Where Is God in a Pandemic?
In the midst of every personal or national tragedy, the cry of the human heart is very much, ‘Where is God?’
The problem of pain and suffering is ancient yet ever new. In truth, each of us faces our own personal trauma and suffering, and sometimes a generation faces its own national or indeed global crisis – be it a World War, the Spanish Flu of 1918 or the Asian Tsunami in 2004, or today, in our case, the Great Covid Pandemic 2020.
We cry ‘Where is God?’, but from the very beginning God has lovingly asked ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). We tend to think that we search for God (and of course we do in many ways) but, more deeply and fundamentally, God is always searching, even thirsting, for us to come into his presence.
The period of the coronavirus pandemic has been one of heightened emotion and feeling across society and in individual lives. Fear has spread quicker than the virus itself. A sense of the fragility of life has returned to what was previously a hyper-confident world. Many people feel rocked to the core.
In the past few months, millions have started to fear that they are moving to their appointment with terrifying speed, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. The sheer horror of this fast-moving infection is coupled with the almost physical shock from its sudden onset. As a priest, I’ve heard an avalanche of feelings in the last month: panic, fear, anger, sadness, confusion and despair. More and more I feel like I’m living in a horror movie, but the kind that I instinctively turn off because it’s too disturbing. And even the most religious people ask me: Why is this happening? And: Where is God in all of this?
The question is essentially the same that people ask when a hurricane wipes out hundreds of lives or when a single child dies from cancer, or this virus or even any when any natural calamities strike the nations around the world. The question of “natural” suffering (from illnesses or natural disasters) differs from that of “moral evil” (in which suffering flows from the actions of individuals — think Hitler and Stalin). But leaving aside theological distinctions, the question now consumes the minds of millions of believers, who quail at steadily rising death tolls, struggle with stories of physicians forced to triage patients and recoil at photos of rows of coffins: Why?
Over the centuries, many answers have been offered about natural suffering, all of them wanting in some way. The most common is that suffering is a test. Suffering tests our faith and strengthens it: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance,” says the Letter of James in the New Testament. But while explaining suffering as a test may help in minor trials (patience being tested by an annoying person) it fails in the most painful human experiences.
In the end, the most honest answer to the question of why the Covid-19 virus is killing thousands of people, why infectious diseases ravage humanity and why there is suffering at all is: We don’t know. For me, this is the most honest and accurate answer. One could also suggest how viruses are part of the natural world and in some way contribute to life, but this approach fails abjectly when speaking to someone who has lost a friend or loved one. An important question for the believer in times of suffering is this: Can you believe in a God that you don’t understand?
But if the mystery of suffering is unanswerable, where can the believer go in times like this? For the Christian and perhaps even for others the answer is Jesus.
Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of illness. In her book “Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit,” about daily life in first-century Galilee, Jodi Magness, a scholar of early Judaism, calls the milieu in which Jesus lived “filthy, malodorous and unhealthy.” John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, scholars of the historical background of Jesus, sum up these conditions in a sobering sentence in “Excavating Jesus”: “A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill.” This was Jesus’s world.
Moreover, in his public ministry, Jesus continually sought out those who were sick. Most of his miracles were healings from illnesses and disabilities: debilitating skin conditions (under the rubric of “leprosy”), epilepsy, a woman’s “flow of blood,” a withered hand, “dropsy,” blindness, deafness, paralysis. In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things.
But those who are not Christian can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the “other,” not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was “moved with pity.” He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity.
The truth is, faith can be deeply shaken, challenged and sometimes even lost by the many challenges and difficulties we face and endure. Conversely, faith is often strengthened, renewed and refined through momentous and deeply challenging moments in our lives. The Great Covid Pandemic 2020 is precisely one of those moments.
The sage said, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and so the problem of suffering and pain was as real in the ancient world as it is today. St Luke records an accident in which eighteen men lost their lives when a tower in Siloam fell on them (Luke 13:4). Then, as now, tragedy invites us to ask: ‘Why did God let this happen?’, ‘Was God punishing the men who died?’ The book of Job is devoted to the same theme – why do we suffer, where is God in it, is the universe random, is God indifferent to us and our plight? Jesus completely refuted the idea that human tragedy or catastrophe is God’s punishment, but pointed to each of us being responsible for our own relationship with God and being open to ongoing change and conversion – a renewal of the mind and heart, metanoia (repentance) if you will, and a continual, on-going and lifelong endeavour to return to the Father.
The scientist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie said, ‘Nothing in life is to be feared – only understood’. The question ‘Where is God?’ is rooted in a misunderstanding about the very nature of God. We could say that this all too human misunderstanding is because our thinking leans towards a certain darkness or cynicism. This darkness and cynicism is because of an original wound which in turn gives rise to one of our greatest enemies, fear: Fear of God, of one another, of life itself.
When we cry out in desperation or anguish, ‘God, where are you?’, God speaks his answer gently into the depths of our hearts saying, ‘I am right here with you, right beside you, always and forever’. When we despair and lash out in darkness and confusion saying, ‘Why does God allow such suffering and pain?’, God speaks his answer gently saying, ‘I am familiar with suffering and pain – I am with you even until the end of time’.
God does not send us more than we can bear. God is with us, right at the very centre of our suffering. Just as we have been asked to ‘Stay Alert’ with respect to the coronavirus, so too we are called to ‘Stay Alert’ to things of faith. We cleanse our minds with the life-giving promises of faith – we cleanse our hearts with the truth of Scripture which proclaims that wherever sin, darkness, confusion, despair, disunity and suffering increase, God’s grace, mercy, blessing and love increase all the more (Romans 5:20).
In the slowness, gradualness and perhaps even boredom, God is still with us. Though our lives might be primarily stripped of normality, God does not depart from us.
So, what does it mean to say that God is everywhere? It means that we reframe our original question of “Where is God in this?” to the same question that the psalmist asks in Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?” (Ps 139:7).
Not only is God everywhere, but God also pursues us from every direction, inviting us to deeper relationship and communion. Most especially, God pursues us through the things that are most often right in front of us.
As St. Vincent Pallotti (an Italian ecclesiastic and a saint. Born in Rome, he was the founder of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate later to be known as the "Pious Society of Missions") reminds us: “Seek God and you will find him. Seek God in all things, and you will find him everywhere. Seek God at all times, and you will always find him. We must inhale and exhale God. Then we will radiate God’s presence.”