Keeping your faith amidst terrible tragedy

It was a beautiful day for a walk. That’s what she remembers. On a gentle Sunday evening in May, my friend Erin with her family of five took a walk across the hiking bridge of our local park. One moment they were chatting and smiling, enjoying the welcome sunshine, and the next—everything changed.

Everything.

Shots fired.

People fell to the ground.

Young children ran for help.

Later an emergency responder would say he first spotted a pink flip flop on the bridge, and that’s how he knew it was a child.

That day, Erin lost her husband Jon and their 11-year-old daughter Olivia to a random act of violence—the unfathomable impulse of a disturbed man with a gun. The shooting also claimed the life of another bystander and stunned an entire community that had only witnessed this kind of horror before on TV. To think that it could happen here. To an ordinary family like us.

All three victims were Christians. All three are now surely with the Lord. And Erin, although she was also critically wounded, by God’s appointment survived to tell her story, to raise her two younger children—and to spread the gospel with a renewed sense of conviction.

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This lovely woman exudes the light of Christ like few people I’ve ever seen. Her greatest joy, her deepest desire, and her truest hope are found only in the Lord.

How?

I’ve known about this tragedy for over two years, have walked alongside this precious family for months of heartache and redemption, and yet I still can’t type these words without tears springing to my eyes.

How could someone go through something so horrific and still rise to praise God?

Erin is not superhuman. In fact she would be the first to tell you she feels tired and weak. Yet she also knows Jesus said we only need a tiny crumb of faith—the size of a mustard seed—and He will grow it.

If you struggle to trust God through the hardest times, here is some advice from a sister in Christ who has faced the unimaginable and yet holds fast to her faith.

It’s okay to ask why. Erin had some tough questions for God. Why her family? Why both her husband and daughter? Why so public, and in such an evil way? At first she didn’t know how to pray. She could only cry out—“Lord, help.” And that’s okay. Because God already knows. He knows what you need and how you’re feeling, and He cares. He wants to hear from you—even if it’s to ask a question whose answer you may never fully understand. Just keep communicating with Him, even when your only words are tears.

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26–27).

Remember what faith really means. The day you gave your heart to Jesus, you turned over everything—including your family, your future, and every hardship to come. Faith has no caveats. We cannot promise God we’ll love Him as long as He doesn’t take away this or ask us to give up that. Living for Christ means trusting Him through trials and believing He has a purpose for everything He ordains and allows—even tragedy.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Make a choice. Bitterness or peace? There comes a moment when we each have to decide. For Erin it came two days after the funeral. Still confined to a hospital bed, unable to comfort her surviving children and feeling utterly broken, she heard God’s still, small voice in her mind—do you still trust me? The only path to real freedom is asking God to replace your bitterness with love.

Frankly, bitterness is the easier choice. Many well-meaning people will feed your anger, claiming you don’t deserve such heartache or you have every right to be mad at God. Don’t buy it. The only path to real freedom is asking God to replace your bitterness with love. And He will do it.

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

Focus on God’s faithfulness. If God asks you to walk through something hard, He won’t just walk alongside—He’ll carry you. Cling to Him because only He gives you the grace and peace you need to wake up and breathe again day after day.

Since the shooting, Erin has experienced God’s provision time over time, for every need big and small, in ways she could never have imagined. The Lord took away something precious, yes, yet He also gives and gives and keeps on giving. We just need to keep our eyes open to His blessings.

“For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:5).

Don’t shut yourself off from people. God will use His people to lift you up and bless you. Even though your instinct might be to withdraw and hide in your grief, try opening yourself up to others. Welcome your friends and church community, and allow them to help you. They may not know the right things to say, and they might not truly understand how you’re feeling, but they care for you. And they will demonstrate the love of Jesus in tangible ways.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Love God more than you love the world. Erin has deposits in heaven. She knows she’ll be reunited with her husband and child for eternity, and that makes heaven very real and very appealing. But more than that, she longs to see the Lord. That is honestly her primary reason for desiring heaven. Can you imagine? That’s not the kind of peace that comes naturally to sinful, heartbroken humans. It can only be a result of a hard-fought journey with God through the pain.

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There’s nothing like losing a loved one to teach us this truth: everything and everyone belong to God. Our children belong to God. Our spouse belongs to God. The people we treasure most are only on loan to us for whatever length of time God decides. So make Him first priority in your life. Seek whatever He wants from you, even if it’s hard because nothing and no one else is as worthy of your adoration.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Know you are not alone. When everything is taken from you, and you realize nobody can fix this, nobody can recoup your losses or make it all okay again, God is your only comfort. He is the only One who will truly never abandon you. He feels your pain when no one else can—because it’s His pain, too. And He alone has the power to restore your broken soul.

Why wouldn’t you hold onto that?

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever” (Psalm 30:11–12).

My friend Erin is shining proof that your faith can more than just survive a tragedy. It can flourish. To hear more of her story in her own words, listen to her guest podcast here.

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