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Titanic: Anatomy of a Tragedy

Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

Tragedies emotionally grip us. They depress us. They make us ask, ‘Why?’, and when it comes to tragedies, few come close to the infamous sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Approximately 1,500 lives perished that night on April 15th, 1912. Though it sank over a century ago, it still rattles us. Book and film adaptations immortalized it, yet it’s deeply telling how very little history most of these portrayals needed to skew for drama’s sake. If anything, it gives us greater pause and deepens our sorrow. It causes some to question if anything good can come from tragedy or whether we’d be better off without them—real or fictional. The Author of Life, however, isn’t like us. He’s written both well-being and calamity in earth’s story, and unlike human authors, nothing in His script is meaningless filler. His tragedies are deliberate and purposeful.

Now, many outright reject that idea. Would a God who saves purposely cause disaster? Well, as Scripture proves, yes. He absolutely does. After all, if all things weren’t in His control, then nothing truly would be (including salvation). Case in point: the Titanic. The White Star Line designed a luxury ship so safe; newspapers dubbed it ‘unsinkable’. How sobering is it then that everything that had to go wrong went wrong in the exact order it needed to go wrong? An accidental coal-fire weakened the section of hull that’d be struck just a few days later. A misplaced key kept the lookout binoculars locked up. The dark moon and calm sea rendered the iceberg un-spottable. First Officer Murdoch instinctively avoided a head-on collision by turning. The ship was steaming too fast with too small a rudder to clear the attempted turn. The iceberg ruptured the exact number of bulkheads necessary to doom the liner, and to top it off, it was just late enough for other ships (save the Carpathia) to have already shut down their communications for the night. Change or rearrange any one of those factors, and things would’ve gone very very differently for the ship, its passengers, and its crew. Truly, Titanic’s demise was no accident. Humanly speaking, it was. Divinely, though? Absolutely not.

This, of course, leads us back to tragedy’s bone-chilling question, ‘Why?’. Well, in God’s hands, tragedy holds a deep power: the power to expose. Disaster is human pride’s best (if bitter) medicine. We build ‘bigger’, ‘stronger’, and ‘better’ for our own glory and independence, yet in a snap tragedy undoes our ‘achievements’ to the frail things they are. Furthermore, tragedy strips the soul to its core. Ordinary people were aboard Titanic. Then in two short hours, God laid bare all 2,200 hearts, and heroes and cowards emerged from the ordinary. Some ignored danger. Others resorted to force and trickery to save themselves. In contrast, all the engineers stayed below, keeping power running so lifeboats could leave. Wireless operator, Jack Philips, persistently messaged for help to the end. John Hart, a steward, braved the winding staircases several times and rescued many third-class passengers. Fifth Officer Lowe endangered himself by returning and saved four from the freezing water. Wallace Hartley (who was about to be married) not only stayed to lead the band and calmed doomed passengers. He made worshiping God through ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ his closing act in life. The stories go on and on. You see, inhibition flees in death’s presence. Unfiltered beliefs remain, and beliefs born from hope then uncovers tragedy’s gift, its secret jewel: the door to lasting joy.

In Isaiah, God described His judgement as a devouring fire that leaves a stump under its ashes….Few things fertilize better than ashes….As a widower, Pastor John Harper could’ve joined his little girl in a lifeboat, but a restlessness stirred his heart. He kissed his daughter goodbye; then willfully spent his final hour on his last mission-field—Titanic’s slanting deck. He called women, children, and the ‘lost’ to the lifeboats and shared the Gospel with anyone near. Some  prayed with him. Others spurned him. Harper even gave his lifejacket to a scoffer saying, “You’ll need this more than I.” Still, even after Titanic split apart and submerged; even in the North Atlantic’s freezing grip; Harper kept preaching. One man, who initially rejected Harper, watched Harper float past him, and listened to the dying Pastor speak of Christ one last time. The man’s heart softened. At that very moment, one Christian slipped into eternity. Another was born again and later rescued from the waters—one out of only six.

Because we use ‘tragedy’ in specific terms, we often fail to see ourselves for what we are: tragic. Our sin separated us from God. It sinks us to depths we can’t return from. Worse yet, we’re ignorant of it, but praise God that He isn’t heartless. He takes no personal pleasure in judgment, but He loves us enough to afflict us and expose our true disease. Can repentance come without guilt? Or rescue without the cross? You see, Jesus is far more invested in your eternity than in your present. He’ll grieve Himself and cause the worst if it means you’ll come home to Him. Titanic lost 1,500 lives, yet how many of those ‘lost’ were ‘found’ forevermore thanks to God placing faithful followers like Wallace Hartley and John Harper in tragedy’s midst? Whether for the sake of one or a thousand, God indeed considered Titanic’s temporal horror incomparable to the eternal happiness He’d share, as He embraced His enlarged family that April night. Tragedy in human hands? Its focus is misery. Tragedy in God’s hands? It’s an invitation to life…new, joyous life that’ll never let go.

“Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down, darkness be over me, my rest a stone.…There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n; All that Thou sendest me, in mercy giv’n….There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest, There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest; Age after age to be nearer, my God, to Thee. Nearer, my God to Thee. Nearer to Thee.”

- Nearer My God to Thee lyrics; verses 2, 3, and 6

Lamentations 3:30-32, 38-40 “Let him give his cheek to the One who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He causes grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love;…Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!”

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May 16, 2023

Wow, I really enjoyed reading this post! It brought me to tears multiple times the first time I did just now. I'll share some of it with my family and friends to see what they think, but I'm sure they'll appreciate it a lot too! I'll always be fascinated by stories of famous tragedies like this throughout history, especially where the Lord allows us to see His movements during such catastrophic events. I learned several new things I hadn't heard of (or at least hadn't recalled) despite my previous research regarding this tragedy. Of course, perhaps I should say that a "tragedy" to man is often a "victory" to God! Praise be to Him forevermore in the highest, amen! Keep…

Hannah Mae
Hannah Mae
Jun 30, 2023
Replying to

Thanks so much, Charlie! I appreciate that. (And I can’t wait to meet Wallace Hartley and John Harper too. ☺️)


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