Pastors—indeed, all of us—will struggle this week to find meaning in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. In April 1999 Nick Lillo faced a similar task when his church, Littleton, Colorado's Centennial Community Church, was overwhelmed with news of the Columbine High School shootings. The following is Lillo's sermon on overcoming such terrible evil.

Preachers are given two responsibilities: one is to explain the Scriptures, relating them to life issues. At other times our job is to take life and explain it in light of the Scriptures. This morning we wrestle with the second of those two tasks.

To be honest with you, I'm not sure I can do that. I don't have any answers, nor do I have any explanations. But it's important for us to try because the events of last week will touch us more deeply and for much longer than we know.

Yesterday morning I went over to Clement Park, and that was hard, especially when I walked around and read what people wrote. I looked at the teddy bears, the flowers, and the balloons. I watched people cry; it ripped my heart out as I observed people wrestling with this because it was so senseless and such an incredible waste.

But we need to try to make sense of it and realize how vulnerable and dependent we are. It is at these moments that we are most open to God doing things in our lives, and maybe God will do some things in our lives.

God speaks to us in the language of events. It's the nature of the church to share what we think we heard God say. So as I pondered this week what I would say to you this morning, I called some of the people whom I respect greatly and asked them, "What is God saying to you? What do you think he wants to say to his people?" Their help was incredible. Based on those discussions, I have five things I want to share with you.

Overcome evil with good
The first thing I want to share with you is this: I am convinced the only thing that overcomes evil is good. Part of what motivated Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was revenge. They felt mistreated, rejected, and abused, and this was a way of taking revenge and getting back—evil responding to evil, hate responding to hate. I read that they shouted as they entered into the building, "This is for all the people who made fun of us all these years," and then they laughed and opened fire.

This is our temptation as well. There's a part of us that would like to get even. I was at the mall Friday, and there was a young man leaning up against the wall near the entrance. He wore a black trench coat, black clothes, and black military boots. Half of his head was shaved, and the other half had long hair. I was really irritated, and I told my wife, "I don't think he has a clue. He's just asking for trouble. If he dresses like that, somebody's going to lash out at him."

I looked inside myself, and I'm ashamed to admit it, but I hoped someone would lash out at him. I realized, That's hate responding to hate. That's evil responding to evil, and the only way to overcome evil is with good.

Someone in our church sent me a story about a father of an Oklahoma bombing victim. It is a powerful story of how this father reached out to the father of Timothy McVeigh. I want to read to you what this woman wrote when she sent me the story:

"The thing that has become clear to me is that hate begets hate, and when we respond to hate with hate we become just like the ones we hate, even if we never do the same horrible things they did.

"Those two kids allowed hate to take root in their hearts, and it grew until the fruit of it erupted in this violence. Hate in our hearts can keep Christ out of our hearts. It becomes a locked and guarded portion of our hearts into which Christ cannot enter."

It hit me that Jesus experienced all the hatred and injustice and violence that the leaders of this world could pour out on him, and he was also victim of the mindless hate and the violence of the crowd and the Roman soldiers who had nothing against him personally but who used him as an excuse to vent the hatred in their hearts. But Jesus did not take on and return their hate, and he did not let it change him from his course of revealing the Father's love, his love even for God's enemies. Love is stronger than hate because hate enslaves, and the decision to love brings freedom.

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In Romans 12:21, Paul says, "Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good." We have seen many examples of this during the past week: people willing to work together; people and organizations being generous and supportive; and people praying and reaching out to others who are hurting. In many ways evil has been confronted with good.

I wonder if the capacity to overcome evil with good, to respond to hate with love, can filter into our lives, because we've seen the consequences if it doesn't. I wonder what mistreatment in our lives we need to respond to with good and what hate we need to meet with love.

Acknowledge the evil inside
The second thing I thought we should ponder is this: all of us have a dark side. In the paper there was a picture of a hand painted sign propped up against a tree in Clement Park. The sign said, "These flowers and prayers are for the innocent victims and their families, not for the two monsters that committed this selfish act."

One woman who was there to leave a bouquet of flowers saw the sign, and she whispered to no one in particular, "I want to give them to the monsters, too." And she left her flowers at another makeshift memorial.

I've been thinking long and hard this week and asking myself, Were these kids really monsters? No doubt, they did monstrous things. Part of me wants to say they were monsters because that makes my world fit together. If they are not like me, then my world can still make sense. But were they monsters? I don't know.

I do know that each one of us has potential for incredible good and potential for incredible evil. I don't think any of us would commit mass murder. That seems off the scale to me. But we also struggle. We, too, have incredible capacity for evil.

We would like to think evil is something outside of ourselves or only in other people. But when I look inside my heart, I discover evil is in me. Jeremiah 17:9 says, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure."

I also know these kids were not always monsters. In the paper this week I read about kids who liked baseball, kids who were exceptionally bright, kids who had friends of other races, kids that seemed normal when they were young.

But something went terribly wrong. Something turned them from normal kids to monstrous kids, and somehow these kids fed the dark side of their soul with the wrong kind of friends, music, books, movies, and games.

