Pandemic. Worldwide epidemic. COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2. 2019-nCoV. Where is God in this time of mass viral outbreak? If God is all loving, all good and all powerful, why does he permit pain, evil, suffering and death?
This is not the first time we’ve had to think about this question. How many of us have lost a family member or friend to cancer? I have. Who has seen a child with a debilitating disease that will eventually lead to his or her death? I have seen that too in a family member. In fact, I have a friend whose child has Progeria, a disease that makes the child age so fast that he probably will never see his twentieth birthday.
Disease, drought, famine and flooding are common in many parts of the world. We all have seen many natural disasters. From massive tornado damage, massive flooding damage to massive fire damage. And, yes, many have lost family and friends to such disasters. I’m not about to trivialize pain, evil and suffering. My goal, rather, is to rationally put things in perspective and not negate the emotional side.
All Through History & Most All Cultures
We need to often remember that through history humanity has seen evil, pain and suffering. In most cultures today, it is just part of life. They don’t like it, but it is so connected to life that they don’t think the problem of pain and God’s existence are at odds. Strangely, it is the healthy and wealthy west that ponders this problem most often.
With this in mind, let me ask the most un-PC and insensitive question possible: why do we in the west think we are special? Why do we think we ought to suffer less? As we all take a big uneasy gulp together, let me ask an even more unsettling question. Why do we think we are so privileged that we need to be isolated from both natural evil and volitional evil that Jesus, God himself, saw and felt?
While insensitive, a reframed focus is essential. We tell ourselves untruth if we don’t reframe. As we all are humbling ourselves from our lofty position, let’s also see God as he really is, God.
In chapters 32-37 of the book of Job, Elihu challenges Job. Job may think of himself as being this good, orderly and cool dude, but that ain’t so; he’s human and not God. Ultimately we have to remember that God really is sovereign, we are the made and not the maker. God is the authority, he sees a bigger view of reality than we do.
While this is all viciously true, it is also viciously true that we are created in God’s image. We were created with purpose and care, love and compassion. We were created as volitional, emotional, rational and spiritual beings. While we are also biological beings, we are more than biological brutes. Since we are biological, we have this strange gift of pain (and often the bane of pain).
We ponder why God allows pain, evil and injustice to bubble up around us. We ponder why the innocent suffer. But often we fail to recall that the most innocent ever also suffered pain and evil. Jesus, the most innocent among men, was dealt the greatest blows ever. Physically, others had gone through what he did, but no one has gone through the excruciating emotional and spiritually pain and distress that he did.
Through this smoke and fog of pain, we see Jesus’ life, Jesus’ death and Jesus’ Resurrection; one that was full of supernatural miracles. First, this shows us eternity. The earth will pass away and our lives are ultimately like vapor. Second, we see Jesus, the creator, unsurprisingly demonstrated his power over nature. He had power of the weather, power over sickness and disease, and even power over death itself! He calls the shots.
He makes life and he takes life. The fact is that not only does he give life and take it away, he also has the total moral right to do so. Just as the things I purchase or make are mine, so are we his. Though it may be hard to say, he doesn’t have to tell me why he allows things to happen to me. God doesn’t need our permission to allow evil and suffering in our lives.
However, it doesn’t strike me that some reasons are beyond our infantile reach. As painful as it is to say, he does allow bad things to happen to people, even good people, for good reasons. Let me give just one of those reasons why God allows pain and suffering at times.
I think tree frogs really look interesting, so once I placed a tree frog in a jar. There was another reason too, he happened to be right in the path of my mower and I didn’t want to hit him. Now, I’m sure he despised his annoying temporary new home. While he never knew why a mean monster disrupted his life, I probably saved his life.
When Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, her life, her plans and her future were disrupted. Being the mother of Jesus brought confusion, misunderstanding, mental anguish and physical pain; not counting humiliation and embarrassment! But within God’s larger plan, Mary had the privilege every mother desires, to have a perfect child. Plus, what other mother can say she kissed the face of God?
Just as God had bigger plans for Mary, he also has bigger plans for you and me. God’s reasons are above our reasons and God’s understanding of reality is above our understanding of reality. We are not the type of beings who can fully understand everything God understands. Thus, we should not expect to know all the reasons since we don’t know the future. This is demonstrated in a splendid way in one of my favorite biblical passages. It takes place after Joseph’s father had passed away and after he looked back on his life and saw God’s bigger picture and plan through his pain, suffering and mistreatment. In this case, he is speaking to his brothers who mistreated him when he was a young man. He says this to them: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; [but] God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as [it is] this day, to save much people alive.” (Genesis 50:20)
As we look back on life, we also can see how suffering often helped our lives grow. Suffering often brings changes in our life that are desperately needed, changes that would not have happened if we would not have suffered. A child may not understand why you are causing him or her pain and suffering. That does not, however, show your limit of understanding; rather, it shows the child’s limited understanding. Punishing a child may bring fleeting pain, but your goal is to shape the child into an upstanding adult. You allow and sometimes cause pain and discomfort because you love your child.
Congenital analgesia, also known as congenital insensitivity to pain, is a dangerous disease where one can’t feel physical pain, preventing you from knowing if there’s a problem. If you don’t feel your skin being cut or burned, the problems are immense! Could it be that God allows suffering, like COVID-19, to see people see their own mortality? Recently MSNBC’s host, Craig Melvin, interviewed preacher T.D. Jakes. While Jakes is less than orthoodox, a modalist and prosperity gospel preacher, it was an interesting and unprecedented modern news interview. Here’s the interesting encounter, according to NewsBusters:
“At the end of a six-minute plus discussion, Melvin told Jakes that they only had 30 seconds left, but he had a request: ‘For folks who aren’t able to get to church yesterday, I’ve never actually done this on the air. Can you lead us in prayer for 30 seconds?’
Jakes obliged and, as Melvin bowed his head, Jakes prayed:
JAKES: ‘Yes, I can. Our Father and our God, we bow our heads to you in humility, understanding that we are not competent in and of ourselves to handle this kind of global calamity. We look to you, Lord, to be the source, the strength, the help, the light that we need, strengthen our first responders, strengthen even our broadcast people, strengthen all of us whose lives have been devastated and disrupted and give us the peace that passes all understanding. In Christ’s name we pray, amen.’
It has been said that pain, suffering and death are God’s megaphone in our lives. With the spread of COVID-19, people have been shaken spiritually. Are they seeing their immortality and lack of personal control? If so, will people see their immorality and personal sin? Will people awake and turn to Jesus from evil, selfishness and pride? According to historian Philip Jenkins, “In the third-world countries, suffering turns people towards God, Christianity is flourishing wonderfully among the poor and the persecuted, while it atrophies among the rich and secure.” While God is quick to forgive, humans are quick to forget. Death comes like an oncoming train, it’s just a matter of time when you and I will be crushed. We in the west really like to forget that death is sure. Don’t we need to be reminded often? Let’s pray this brings not just revival, but an authentic lasting revival.
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