“What do you think God is doing? Why is he allowing this pandemic?” he asked. Then he added, “I know you have thought a lot about this.”
I had not thought about it. I was “settled in” with my wife; we had plenty to do, and I left the details of COVID-19 news to her. But his questions—which are more global than personal—tap into something important. This pandemic is the first time that many of us have reckoned with a particular trouble that affects nearly everyone, and it has caused us to think more about God’s ways. Though the answers across the body of Christ will have different emphases, there are at least three matters on which we can have broad agreement.
As Christ’s church, we should be able to agree that:
1.We tend to overinterpret suffering. There is something about the human mind that prefers answers. When life-changing events befall us, we often interpret them as highly personal messages. We do this with individuals. Every person whose troubles are known to a church community receives specific “biblical” interpretations for the trouble, or is asked, “What is God trying to teach you?” We do the same thing with corporate and national struggles. Perhaps we want some sense of control by knowing precise causes. Perhaps we want to find a unique mission and purpose. Or perhaps we see how the Old Testament makes connections between human behavior and divine consequences and assume that we who have the Spirit should be able to make similar connections. Whatever our reasons, we overinterpret suffering. At our worst, we believe that the suffering of other people is God’s discipline upon them. Meanwhile, we wonder if our troubles indicate God’s judgment on us as his church, or if he is planting hidden signs in our suffering that will lead us to better decisions and back into his favor. We prefer answers.
But such answers are not ours to have. Our present, common hardship is a time for us to acknowledge that we are mere humans, weak and dependent children before our Father, who is both at work in the suffering and has a steadfast love for us that never ceases (Lam 3:22).1 That is enough. If we want more details, we know that the kingdom of God has come in Christ, but it grows gradually, in conflict with the dark kingdom, and this conflict is overlaid on a groaning creation with its ever-mutating viruses.
Beyond this, our common hardships are not a time to try to read the mind of God. Rather, they are a time to grow in trust and humility before him.
2. Our aim is, and continues to be, to know Christ. From that safe and sane place of humility and dependence, we set out to know Jesus Christ more. In my chronological reading of Scripture, I was in Judges when the pandemic hit and wanted to decontaminate from the atrocities that increased with each judge. What better way to get refreshed than to go to the apostle Paul and be drawn along by his pastoral letters about Jesus. Given the present difficulties, I thought something that went especially big was needed to aid my soul, something that had all of creation in view, both things visible and invisible. So, Colossians it was.
In just the first chapter, Paul cannot stop saying the name of Jesus. Jesus created all things, he is the head of the church and holds it together, he reconciled those who were alienated from God through his crucifixion. And, if you are looking for mysteries revealed, look no further than how he has brought Jews and Gentiles to himself, and that his indwelling Spirit produces in us the hope of glory. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20).
When we feel as though we are in the dark and need more interpretive knowledge, we look to Jesus, meditate on his sacrificial love, and speak of this to others as we also learn from them. Doing this won’t answer our immediate questions about what is happening in the world, but it helps answer an even bigger question: How can I know and trust in the One who created all things and established their course?
3. Our response to a crisis is to walk in spiritual wisdom (Col 1:9). From the exalted Christ to the details of life today—that is the path Paul always travels. He prays that we would walk worthy of our high calling in Jesus, pleasing him, bearing fruit through words and deeds, and being strengthened “for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col 1:11). Then, we work out the specifics. Show kindness to a neighbor, ask forgiveness of someone in our household, sing worship songs, pray for the needs of others, read Scripture aloud, bring order to our living space, consider how we can show generosity to those in greater need, and the list goes on. This is how we respond to a crisis.
We have rarely shared an international crisis quite like COVID-19. It stands alone as a burden common to us all. While its impact seems to beg for unique insights and interpretations, restrained explanations are best. Then notice what God actually is doing. For example, the pandemic has been accompanied by a significant uptick in those who log on to streaming worship services searching for food for their soul. With this in mind, we pray that this time will strengthen the church and make Jesus more known to the world.
- Lamentations does have a specific interpretation: God’s people had forsaken their covenant vows, and the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. I am extracting from Lamentations a thread that goes through different kinds of suffering.