Value people over things
The third thing to think about is that this event should give us a better perspective on life. You think about the events of last Tuesday and suddenly you realize many of the things we normally consider valuable and chase after—money, possessions, cars, houses, success, and power—do not matter. If you stood at Leewood High School when the buses were coming in and you asked parents what they would give to see their kid get off that bus, they would tell you, "I would give anything in the world." Anything! What matters in life is people.

I was touched as I read about Dave Sanders, the teacher who was heroic in his effort to save kids. As he was bleeding to death, the kids pulled out his wallet and showed him a picture of his family, trying to get him to hang on. One of the last things he said was "Tell my daughters I love them."

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This event forces us to face the truth that what counts is people. It's easy to forget that, and we're often hesitant to tell them.

Mike Fenn, one of our associate pastors, was talking to one of our junior high kids whose brother was hiding inside the building. He said to her, "I bet you didn't realize how much you loved your brother, and I bet you regretted a bunch of those mean things you said to him over the years."

The girl said, "Yeah, I didn't realize how much I loved him."

Then Mike asked her, "Well, did you tell him?"

She replied, "No!"

There are no guarantees in life. Those who are here today may not be here tomorrow. So we need to keep short accounts and have no regrets. Some of us need to make relationships right; some need to give hugs; some need to take a long and hard look at where their time goes and to what they are giving their lives to. Suffering, although we sometimes try to block it out, gives us perspective on life because it helps us see what's important.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that God comforts us in our troubles so we are able to comfort those who are troubled with the same comfort we receive from God. When this tragedy is behind us, will it be easy to hear about lives lost and simply block it out of our minds and our hearts? Perhaps these events will make us more compassionate and loving.

Seek safety in God alone
The last thought to ponder is this: safety is not ultimately found in a secure place or a safe situation, but safety is only found in God.

I was with a woman at Foothills Bible Church after their prayer service on Wednesday afternoon. When she came out, she was distraught. She is an old friend and wanted to talk. She said, "I need to register my kids in a private school. If I don't do it today, all the places will be taken."

As she talked to me, I could relate to that. I have five kids of my own, and I want to keep them safe. They are the joy of my life.

Then I realized two things. First, I realized no place or circumstance is truly safe. Two weeks ago if you asked the parents at Columbine High School if it was a safe place, they would have told you, "Yes. Great school. Great faculty. Great campus. It is in a great part of town. Bad things don't happen out there in southwest Denver." One of the fathers whose son was killed moved his kids from schools in another district to Columbine because it was safe.

There are no safe places. Kids are 99 times more likely to be a victim of homicide in a community than in the school. You must realize that safety isn't found in a place; that's an illusion. Safety is only found in God because he is the only one who can preview our lives and even our deaths. The psalmist says in Psalm 121, "I lift my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth." God is the only one that can keep us and our kids safe.

I thought about Cassie, who was a believer and part of the youth group at West Bowls Community Church. She was in the library. On National Public Radio they reported she was praying during the shootings. One of the gunmen asked her if she believed in Jesus, rather than asking her if she believed in God. She thought about it for a moment. She thought about it because she knew her answer would make a difference. The moment she said yes, he shot her.

What the paper doesn't tell you, but we know to be true, is at that moment she entered into the presence of God. Some things are more important than safety—speaking the truth is more important than preserving your life.

The truth is all of us here this morning will die. It may be when we're young; it may be when we're old. But we will die. There will be a day when some pastor or official stands in front of our friends and family and tries to comfort them. At the moment of your death, the only thing that matters is your relationship with Jesus Christ. He is still the last and the best hope for all of us; he is the only one who truly can keep us safe.

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That's why in John 16:33 Jesus says, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Nick Lillo is pastor of Centennial Community Church in Littleton Colorado. This sermon originally appeared in Preaching Today Audio, a monthly sermon resource produced by PreachingToday.com and Christianity Today International.





Related Elsewhere


Also appearing on our site today in response to the terrorist attacks:
Experts Say Spiritual Roots Will Aid in Coping With Catastrophe | Pray and connect with others, advise nation's chaplains.
Fear and Hate | In times like this, as in all other times, Christians have a responsibility to love above all else.
Church Leaders Around World Deplore 'Unspeakable Horror' of Attack | Christians urged to unite in prayer as they unite in shock and denunciation.

See the homepage for Lillo's Centennial Community Church in Littleton, Colorado.

PreachingToday.com is a resource from Christianity Today International.

Christianity Today's coverage of the Columbine tragedy included:

Church, State, and Columbine | Since the infamous massacre, America has been rethinking the role of religion in the public square. (April 20, 2001)
Columbine's Tortuous Road to Healing | One year later, survivor's recovery is filled with painful twists and turns. (April 14, 2000)
Videos of Hate | Columbine killers harbored anti-Christian prejudice (Jan. 26, 2000)
Retailers Marketing Martyrdom to Teens | Littleton Massacre Now Merchandise Opportunity (Nov. 12, 1999)
Cassie Said Yes, They Said No | The mainstream press unquestioningly accepted Salon.com's flimsy 'debunking' of the Columbine confession. (Nov. 1, 1999)
'Do You Believe in God?' | Columbine and the stirring of America's soul. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Tough Love Saved Cassie | How the Bernalls helped Cassie break with old friends and build a new life. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Yancey: Can Good Come Out of This Evil? (June 14, 1999)