We were supposed to be in Gatlinburg. But then the fires came, and 14,000 people in the area were evacuated.
Which is odd, really. Gatlinburg doesn’t get a lot of wildfires. It sits in the middle of a temperate rain forest. The humidity in the area makes it difficult for even controlled burns to take place.
But this was different. After months of drought, years of accumulated forest fire fuel—trees, leaves and leaf matter, sticks, weeds—was simply waiting to go up in flames. And it did. Property after property has been destroyed, but what matters most is “eleven.” So far, 11 people have been confirmed dead.
It Is Written was scheduled to be in Gatlinburg from Friday, December 2 to Sunday morning, December 4, hosting 350 ministry Partners at a spiritual retreat. We hold these retreats in six locations around the United States and report on the work of the ministry and discuss ministry plans. The weekends are mountaintop experiences. In Gatlinburg, that is literally so. We meet in Gatlinburg at the Park Vista Hotel, a property with a spectacular view owing to it’s location on the side of a mountain.
But the hillsides surrounding the Park Vista went up in flames. A spectacular—and chilling—video taken from inside the Park Vista on the night of the fires shows flames roaring immediately outside the hotel. People inside the hotel—and there were plenty—were terrified.
For It Is Written, if the fires had to come at all then they came right on time. Three days later and our team would have been in Gatlinburg. Four, and we’d have been there with hundreds of guests. God enabled us to not only avoid the fire, but to relocate our event to Chattanooga, just miles from our ministry headquarters.
Except, at the same time we are praising God for His deliverance, there are people in Gatlinburg burying their dead. Others are trying to figure out how they’re going to rebuild their devastated lives. We remained cognizant throughout the weekend of the reality of the desperate situation being faced by the people in Gatlinburg, many of whom we have come to know well.
So how do we reconcile this? It seems that one person’s blessing is another person’s curse.
Firstly, it pays to recognize that even when disaster strikes, we human beings have an amazing amount to be thankful for. We were brought into this world and given life. We have been offered the gift of eternal life. We can say through faith that we actually have eternal life—and that’s a lot!
Yet we can add to that. We have family and health and homes and friends and warm days and successes and vehicles (and almost always “vehicles,” plural), nature to enjoy and clean air to breathe. God has simply been good to us. All of us. And He doesn’t have to be. God owes us nothing. It was the human family that chose to collapse into sin, and in so doing cause the death of God’s Son. Still God is good to us.
So what of the tragedy in the world? How good is God when your mother dies in a forest fire? Truthfully? Plenty good. Incredibly good. Amazingly good. Especially because God has promised Mom eternal life. Mom can wake up in the resurrection and look into the face of Jesus and look forward to a life of absolute contentment and fulfillment that will never end. There’s no way around that. That’s just good!.
Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). It might be difficult, especially in the moment. But it’s important to keep the trials of your life in perspective. The best is yet to come. And no, that’s not Paul saying, “Just pull yourself together, man, and remember how blessed you are!” That’s Paul stating a reality. Even though some days on this earth can be brutally dark, that glory we will soon enjoy is unfathomably good.
James described life as “a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). Life is really short. Eternity is reeeeally long. If you measure the goodness of God by your trials on this earth, there’s a really good chance you’re going to end up with a negative picture of God. However, f you remember the big picture, there’s a better chance you’ll find strength to endure even the toughest challenges life offers.
In times of tragedy, Romans 8:28 can almost sound flippant. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
Forest fires? Loss? Death? Yes, all things.
Tragedy challenges us to trust God no matter what. In “all things.” God is still sovereign, even when things go bitterly awry.
So, what of us at It Is Written, enjoying our deliverance while others lost so much? A plane crashes, some survive, some do not. A tornado tears through a town? Some live, some die. Lightning flashes, and 50,000 people in town are unharmed, while one man loses his life.
Is that fair? Tragedy can never be described as “fair.” Tragedy is tragic. But yes, God is fair. He doesn’t protect all of us from all of the damage sin has brought into the world. But He protects us from more than we care to realize. And He offers us eternal life, where there will be no more “death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
By God’s grace, We’ll trust Him in all things. There’ll be times we rejoice, and times we weep.
And we’ll lean on Him either way.