The Pandemic and the Goodness of God

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In this chaotic time it is understandable that folks would be confronted by some doubts and ask some tough questions. Please know first of all that if that is happening to you that you need not feel guilty about it. Questioning God is not a sin. Recall that our Lord Himself in essence questioned His Father in the garden. Referring to His impending crucifixion He fell on His face and asked the Father if there was any other way. 

The important thing is where our questions take us. So let’s ask a hard question and see where we end up. “Why would a loving God let something like a pandemic happen?” Or to put it how it is most frequently asked, “Why does a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?” I certainly don’t have the definitive answer to that question, and may not even come close from your perspective, but I hope to offer some clarity that will build your faith. 

There is a lot to unpack here. The first thing we need to address is the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. The Bible teaches both.

By saying that God is sovereign we are confessing that He is before all things and all things came into being by Him and for Him. His power and His knowledge are without limit. Jeremiah 32:17 “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

When we speak of human responsibility we mean that while God is indeed sovereign over all, we are still responsible for the decisions that we make as well as for the consequences of those decisions. That is a part of being made in the image of God. We are not animals driven by instinct, we are not automatons that have no free thought and we most certainly are not controlled by fate, karma or the stars. Thus in Deuteronomy 30, when Moses puts before the people the choice of life and death, that choice was genuine. 

The mystery of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is how both can be true at the same time. While we will never fully understand how it can be, nevertheless we can believe it to be true and work diligently to see them as two sides of the same coin. 

One of the clearest examples in Holy Scripture of the two sides of the same coin is in the story of Joseph. His brothers out of jealousy sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh, and he used that power to save the region from starvation. When eventually he was reunited with his brothers he forgave them because he believed in this two-sided coin of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. He said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”  (Genesis 50:20).

It is this perspective that causes St. Paul to write “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”(Romans 8:28). It is important to note that St. Paul did not say that God causes all things; rather that God will work all things to our good. That is a critical distinction and important tenet of our faith. 

I can testify to that truth. In 1979 I was ordained as a pastor of a non-denominational church. Things went very well at first but because I was not in touch with my brokenness I entered a dark place that lasted for a long time. I even made things worse by trying to out work the darkness by doubling my efforts. When that approach failed I left the ministry moved to Chattanooga and joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Through work I was introduced to Beth and my priest all but pushed me back into ordained ministry, which was something that I told myself that I would NEVER do again. 

If you had told me in 1979, while I was pastoring and living in Florida, that one day I would be a priest, married to Beth and live in Middle Tennessee, I would have had you committed. So how did I get here? Did God cause my darkness? No. Did God make me move to Tennessee? No. That was on me. That was human responsibility. But did God work my darkness to my good? Absolutely. I have had an incredible life since that time. That is God being sovereign. I hasten to add that I realized years ago that I would make myself crazy trying to connect all the dots, or ask “what if” or try to make sense of it all. Instead I just give thanks that God is good all the time, even when it doesn’t feel like it. 

Of course the ultimate example of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty is seen in the crucifixion of our Lord. Judas, Pilate, the High Priest, the Romans, they all were responsible for their actions. What they did was nothing short of wicked. But God in His sovereignty used this heinous act to be the salvation of the world. There is no way that we will ever be able to wrap our minds around the events of our salvation but we should give thanks daily that it is so. That is the nature of a mystery. 

Okay let’s take it a step further. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A short first answer is that the question is erroneous because there are no good people. The Bible is clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that our righteousness is like filthy rags before God. (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 64:6). In light of that the real question is “Why do good things happen to us?” Of course the answer is because God is love. And as Brennan Manning says, He loves us as we are and not as we should be. But I would add that He also loves us too much to leave us as we are. 

But even if we are not good people that still does not answer the question of why bad things happen. They are several layers to an answer and it is an answer that will be incomplete but hopefully point us in the right direction. 

First bad things happen because of the fall of man. The world was in perfect harmony when God made it and placed man as the overseer of it all. When Adam and Eve sinned against God they threw not only themselves but also the created order into chaos. St. Paul writes in Romans, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it…”Thus we have tornadoes and earthquakes and viruses. It is why nature has a hundred different long legged beasties that can kill you a thousand different ways. But that is not how things were created to be. In the coming kingdom “the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra.” (Isaiah 11:8). Hence St. Paul, personifying nature, says that creation waits with eager expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God. (Romans 8:19). In other words, creation is as eager as we are for the kingdom to come in its fullness and make all things right and new.

