Saturday, March 28, 2020
If. . .
The old saying about Luther and the end of the world and his choice to plant an apple tree is probably a myth but a good one. Christians ought not act differently in the face of a pandemic than they do when dangers are more subtle and usual. We do what we do and that is nowhere more true than when it comes to the Church and her ministers. We do what we are given to do. It is not irrelevant to preside at the Eucharist, to preach the Word, to absolve the penitent, to admonish the erring, and to comfort the wounded and fearful. This is who we are and what we do. But it is probably true that we are somewhat haunted by the old question of why?
The stone of stumbling for so many is called “theodicy.” Some would put it at the heart of faith but I am not so sure. Anyway, it goes like this: If God is all good and all powerful why is there suffering? If he is all good God would want to end suffering. If he is all powerful he is able to end suffering. Therefore he must not be either all good or all powerful.
One Christian writer has suggested that this sort of seventh grade level of logic is less bothersome to him but he is astounded that so-called adult philosophers and theologians still pick their brains over it. I’ve therefore suspected that they don’t really puzzle over the question. It’s really just an adolescent hissy fit because they have decided they don’t like God. I like that. They don't like God so they posit a question that makes God look back no matter what. Sort of like the old question, pardon my impolitic choice of example, have you stopped beating your wife yet? In this case, the question is: “How can a good God allow suffering? Is suffering a punishment sent from God because sin? Is the COVID-19 virus God’s judgment on mankind?
I hesitate to speak for God but I think it is fair to say the disasters, catastrophes, and pandemics of our world are not caused by God but by sin and its reign of death and destruction. All creation groans under the weight of this deterioration. That said, this does not mean that God does not use the disasters, catastrophes, and pandemics that do occur as both wake up calls to the reality of our world fading away and as calls to repentance and faith. Scripture is replete with acknowledgments that suffering is a part of life. When we suffer because we have done wrong, that is just. When we suffer unjustly because of faith or acting rightly, God has promised not only notice but reward for suffering under such persecution. Again, when we suffer as a result of our sin, then God does not need to add to this judgment -- it is the natural judgment which is the fruit of that sin. When disaster occurs because of our failures, we must acknowledge that sinful lives bear sinful fruits. Even in pandemic, man's complicity cannot be forgotten in our effort to assign blame. But it is a false perception of God that He is somehow hurling down lightning bolts as punishments against us for what we think, say, and do wrong. He does not need to. Sin has consequences that even forgiveness does not vitiate.
God is not, however, detached from our suffering. In fact, God does intervene to prevent suffering -- is this not the agency of the angels? Furthermore, God has relented against the disasters and judgments we deserve and placed the full weight of our sin upon the shoulders of His only Son. Because of this mercy, we pray. God hears our prayers and answers our prayers -- not because we have argued our case and proven worthy of an exception but because it is His will and purpose in Christ to pour out grace into the tortured circumstances of this mortal life and to deliver us from even the sufferings that we would deserve.
It is exactly this interference for the sake of grace that is the very heart of the Gospel. God could not be content to watch our suffering or sit idly by as our sin and death consumed us. Indeed, the cross teaches us that God embraced our human suffering and bore in the body of His Son on the tree the full weight and burden of its punishment and pain. Unlike our temptation to run from suffering, God races toward it. The Lord does not always deliver us from suffering -- though sometimes He does -- but He is ALWAYS present with us so that we may endure it. Remember when the three Hebrew boys were thrown into the fiery furnace and the king said there was a fourth one there with them? Was that not the grace of God intervening? That episode was itself a shadow of the Christ and His coming to us sinners in our world of sin to meet with us and for us the suffering and death of sin. The Lord knows our pain and has made it His own. He has borne our iniquities upon the cross. He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. By His wounds we are healed.
So perhaps it is the wrong question. Is the Lord the cause of suffering? Should we not be asking where is God in the midst of it? And how does His grace support, strengthen, and sustain us through it all?