Pain, Suffering and COVID-19
We live in a pain filled world. To date over 776,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported globally with 37,126 deaths. We live in a broken world. Many atheists and agnostics point to the problem of pain as one of the reasons they cannot believe in a God or at least in a Personal God that cares about every one of us. Some would say God is some sadistic old man in the sky that gets pleasure out of our pain and suffering.
At the core, the problem of pain is not an intellectual discussion. We will look at what the Bible says about the suffering in our world but it is a question of emotion. Our hearts have been broken over pain and we desperately desire it to be healed, to really believe that there still is a God who not only has the capacity to help and heal but actually desires to do so.
God is good and humanity suffers
In the book Denouncing Christianity we read, “A loving God could not possibly be the author of the horrors we have been describing-horrors that continue every day, have continued since time began, and will continue as long as life exists. It is an inconceivable tale of suffering and death, and because the tale is fact-is, in truth, the history of the world-it is obvious that there cannot be a loving God.” I cannot and will not try to wrap all the problems of this world and the evil, pain, and suffering in a nice little easy four step package, but what I hope to do is shed some light on who God is and what he says about the pain that we face.
Our discussion must start with God. God is Good. In fact, not only is God good but God defines good and our capacity to determine something good, from something not good, flows from God. Think about it. When you heard this past week that many people died because of the COVID-19 virus, instinctively no one says that is good. The media, neighbors, religious and non-religious know that this was a horrible tragedy. That is because God is good and has wired in us many of his character qualities that enable us to discern this.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations.
The Psalmist reminds us that God is good and that not only is he good but his love is never ending. God is good and loving, not holding back or hiding his goodness from us. His goodness and love will never be used up by one particular generation but in fact it will continue on from generation to generation. God is as good today as he was 3,000 years ago and he will be as good as today 3,000 years from now.
Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
Again, in the Psalms it says God is good and we can taste it. His goodness is reachable. His goodness is not like Bill Gates’ money. Though we know Bill Gates is one of the richest men in the world, we cannot taste his riches. Unless you are in relationship with Bill Gates, his money will always elude you. But that is not like God; a relationship is possible with all and all can taste his goodness.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
In James we are reminded that everything that is good and perfect comes from God. Everything that we create and do that is good has its origins in the Father, in God. Goodness is possible because God is good and reveals that goodness to us. His goodness will not change like shifting sand. No matter how evil, hurtful and corrupt our world becomes, his goodness remains. We can have absolute confidence in the goodness of God.
In the Beginning
So now we have a big problem. If God is good (and he is) and if his goodness does not change and is available to all people of all generations, then why do we have so much pain and suffering? What in the world is going on? Pain and a good God only make sense in light of what Genesis clearly tells us.
Because God is good and loving and not some kind of master puppeteer in the sky, he created us with choice. We have the choice to choose him or to reject him; to choose to follow him in obedience or to walk in accordance to our own desires and our own will. This choice flows from his love. You see God did not create evil, pain, and suffering, but he created the potential of it so that in doing so we could genuinely love him or reject him. We read in Genesis:
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'”
“but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
God gives Adam and Eve this perfect wonderland and they choose to reject God’s design. In doing so sin, corruption, evil enter the world. And because God is Holy and perfect, consequences are imparted.
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
This is the sentence of all humanity. Adam’s sin is imputed to all humanity. It is passed on from generation to generation. Because of sin there is suffering; there are those who choose to live life in stark disobedience to God. Because of sin even the earth is impacted, viruses and natural disasters exist. Every aspect of pain and suffering originates from humanity’s choice to reject God. Paul writes:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-
Pain is part of life for the evil and the righteous
Because of sin all of life is in a state of decay. This consequence of sin affects the wicked and the righteous.
1 Peter 4:12
Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.
Peter is writing to the church, to people that love Jesus and are following after him. They should not believe that just because they chose to follow Christ that this life will be free of all pain and suffering. Being a Christ follower does not exempt us from pain this side of eternity. Yet our pain, as Paul writes, is but momentary compared to the eternity, the glory of God.
It is both the righteous and the wicked that suffer according to Psalm 73. Pain is absent and present for all people. As one scholar says, justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied for those who are wicked yet seem to experience the best of what the world can offer. The Bible reminds us that God will settle accounts one day and hold all responsible for the choices they have made this side of eternity.
