Living in Plague Times

Living in Plague Times March 22, 2020

It’s my own fault. Because I’ve written books with titles like Where Is God When It Hurts, Disappointment with God, and The Question That Never Goes Away, my phone starts ringing when there’s a mass shooting, a tsunami…or a rogue virus that spreads across the world. Would I please comment on this radio show, or that podcast? I’ve done little else this frightful week, as a tiny virus from the other side of the world has brought modern civilization to its knees.

I’ve spent much of my writing career circling around the problem of pain and suffering, and for some questions I know better than to attempt an answer. Why does a tornado devastate one town in Oklahoma or Alabama and skip right past its nearby neighbor? Why are Italy and China suffering so deeply from the novel coronavirus when other countries go unscathed? Why does an omnipotent God allow such suffering to exist in the first place?

I’ve studied every biblical passage related to suffering and concluded that we receive little guidance from the Bible on the Why? questions. Job’s friends, who thought they had the answer, were smartly rebuked by God. For his part, God managed to evade the question in his longest recorded speech at the end of the Book of Job. Centuries later, when the Pharisees or Jesus’ disciples proposed neat answers by blaming victims for their plight, Jesus refuted them; yet he too gave no real answer to the Why? questions.

Two things, however, I believe with near certainty. First, we live on a broken planet that displeases God as much as it displeases us. Jesus asked us to pray that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and clearly that prayer has not yet been answered on planet earth. Philosophers and theologians put forward various theories explaining what happened here: an invasion by evil forces, perhaps; a Fall introduced by disobedient humans; an evolutionary process that has not reached completion. None of these fully satisfies, especially if it’s your child who has leukemia, or your parent who’s contracted COVID-19.

My second belief follows from the first: God is on the side of the sufferer. Almost instinctively, we react to suffering by thinking we must have done something wrong for which God is punishing us. There’s an easy correction to that innate response: simply follow Jesus through the Gospels and watch his response to a widow who lost her only son, or even a Roman soldier whose servant has fallen ill. Never does he blame the victim or philosophize about the cause. Always, without exception, he responds with compassion, comfort, and healing. Christians believe that Jesus is, as Colossians tells us, “the exact likeness of the unseen God” (1:15, TLB). If you want to know how God feels about people who are suffering, look at Jesus. God is on their side.

Jesus knew suffering up close, as a willing victim of our planet’s brokenness. And when he ascended, he sent his followers into the world “as the Father has sent me,” to be God’s agents of comfort and healing. In a lovely phrase, the apostle Paul refers to the God of all comfort, “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4, NIV). That is our stated mission in a world full of pain and suffering.

Thus, one answer to the question “Where is God when it hurts?” is another question: Where is the Church when it hurts? Jesus’ followers are God’s designated agents of comfort and help, the literal “Body of Christ,” as Paul put it.

Looking at history, sometimes Jesus-followers have fulfilled that mission, and sometimes they haven’t. When the great bubonic plagues swept across Europe, killing one-third of the continent’s population, prophets appeared in the streets proclaiming God’s judgment. (As it turned out, what Europe really needed was a supply of rat poison.) In our own time, when a tsunami smashed into the east coast of Japan, killing 20,000, some evangelical leaders blamed Japan for worshiping the sun God. Even now, prominent Christians propose conspiracy theories involving North Korea or China for this latest crisis. At a time when practically the entire world is at risk, they sow division rather than unity, fear rather than comfort.

On the other hand, as a journalist I have traveled to some eighty-seven countries, and in most of them you can follow the trail of Christian missionaries by the hospitals, clinics, and orphanages they founded. I wrote books such as Fearfully and Wonderfully with the esteemed leprosy specialist Dr. Paul Brand. Virtually every advance in the understanding and treatment of that disease came from Christian missionaries—not because they were the best physicians and scientists, but because they were the only ones willing to treat that misunderstood and dreaded disease. Following Jesus’ example, they risked exposure by reaching out to the leprosy-afflicted.

The sociologist Rodney Stark has written (in The Rise of Christianity) that one reason the church overcame hostility and grew so rapidly within the Roman empire traces back to how Christians responded to pandemics of the day, which probably included smallpox and bubonic plague. When infection spread, Romans fled their cities and towns; Christians stayed behind to nurse and feed not only their relatives but their pagan neighbors’. Their proffered comfort drew others to the God of all comfort.

How should be we respond to the plague we face now, the coronavirus?

Like most Americans, I have spent too much time in recent days listening to news reports of body counts and the relentless progress of the virus. Today, a foot of snow fell in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where I live. My wife and I walked for an hour through untracked snow, breathing the mountain air and kicking out a trail under evergreens blanketed in pure white. I needed that break, a reminder that for all its problems, the earth we inhabit is a place of indescribable beauty.

Ski resorts are closed in Colorado, a heavy blow to the local economy. So are restaurants, theaters, concert halls, and most churches. Yet most state parks remain open, and the government has waived fees at national parks. For those who can access the outdoors, I recommend a good long hike as a way to unplug from the tiresome cycle of negative news. As an added advantage, parks make it easy to practice social distancing. (Even outdoors, however, we must practice social distancing; some parks have had to close because overcrowding has endangered visitors and staff.)

When I got home, I picked up a thick book that’s been sitting on my desk for weeks. Reading, I’ve found, is an ideal way to salvage a period of self-isolation.

Rather than add to the millions of words on thousands of websites related to COVID-19, I’ll instead post links to a sampling of some I’ve found that offer perspective and help.
Pete Wehner has recently published in The Atlantic a profile of Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health. The CDC in Atlanta is just one of the departments reporting to Dr. Collins, and I’ve made it a practice to pray daily for the person who more than anyone else bears the weight of how to manage the health crisis we are facing. It’s a long article, but well worth the time, for it gives a balanced picture of the threat we face, as well as telling Dr. Collins’ own story of moving from atheism to Christian faith.

Our Canadian neighbors have started a “” movement to counteract the fearmongering that often accompanies pandemics and disasters. They are finding safe ways to offer practical help to those most vulnerable. There are many heartening examples of people who strive to counter the sense of helplessness and fear, such as the Spanish pianist who gave a concert on his balcony to scores of high-rise residents who listened from their own balconies.
Richard Rohr reminds us that a threat like the coronavirus forces us to see the global community, for all its diversity, as a human family. Although suffering cannot always be removed, it can be redeemed, and Rohr suggests how.
At the recommendation of the artist Mako Fujimura, I’ve become acquainted with the wonderful artist Dawn Waters Baker, who recently wrote a blog about Father Damien. That Belgian missionary took on the mission of bringing comfort and help to leprosy patients who had been banished to the Hawaiian island of Molokai. His is a model story of a Christian helping the hurting. While on Dawn’s site, be sure to click on the tab “Main Website” to view some of her artwork.
Finally, those who are history-minded may appreciate this piece about Martin Luther, who lived through an outbreak of bubonic plague in Wittenberg, Germany. With typical bluster, he rails against the devil and has harsh words for those thought to be deliberately spreading the disease. Of the latter, he wrote, “My advice is that if any such persons are discovered, the judge should take them by the ear and turn them over to Master Jack, the hangman, as outright and deliberate murderers.”

Luther lived before people understood how disease germs are spread. Yet on balance the great Reformer offers wise advice:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

Martin Luther demonstrated “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” that Paul wrote about (Philippians 4:7). That anxiety-quieting spirit should characterize the followers of Jesus. It may seem unattainable during a pandemic—until you remember that Paul wrote those words from a prison cell:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

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