might think, caring) about it. No hair on anybody’s head is without its number. Oh, you say, that’s only a metaphor; it’s not literal. A metaphor of what, then, we might ask. Is the implication there that God doesn’t keep tabs on things?
And so we begin to think about all our prayers and vigils and fastings and abstinences, and the offices and sacraments of the Church, that have gone up to the throne in behalf of the sufferer. They have vanished, as no sparrow, no hair, has ever done. Hey, what about that?
And we know that this is false. It is nonsense. All right then–we prayed, with much faith or with little; we searched ourselves; we fasted; we anointed and laid on hands; we kept vigil. And nothing happened.
Did it not? What angle of vision are we speaking from? Is it not true that again and again in the biblical picture of things, the story has to be allowed to finish?
Was it not the case with Lazarus’ household at Bethany, and with the two en route to Emmaus? And is it not the case with the Whole Story, actually–that it must be allowed to finish, and that this is precisely what the faithful have been watching for since the beginning of time? In the face of suffering and endurance and loss and waiting and death, what is it that has kept the spirits of the faithful from flagging utterly down through the millennia? Is it not the hope of Redemption? Is it not the great Finish to the Story–and to all their little stories of wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins as well as to the One Big Story of the whole creation, which is itself groaning and waiting? And is not that Finish called glorious? Does it not entail what amounts to a redoing of all that has gone wrong, and a remaking of all that is ruined, and a finding of all that has been lost in the shuffle, and an unfolding of it all in a blaze of joy and splendor?
A finding of all that is lost? All sparrows, and all petitions and tears and vigils and fastings? Yes, all petitions and tears and vigils and fastings.
“But where are they? The thing is over and done with. He is dead. They had no effect.”
Hadn’t they? How do you know what is piling up in the great treasury kept by the Divine Love to be opened in that Day? How do you know that this death and your prayers and tears and fasts will not together be suddenly and breathtakingly displayed, before all the faithful, and before angels and archangels, and before kings and widows and prophets, as gems in that display? Oh no, don’t speak of things being lost. Say rather that they are hidden–received and accepted and taken up into the secrets of the divine mysteries, to be transformed and multiplied, like everything else we offer to him–loaves and fishes, or mites, or bread and wine–and given back to you and to the one for whom you kept vigil, in the presence of the whole host of men and angels in a hilarity of glory as unimaginable to you in your vigil as golden wings are to the worm in the chrysalis.
There may be any number of reasons why someone faces death without actually dying. Many who have done so have testified it gave them a new sense of purpose. But as to the question, why does God deliver some people from death and not others, we can’t really know the answers. Even those who were delivered will have to face death another time. All we can do is trust that God has His purposes in what He allows.
But God never promises that all His people will comfortably live the American Dream for 80+years. One of the lessons in such tragedies as the one in Aurora is that truly we never know what a day may bring forth and we’re not promised another breath. We need to be ready to face our Maker. “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (I John 5:11-12). (More on how to receive the Son of God is here.)