– by Bruce Yocum
December, the end of the calendar year 2020, and COVID-19 is still with us. Here in England, where I am living, severe new restrictions have just been introduced, eliminating almost all possibility of people celebrating Christmas together with more than immediate family or household. There is concern that a new strain of the virus, even more infectious, will cause an upsurge in new cases and more deaths.
Many have quipped that the celebrations this coming New Year’s Day will not be so much focused on welcoming a new year as on saying good riddance to 2020. There is an advertisement currently running that says, “All I want for Christmas is 2021.”
Last May when considering what the pandemic might mean as a sign from God, I said that we ought to examine the world we live in to see what God might find worthy of severe judgment today. I proposed three current realities.
- The widespread apostasy of Western Christians
- The rejection by many Christians and Christian churches of sexual morality as it has been understood and taught by the church up to the twentieth century
- All the various evils involved in the plague of abortion.
I concluded that if we consider these signs in the light of God’s judgment on things, we ought to be deeply concerned about the state of our societies. Not because of COVID-19, but because of the very evils of our day which call out for God’s judgment.
Notice that the first two reasons listed above for judgment are focused on Christians. That is not surprising, for as the apostle Peter tells us, judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Furthermore, we are told many times and in many ways in Scripture that the health of a society is linked to its spiritual state, and especially to the spiritual state of God’s people within that society.
The search for meaning in this crisis
When faced with events as dramatic and disruptive as this pandemic, human beings search for answers. There are the practical questions that arise in the effort to minimize the catastrophe, or at least prevent its recurrence. How could this happen? What will the consequences be? Can we stop this? For those who believe in God, the theme of judgment is natural in times of severe testing or abnormal circumstances. But even among those who profess no belief, the search for answers to deeper questions is almost universal. Why did this happen to us, now?
We can find this concern even in the pages of the New York Times. Columnist Ross Douthat wrote about judgment last April in a brief essay which ran under the title:“The Pandemic and the Will of God, The purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but the search for meaning is obligatory.”
Douthat considers explanations offered by two modern theologians, explanations which focus on the need for compassion and solidarity. But, he tells us, that is not enough.
…there is a need for something more than solidarity as time goes by; there is a need for narrative, for integration, for some story about what the pain and anguish meant. [emphasis added]
He correctly notes that “Christian tradition offers not one, but many different explanations for how suffering fits into a providential plan” and then goes on to provide a very useful summary of possible reasons for suffering:
“…we can try to discern purposes in our own life ‒ suffering as punishment, suffering as refinement, suffering as a judgment on a nation or society, suffering as an opportunity, suffering as part of a story not our own…. Thisobligation to discernment applies in a pandemic as much as in any lesser circumstance.”
The Gospel message – evangelical hope
When speaking of the “obligation to discernment,” Douthat refers to an article by Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican priest, which appeared in First Things magazine, also last April. In that article, White said:
We might ask, what should we be doing as a Church in this time, one that is extremely trying for a great number of people, both religious and non-religious alike?… People are not overreacting when they grieve as their patients, friends, or family members die by the thousands. In fact, the Christian message in this context is one of basic evangelical hope. What we are to learn first in this crisis is that there is life after death, that God loves those who die, that there is the possibility of the forgiveness of sins, that our littleness in the face of death is also an opportunity for surrender, that Christ too died alone from asphyxiation and that he was raised from the dead, that God can comfort the fearful, and that there is a promise of eternal life. In the face of death, Christians should be precisely those who put first things first.
In other words, the proper Christian response to this crisis is what it should be in the face of any crisis, and that is to offer, as Fr. White puts it ,“basic evangelical hope.” We present the gospel message. There is a need to find compelling ways to present the gospel in the face of precisely these circumstances, in this very particular crisis, and that is always a challenging task. But it is the living, active Word of God “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart(Hebrews 4:12) which is the foundation and substance of our response.
Opportunity for conversion and transformation
Shortly after Douthat’s piece, an essay by Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia appeared on the First Things web page, also referring to White’s article and commenting in the same vein:
What is the properly Christian meaning of the providential concurrence of the pandemic with Lent and Eastertide? What light can our faith shed on the darkness that otherwise prevails during these days? The paschal experience of our crucified and risen Lord shows us the path of grace that turns our own experience of suffering into an opportunity for conversion and transformation, a passage from death to life with our Redeemer who suffered and died for our sake.
That is a timely reminder that when God allows suffering, it is always for the sake of salvation. For Christians, suffering can have great spiritual benefit if we approach it correctly. The apostle Paul explains:
Through him [Christ] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Romans 5:2-5).
For those who have not accepted Christ as their savior, occurrences like this pandemic can be a moment of conversion, of recognition that it is only God who saves. Archbishop Di Noia tells us that
… [the book of Revelation] helps us to interpret the terrible emergency of the coronavirus in the light of faith. We read in Revelation 5 that only the Lamb of God can take the scroll, break open its seals, and thus unlock the meaning of “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9).
He then goes on to quote the Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina.
The modern project since the Enlightenment has been driven by the conviction that human beings hold the scroll of destiny in their own hands and that the redemption of history’s victims lies in the future perfection of humankind. . .. In the postmodern world we now inhabit, the departure from the Christian narrative has proceeded a decisive step further. It is not that the scroll remains unopened . . . [but that] there is no scroll, no grand metanarrative tying everything together and holding out hope that the angel of death will be stayed by the hand of a just, merciful God.
Paul tells us that “hope does not disappoint us,” because our hope is in God, not in ourselves. But for those who cannot recognize the merciful love of God controlling and watching over our history, there is no hope in suffering. As Archbishop Di Noia says
If the scroll remains locked under its seven seals, there is finally no redemption, no relief for history’s victims, and no relief for us who find ourselves sheltering in place behind the closed doors of our homes.
