coronavirus covid-19

Coronavirus: finding meaning in a global pandemic

In disasters, people lose loved ones, relatives and property. Above all, they lose faith – not so much religious faith, but faith in the belief that life has a certain consistency and meaning. The universe suddenly makes no sense: there is no justice; life’s not fair.

If God is omnipotent, why does He allow Coronavirus? It’s a common question in times of suffering and trauma: since God is the author of creation and all creation moans, God is viewed through the filter of suffering and thereby becomes an enemy or a persecuting presence from whom respite is desperately sought. Such a hostile response to a deity or ‘fate’ is endemic in victims of suffering and trauma: if God is good, he cannot be omnipotent, and if he is omnipotent, he cannot be entirely good.

It has to follow that God’s ‘unjust’ treatment of the victims of Coronavirus has always been a part of His secret plan, as though He were playing some kind of divine chess game which He is more assuredly pre-ordained to win. The natural impulse is to try to make sense of this global trauma, because we know that victims of the virus have done nothing to ‘deserve’ such suffering.

How can we relate to God when the world He made does not make sense, for it often appears that the Christian God is not merely one whose thoughts and ways are simply higher than ours (Isa 55:9), but quite often grotesque and totally alien to them.

‘Why does it always rain on me?’

This song lyric (Travis, 1999) is followed by the line: ‘Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?’ – an expression of the pervasive belief in exact retribution (Prov 9:10-12). The principal plea of those traumatised is ‘Why me?’ or ‘What have I done to deserve this?’, and the easy and comforting answer is to believe that the suffering is deserved, and that some personal wickedness or sin was its cause, because associated guilt places the catastrophe in a comprehensible universal order, namely that suffering is explicable in terms of punishment. In his immense suffering and grief, Job shares the premise of his friends that because God is just, He rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, which is why Job can make no sense of his own suffering (10:5-7). ‘Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard: I cry aloud, but there is no judgment‘, he pleads (19:7). But God is aloof and indifferent.

It isn’t easy to square Psalm 146 with Job 24:1-12, or Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Eccesiastes 8:14-9:4. The writer of Job clashes directly with the ideology of Proverbs. Proverbs seems to say: ‘Here are the rules for life; try them and find that they will work.’ Job and Ecclesiastes say: ‘We did, and they don’t.’ But Job isn’t necessarily a contradiction to Proverbs; more a modification or qualification. Proverbial expressions of natural retribution are something most will understand: eating junk food results in heart attacks, or smoking results in lung cancer, but Proverbs does not attempt to reconcile the contradictions of experience. Thus when poverty is linked to laziness or folly (Prov 6: 6-11; 10:4f; 21:17,21,25), it is easy to conclude that laziness results in poverty; or worse, that poverty is always the result of laziness. But this is to ignore that righteous people are afflicted by suffering (eg Ps 13:1). By separating calamity from moral wrongdoing, there begins an alleviation of associated guilt, and thus illness and disease, death or disaster need not necessarily cast discredit on the trauma victim. The Book of Proverbs speaks truth, but the lesson from Job is that it ought not to be applied dogmatically or simplistically.

Job’s friends repeatedly state that all humans are flawed by sin and none is pure (4:17-21, 15:14, 25:4-6), and Job shares this view (1:5, 14:1-4), and does not therefore claim to be sinless (cf 7:21, 13:26, 14:16f). This appears to contradict his claims elsewhere (9:15,20, 10:1-7) to be innocent. It has to be assumed that the prevailing theory of retribution held by Job and his friends was that God’s punishments and rewards were in proportion to a man’s sin or righteousness: ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning’, says King Lear. Job clings to the deeply-held belief that he is innocent of anything which may have deserved calamity and suffering on such a massive scale. His experience moves him beyond a limiting theology, and opens his eyes to the fact that the wicked are rarely punished (ch 21) and the oppressed are rarely comforted (24:1-12). Job ultimately allows his experience to modify his theological dogma, while his friends cling to their dogma against all the evidence.

It has been said of the Book of Job that it does not so much answer a question as question an answer. If the Book of Job is to be employed directly with any credible effect in the context of the Coronavirus global pandemic, at the very least its words of wisdom would need to be empathetic. But they are not. Job’s counsellors besmirch his reputation in order to uphold God’s, but they are considered ‘physicians of no value’ (13:4). Their attitude pervades still. Frequently in the aftermath of tragedy and trauma which claim hundreds of lives, you will hear professing Christian ministers insist that the fire or mass shooting or whatever represents God’s punishment for the wickedness of drinking, greed or homosexuality. There is no weeping with those who weep. Job’s counsellors were of most use when they sat with him in silence for seven days (2:13). Though their understanding of suffering was partial, in their silence they moved towards empathy and understanding.

Mankind is unable to locate and obtain wisdom (28:12-22), but God established it and searched it out (vv23-27) when He created the universe. In this context, wisdom appears to be the deepest principle underlying the cosmos, and silence is perhaps an appropriate reverent response. Communication with the Divine is, however, possible throughout suffering. God may be the justifiable object of wrath, impatience or grief, and He may rightly be blamed, for He is ultimately the origin of the suffering (42:2). So if a victim of Coronavirus is pierced with hatred and resentment for God, so be it. It is, at least, an honest encounter and is commendable (42:7f).

But you cannot understand disasters of any kind without considering the need to give meaning to the experience, and to life thereafter. The survivor needs to be helped to formulate their experience in the attempt to explain and gain mastery over it.

If Coronavirus hasn’t been brought on directly by God, it is certainly spreading with divine sufferance (2:4-6), and so we enter the realm of theodicy. Job clings to the notion that, contrary to appearances, God is just. He is absolutely certain that he will be vindicated (19:25) and it is possible that he believes his vindicator to be God. Job’s world may lie in ruins, but there is a deeply held conviction that ultimately God acts justly. He may be a present enemy (19:8-12), but Job’s complete human isolation turns him to God as the only possible source of his vindication. Reaching out to the supernatural is a normal human reaction when faith in humanity and earthly order has been destroyed by trauma and isolation.

And yet inasmuch is the Book of Job is a discourse upon the problem of suffering, it offers no explanation. Indeed, it attempts no such thing. The Book is not really a theodicy, for man cannot arrogate to himself the right to justify God without deifying himself. It is the story of a spiritual pilgrimage, in which Job is set free from the prison of himself.

There are many struggles involved in any journey from despair to trust. The transition from fear and hatred to trust and even love – from God the enemy to God the friend and companion – is the pilgrimage of every man and woman of faith. Although God avoids all the questions that Job and his friends threw up, he lovingly leads his son beyond the horizons of his own world of suffering. By God’s word the healing is effected. Christians are charged with instilling hope into those who suffer, to find meaning for continuing existence in a world of fading certainties. For the believer, Job is by no means the final word on the mystery of suffering. We who are Christians, far more than Job, should be able to see that God’s mysterious purpose is achieved in the valley of the shadow. We find the focal point for Christian faith upon the Cross – a monstrous, horrible, bleak tragedy. The suffering servant fulfilled in Jesus is part of an explanation which finds its culmination in the coming kingdom of God and His judgements. It is in the hope of a future heavenly solution that believers may place their doubts and questions about human suffering.