Second bad things happen because of human brokenness and human evil. Infants are born addicted because their mothers were addicted, narcissists leave a trail of broken relationships behind them without seeing any fault on their part, and dictators oppress millions for their want of power. Each of us could come up with a never-ending list. Bad things happen because of bad people. 

Third bad things happen because there are principalities and powers that utilize the world’s chaos and are most likely the cause of much of it. Here we have to use some discretion. We don’t want to turn into Church Lady and blame everything on Satan, but we also don’t want to be naïve and ignore that the enemy is real and his hatred for God’s image bearers is incalculable. A goodly portion of Jesus’ ministry was casting out demons. Evil spirits are real however “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” (I John 4:4).

Fourth bad things happen for the glory of God. That is what Jesus told his disciples when they asked why a man was born blind. They wanted to attribute the blindness to either his sin or his parent’s sin. Jesus gave them a different way to look at it. He viewed things from an eternal perspective while they were stuck in the temporal. An old hymn teaches us so well. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.” 

Lastly while some bad things have an explanation other bad things will remain a mystery. My Old Testament Professor was an expert on the book of Job. He spent 40 years studying it, including learning the languages of the nearby nations to understand any idioms that may have found their way into the book. It was his contention that Job was the first written book of the Bible. I find it fascinating if that is true because Job is the ultimate book on why bad things happen to good people. 

You will recall that Job lost everything and he was covered in boils and he sat on a dung heap. Things were so bad his wife’s counsel was that he should go ahead and curse God and die. His friends came to support him and at first they did the right thing. They didn’t miss the opportunity to shut up. But then they started doing what Jesus’ disciples did about the man born blind and offered explanations. And they were all wrong. 

Finally Job confronts God about his sufferings and asks Him why. God answers, “Dress for action, like a man; I will question you, and you make it know to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place…” This questioning goes on for four chapters. It’s like in the movie A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson yells, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” The Lord was poetically telling Job that he would not understand it even if He told him. When Job finally grasped what the Lord was saying he said, “I have uttered what I did not understand things too wonderful for me which I did not know…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The fact is that there are going to be many things that we will never understand this side of glory. Thus we are called to walk by faith and not by sight.

Faith calls upon us to take a different line of reasoning than the world when it comes to suffering in this life. The world argues this way. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. There is meaningless suffering. 3. Therefore God is either not good or not all-powerful. I’m not sure how that gives folks comfort and I would also argue that such a god would not be worthy of our worship. I don’t need a god who answers my prayers by saying. “Gee I’d like to help you but there isn’t anything that I can do about it.” 

Some take it a step further. I took a course from a brilliant man who was a “death of God” theologian. His argument went like this. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. There is meaningless suffering. 3. Therefore there is no God. He lost his entire family in the holocaust so his atheism was understandable albeit tragic. His rejection of the Holy Comforter left him a tormented man.

The sovereignty of God would have us argue this way. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. God is good and all-powerful. 3. Therefore there is no meaningless suffering. Like Job we may not understand the meaning of our suffering but we can believe that He means it for “our dross to consume and our gold to refine.”

Job actually had the right answer earlier in the book before his thinking became muddled by his false counselors. He said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:5). And that is exactly what Jesus did. After asking if there was any other way Jesus put His trust in His Father and said, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” His last words were words of trust. “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” 

Following Jesus’ example that is what we need to do; TRUST. The ultimate answer to why bad things happen to good people is “I don’t really know but I trust that God is good and will work everything for my good” That is hardly a naïve statement or a leap of faith into the darkness. What better evidence do we need of God’s love and goodness than the gift of His Son? St. Paul in Romans 8 writes, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Then St. Paul ends with these words of celebration. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On March 25th we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. This is when the angel of the Lord came to Mary and told her that she would be with child. This means, God willing, in 9 short months we will be together worshipping the newborn King and this pandemic will be a distant memory. For now TRUST. “And after you have done everything, stand.” (Ephesians 6:13).

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” (Philippians 4:1 NLT)

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