An opportunity to learn more about God
These difficult circumstances push us, require us, both Christians and others, to consider the deeper questions. If we are not believers, searching for these answers can bring conversion. If we are believers, it is an opportunity for deeper conversion. As Fr. White us in his article,
Christians ought to treat this pandemic as an opportunity to learn more about God. What does it mean that God has permitted (or willed) temporary conditions in which [I break White’s conditions into a list of three, which I will address individually]:
- our elite lifestyle of international travel is grounded,
- our consumption is cut to a minimum,
- our days are occupied with basic responsibilities toward our families and immediate communities, our resources and economic hopes are reduced, and we are made more dependent upon one another?
The first of White’s conditions: “…our elite lifestyle of international travel is grounded”
In this pandemic we confront once again the frailty of human nature. As Fr. White puts it, “The most technologically advanced countries face the humility of their limits.”
Here the pride of man meets the reality of limitation. In the face of a check on pride humankind can respond in dramatically different ways – rebellion or acceptance. It has always been a temptation for humankind to believe that they, as Joseph Mangina puts it, “hold the scroll of destiny in their own hands and that the redemption of history’s victims lies in the future perfection of humankind.”
We see that overweening pride in chapter 28 of the book of Ezekiel.
Moreover the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord GOD: “You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, carnelian, topaz, and jasper, chrysolite, beryl, and onyx, sapphire, carbuncle, and emerald; and wrought in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared. With an anointed guardian cherub I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked…. Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you (Ezekiel 28:11-14;17).
What is remarkable in this passage is God’s acknowledgment that this was an extraordinary creature, full of wisdom and beauty. In that respect it is like Psalm 8, where the psalmist says “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than the angels and crown him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4-5).
Humanity – we – are creatures of almost unimaginable capacity. Yet we are creatures, brought into being and kept in being by the one, the only creator. Recognition of the greatness of our being must be accompanied by recognition of our smallness in the presence of God, and lead to gratitude, to worship and to humble acknowledgment that we are not God. If we fail to acknowledge God as God and ourselves as his creatures, we are filled with pride.
It was of course pride, the desire to be “like God” that was the downfall of our first parents, and with them all their descendants.
Christians can, as White said “learn more about God” through consideration of God’s purpose in this pandemic.” The God who reveals the pride of human beings in moments like this, is the very God who who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men“ (Philippians 2:6-7).
The second of White’s conditions: “…our consumption is cut to a minimum”
There are many who are suffering unaccustomed want, or a more severe want, because of COVID. Sadly, as is so often the case, it is not the wealthy and well-to-do who experience the greatest lack. The Psalms are full of questioning of just this issue.
“Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked“ (Psalm 73:1-3).
The psalmist here begins with a confession of faith “Truly God is good to the upright.” But in the face of the exasperating prosperity of many who are not righteous, his faith is tested. Seeking a solution for the riddle of unrighteousness apparently rewarded, he goes “into the temple of God” and he is then enabled to see spiritually.
There are many questions for which we do not find easy answers, but that does not eliminate the need to seek for answers, even at the cost of serious prayer and effort. The subtitle of Ross Douthat’s New York Times article was “The purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but the search for meaning is obligatory.”
I do not propose a simple answer to the suffering that needy people endure because of this pandemic. Certainly there are manifold answers. But at the very least Christians ought to see in it a call to serve, to sacrifice and to give from our abundance to meet the needs of others.
The third of White’s conditions:
“…our days are occupied with basic responsibilities toward our families and immediate communities, our resources and economic hopes are reduced, and we are made more dependent upon one another?”
Perhaps here we see a positive consequence of the pandemic, or at least something that could be positive. There certainly cannot be anything bad about being occupied with basic responsibilities toward others. Nor is there anything unfortunate about being made more dependent upon one another – or at least becoming more aware that we are dependent upon one another. And when our “economic hopes,” or any other worldly hopes, are reduced, we are pushed to put our hope more firmly in God.
Of course, circumstances in which we have the possibility of responding with love and generosity do not themselves mean that we will be loving and generous. We must decide that we will imitate Christ and “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others”(Philippians 2:3).
We learn from the Book of Job that suffering can have a hidden purpose, as a test of our love or faith, as an opportunity to demonstrate that our profession of trust in God and love for our neighbour are not empty. The Book of Job provides us with a behind the scenes glimpse at God’s purpose, but Job himself did not have the luxury of that knowledge. He had to engage in an arduous quest for the answers to his questions.
Still, in the face of extreme trials, and without knowing the reason for those trials, God expected Job to demonstrate his faith and trust through his words and actions.
While we need to seek answers to our questions about this pandemic and God’s purpose, it is not necessary to have all the answers in order to respond appropriately.
Last March, in the first instalment of this series, I concluded with an exhortation that is just as needed now, eight long months later:
In the midst of this crisis let us not turn protectively in on ourselves. Christian community life and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit provide us with resources for mission, for comforting those in sorrow, for bringing hope to the hopeless, for sharing our material resources with those in need. Let us do that now.
I am grateful for the contributions of Ross Douthat, Archbishop Di Noia and Fr. White, and hope that I have not distorted their meaning.
Bruce Yocum is the author of Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church Today, 1976, 1993. Bruce has been involved in leadership and teaching in the charismatic renewal and covenant communities movement from its earliest years (late 1960s – early ’70s), and has traveled widely throughout the Sword of the Spirit to train and equip leaders in North America, Europe and the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific. He was Presiding Elder of the Servants of the Word for thirteen years. He is currently based with the Servants of the Word in London, UK. Taken from Living Bulwark January-February 2021 issue. Used with permission.