No matter how hard we try understanding the pain and suffering in this world we come up short. We are finite and God is not. Though we can approach understanding, all will not be revealed to us this side of eternity.
St Augustine wrote, “Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in his work unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” The Bible reminds us that God can take the pain of this world and turn it into good for his purposes. Occasionally we even get the privilege of seeing how the pain in our life has been used for good, but many times it remains a mystery to us. As one author writes, “Sometimes life is like the back of a tapestry where all we can see are the tangled ends on the side facing us, and we must trust that God sees the beauty and purpose on the other.”
Living in a world of pain and suffering
How can we live in a world with so much pain and suffering?
Read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 https://www.bible.com/bible/111/2CO.12.7-10.NIV
Paul was taken into heaven in chapter 12. And then it turns from this incredible experience in paradise, to a thorn or more literally the stake in his life that he repeatedly prayed will be removed. But God sees fit to leave it there. Let’s be sure that the pain in our lives is just that. We do no good to deny our pain or diminish it. We don’t know what Paul’s pain was. Many have speculated that it was everything from guilt and grief over his past life, to dozens and dozens of physical problems, to even a broken relationship with a possible past wife. Whatever it was is beside the point. This is written for us and it is not just about Paul, it is about all of us and the pain in our lives. It is a story of hope and healing for all of us when the pain of life comes crashing down.
In the book of Romans, we are reminded that God is God, the creator, and we are the created. Job in the Old Testament is also reminded of this after the incredibly painful experience he endured. As I look back on my spiritual journey, if I am honest, it is clearly the times that I again and again realized who God is and who I am in relation to him that the most marvelous times of growth occurred. Do I question? Yes. Do I wonder sometimes? Yes. Have I doubted? Certainly, but at the end of the questions and in the pain I can’t get away from who God is and that I am not God. Sometimes I even wonder if I have really ever learned anything of eternal value outside of pain.
Pastor Warren Wiersbe said, “When God permits His children to go through the furnace, He keeps His eye on the clock and His hand on the thermostat. His loving heart knows how much and how long.” God is with us even through the darkest valleys of life. Paul had his pain and God was with him. Paul was shipwrecked, beaten, left for dead and imprisoned and God was with him. God knows the hurt in your life, the grief, the betrayal, and fear and he meets us at its deepest point.
“Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on my hand. Ever before me is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.”
What a reminder this verse is. Think about the story of the people of Israel. Is not their story our story? They had experienced pain and hurt over and over again. Their land was invaded, their children taken away, their men killed. Their great wall that protected them was destroyed. They had experienced disease and hunger yet God never left them, never stopped loving them. Think about the picture that God paints for us. The almost mystical bond between a mother and her child. That emotional and physical connection. There is nothing like it on this planet. God’s love and care for us even surpasses that of a mother’s for her child. Reflect on the stories through history of what moms have done to care for their children. If you have children think about what you would do to protect them from harm and evil. God never leaves us, he never forgets us in the deepest valleys of life.
Paul did not enjoy his painful experiences. That is a misnomer. God doesn’t expect us to enjoy the pain. If Paul enjoyed his pain he would not have prayed for it to be removed. When Paul was getting stoned we don’t see him laughing saying, “Please throw the stones harder and pick that really big one up next to your foot.” God does not call us to enjoy the pain and suffering of life. No, it is not the pleasure of pain. It is the recognition of the character of God in our pain. It is his grace that is sufficient no matter our pain. It is the recognition that when we are weak he is strong. You see, we do not follow a God in our image. If God was like us then in his hurt, and he does hurt over our pain, he would be weak or at least have the potential of being weak. But God is not created in our image- we are created in his image and that makes all the difference. He is always strong when we are weak and hurting. We cannot truly understand his strength and his grace until we have walked through the pain of life. It is interesting to note that those people who seem closest to God and the most mature in their faith journey are those who have experienced the greatest trials in life.
I wish we could bottle God’s strength like we do water on a desert trip. But it doesn’t work that way. God’s provision occurs in the journey daily, as we depend on and trust his character, his goodness. And so growth is found in our pain. Hope is found in the hurting. Though I know these things intellectually, I struggle when I journey in pain. We need to know the truth, review the truth, but mostly we need to allow Christ to embrace us. In our pain we must release ourselves to his care. Through the power of the Holy Spirit allow the embrace of Christ to hold you and heal you through the pain.