Where is God in COVID-19? I have asked this question of myself as I have thought about the crisis brought about by the current pandemic. And I am sure many others too have asked it. Over recent weeks on this page others have given their answer to this question. I now attempt to give my answer.
Whether it be a pandemic or a personal issue that is affecting us, we ask this type of question and never receive satisfactory answers. “I prayed that my sick child would live and the child died,” is an example.
“God failed to answer the request in my prayer. We were taught in our Sunday school classes that God is loving and kind and all powerful. Yet all I receive when I pray is silence. It appears God is not interested when we have a problem.”
These thoughts do bother those who believe in God. It upsets us that what I have accepted as the truth does not come about in way I requested of God.
And when it happens I don’t suppress my frustration that my prayer has not been answered in the way I prayed. I ask questions about why my prayer to save my child and why this request were not answered. After all, my comments are genuine and worth God’s attention. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
A starting point for the enquiring mind seeking to understand and come to terms with our human reasoning, is to go back to the Hebrew Bible which deals with the pain and suffering of the Jewish people in their long relationship with God.
God is revealed as the one who initiates contact with his people. He wants to save the Jewish people. He leads and guides them through the centuries.
He wants to protect them like a shepherd protects his flock. The Hebrew Bible, that is, the Old Testament, describes God in metaphors. God is like a shepherd. God is like a rock, a strong foundation, a mother hen protecting her young.
The people of the Old Testament were familiar with these images, and they were able to understand the qualities God had.
Then Jesus appeared on the scene. As Christian people we came to have faith in him as being both God and a human being.
This is an outrageous claim and a difficult one for people who live with a scientific mindset to accept. However, the implications are significant and important to us who have faith.
In the first place, by believing in Jesus Christ as both human and God, the idea of God as a metaphor, a shepherd, a rock, is no longer necessary. As a human being, Christ has lived a human life and if he was like us in all things but sin, then he is completely human.
He knows the experience of being human and because he is human, as well as God, we can come close to him and he to us.
I appeal to a Belgian Cardinal, Leo Suenens (1904-1996) who is recognised in our church for his talent to make complex issues simple.
Cardinal Suenens says: “Jesus did not come to explain suffering but to fill it with his presence.”
What does that mean and imply? It could mean there is no rational and satisfactory reason to explain why people suffer. The world suffers natural calamities like earthquakes and cyclones, and human calamities like wars and greed that destroy lives.
Jesus draws near to us in the constant turmoil because he is alive again through the power of his father. When he said he was a shepherd, the metaphor is still workable but at a more profound level. He is like a shepherd, yes, but now he is the shepherd. He invites us to share in his life and he shares ours
One of the implications, which people struggle with, is the fact that according to the Bible, God in Jesus Christ is vulnerable.
How can God the creator of the world, so incredibly all powerful, be vulnerable? The Christian answer is that Jesus is the risen one who makes it possible.
Coming back to Cardinal Suenens, who believed that this is the way forward: Jesus does not take away suffering but fills it with his presence. People will continue to suffer one way or another but the risen Lord offers to be with them, to walk with them.
He said, “Come to me all of you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest.”
The challenge is to realise that when we suffer Jesus is suffering too.
Our Covid-19 reality in the Cook Islands is very different from most other countries in the world. We have not been confronted with people getting sick with Covid-19. We have not had to deal with deaths from Covid-19.
But we have endured lockdown. Schools and churches have closed. We have seen the tourist industry close down overnight. We know people who have lost their jobs and income.
Through our prayer we have invited Jesus to be present in our experience of the pandemic. That is, present in the shutting down of the economy and the resulting unemployment.
While counting our blessings for being Covid-19 free in the Cook Islands, we do hear news of what is happening in other countries like America, with states reporting higher than ever number of cases; like Melbourne and the state of Victoria now back in lockdown. And this week, Fiji has announced the return of cases.
We have also seen in other countries that there are deep political division and uncertainty about restarting the economy. There has been the questioning of social bonds. Inequalities over the application of law have been revealed when African-Americans have died.
According to an online preacher I follow, Pat Marrin (Pencil preaching): “A quick review of history will remind us that every generation has faced its own times of crisis caused by war and economic dislocation, social unrest and violence. What one generation sows, subsequent generations reap. Ambition and deceit sow division and distrust. Wisdom and courage bless the future for others.”
In Cook Islands the risk of falling sick from Covid-19 has to date been minimal with closed borders and the use of quarantine. The risk is going to change whenever the borders reopen, which is the difficult question facing those concerned about the economy.
This dilemma makes me recall what happened in the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis when Adam and Eve lost the privilege to live in the garden. The serpent tricked Adam and Eve with an apple and they lost the Garden of Eden when making the wrong choice. The apple being held up today is the economy.
But in choosing the economy will it be at the cost of lives of local people? Surely the lives of our local people are more precious than the economy riding on the return of tourists.
Those making these vital decisions will need to be as “cunning as serpents and harmless as doves” as lives will be riding on their decision. (Matthew 10.16)