Where is God in all this? Why is God allowing COVID-19 to happen?
I’ve written about God’s role after other deeply unsettling events like 9/11, the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Las Vegas massacre. I’m now pondering my words again, trying to make sense of what has become an ever-expanding tragedy, one that will take more lives than all the previously mentioned events combined.
Let’s start by looking at God and the Christian belief, via St. Augustine, that God is love and love is God. But how can that be true today? If God is love, COVID-19 is hate. If God is light, COVID-19 is darkness. Why has God not interceded to protect us? If our God is a loving God, where is God now?
Let’s first look at the nature of love.
In The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr quotes the philosopher/priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said that “love is the very structure of the Universe.” Like de Chardin, Rohr believes that love (and alternately, God) is an energy that attracts all things and beings toward one another, “a universal language and underlying energy that keeps showing itself.”
When we are aligned with this energy and secure in the world, love becomes our “North Star” or moral compass. Love is the “reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other in a happy and hopeful way.” Love connects our hearts with our heads. “Love grounds us by creating focus, direction, motivation, even joy.”
Rohr tells us that in this love, we find God, the place from “where all love emerges into the Universe.” In the moment that we encounter love, that is where we also find God and vice-versa. God equals love and love equals God.
What about suffering? Where is God then?
There’s another side to the God argument and it comes from people who question the existence of God, like Princeton Bioethics Professor Peter Singer. He has publicly argued that “if we insist on believing in divine creation, we are forced to admit that the god who made the world cannot be all-powerful and all good. He must be either evil or a bungler.”
He says that Christians often try to explain away suffering by saying that all humans are sinners and deserve their fate. Or that humans can live forever in heaven, so the suffering of this world is less important. Or that since God gave us life, we are not in a position to complain if our life is not perfect. He concludes this “still fails to explain why an all-powerful and all-good god would permit (suffering).”
But maybe we need to look at suffering in a different light. Rohr asks us to consider the Buddhist perspective: “Life is suffering.” From the Buddhist point-of-view, suffering is seen as “the practical and real price for letting go of illusion, false desire and separateness.” Through suffering you are “led to a deeper level and you discover a Larger Self underneath.”
Rohr tells us that suffering is a part of life just like love is a part of life. They are both integral elements of the human experience. “If we have never loved deeply or suffered deeply, we are unable to understand spiritual things at any depth.” It is during these times, the highs of great love and the lows of great suffering, that we drop the pretenses of everyday life and connect with the vulnerable, true side of ourselves at our core.
Rohr sees love and suffering as God’s “primary tools for human transformation.” As with love, suffering leads to enlightenment for the self, and compassion for others. It ties into his belief that Christianity is more about “unlearning, letting go, surrendering, serving others” than self-development. It leads us to the knowledge that life is not just about us, it’s also about the well-being of others. When we hurt, we are better able to recognize the pain in others.
God permeates the good and the bad, love and suffering.
Taking Rohr’s ideas to the next level, we can see how suffering and love are related. Think about the thousands of medical workers on the front line of this pandemic, as well as the thousands coming out of retirement to selflessly lend a hand during this crisis. Their “North Star” activated, they commit themselves to helping and healing others.
There’s a quote from Mr. Rogers that I think applies here. He once said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Sure enough we see “the helpers” today, led by the people who are doing what they can to assist the sick and dying, despite a shortage of personal protection equipment and at great risk to the health of themselves and their families. They are not the only helpers we see today. Former President Obama recognized this in a recent tweet:
During this crisis, our grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, transit and utility workers—along with so many others—have been selflessly getting up every day to make sure we have the things we need. And for that, we say thank you.
Maybe, in times like these, God appears to us in human form, in the state and local officials who guide us, in the health professionals who heal us, and in the friends and family members who comfort us. Is this the presence of God here on earth?
Or maybe, in the words of Paul Tillich, God is not a being but being itself. This is not the almighty God that some Christians pray to, but a God of everyday life, permeating the good and the bad, love and suffering. This God is with us at our highest highs and lowest lows. This God is everywhere at once, with me and you and all of mankind, right now.