Where is God in a pandemic?

The short answer: God is amidst us in the suffering

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Richard Boyce

LOUISVILLE — Pastors from four churches invited congregants to listen in Thursday evening while the Rev. Dr. Richard Boyce, Vice President and Dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus led the online discussion “Where is God in a Pandemic? Understanding and Responding to Suffering.”

About 150 tuned in at the invitation of the seminary’s graduates serving Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary, North Carolina; Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida; South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church in Charlotte; and Park Lake Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida.

“Thank you for entrusting me with an impossible topic,” Boyce said at the outset, noting that a participant had already asked the question, “Why are we talking about such a topic? Shouldn’t we study the psalms of lament tonight?”

Boyce outlined three types of suffering from the human point of view:

  • We suffer because we are finite creatures in a blessed but broken world. In his experience, most suffering falls in this category, Boyce said. “It falls on the just and the unjust, young and old, rich and poor,” he said. Realizing we’re all bound to die, “we are challenged to recognize our place in this good Creation as creatures.”
  • We suffer because we are disobedient. Boyce calls this the most dangerous category, and in Leviticus 26 it carries strict penalties: For those who spurn God’s statutes and abhor God’s ordinances, God will “bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away … I will make your sky like iron and your Earth like copper. Your strength will be spent to no purpose.” In Luke 13, Jesus says 18 people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were no worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” Jesus says.
  • We suffer because we’re obedient. With the Holy Spirit’s help, Boyce said, we have chosen to follow Jesus on his way to the cross. “Sometimes we are called to suffer as obedient creatures out of love for God and sacrificial love for each other,” Boyce said.

COVID-19 has exposed truths about our society — much of it sinful, he said. Viruses are neutral in that they’re just trying to live and replicate. Humans, on the other hand, show partiality, and we’re supposed to be partial to the ones who are the most threatened by the virus. “I worry that while the virus is neutral, the effects that it’s having are far from neutral,” Boyce said. “Maybe it’s exposing sinful behavior we have allowed to go on for too long,” including lack of attention to providing basic health care and the lack of cooperation among nations over how investments are to be made for research and development.

After a vaccine is developed, who will get it? “Those in our own national borders?” he asked. The pandemic “has pulled back the veil from suffering that’s been going on a long time, where not everyone is treated as if they were made in the image of God,” including the death at the hands of Minneapolis police of George Floyd.

“What takes my breath away,” Boyce said, “are the stories of people sorting groceries and bringing us our mail, the behavior that gets us closest to the heart of God who loves us enough to be with us to suffer with us and to die with and for us, that we might begin to see life, and have it abundantly.”

There are easy answers to the question of where God is in the pandemic, but they’re not scriptural, Boyce said. One is that we live in a world God created and left behind, a place where “everything is neutral and nothing is meaningful.” There’s a spirit in Ecclesiastes “that covers that sense of the neutrality of a world that doesn’t care much for us.”

We are learning to be “a little more humble,” he said, about the interdependence of life on Earth. “We breathe in viruses all the time,” Boyce said. “Our bodies are constantly trying to calibrate which ones are helpful to us and which are harmful. COVID-19 has migrated from some other species to ours, and we don’t have the antibodies or the vaccine to fight it.”

Why would God invent pesky mosquitos, much less a deadly virus? Boyce said he’s trying to avoid the “easy demonization” to “get rid of all bad things and preserve all good things. That’s bad theology and dangerous science as well.”

“Let’s not call upon God and blame God,” Boyce suggested. “We are in this web together and by God’s grace, let’s figure this out.”

Asked how the church and society will be different once the pandemic has subsided, Boyce wondered out loud why God didn’t grant human beings “a better ability to know the future.”

“I hope and pray that we will not be the same as we were. That ought to be our goal every day, that we will be transformed into the community God created us to be,” he said. “We’ve got to find better ways to welcome vulnerable and overlooked people” and provide opportunities for children and young people to fellowship, because “they are suffering right now.”

“Isn’t there a presumption,” said the Rev. Dr. Dan DeBevoise, co-pastor at Park Lake Presbyterian Church, “that the pandemic will make us into something? Why would we want to depend on a pandemic to do that for us? What kind of people do we need to be to respond as Christians to the pandemic? There will be practices that will help us become something new and more Christ-like every day.”

“In Acts, the Holy Spirit is always ahead of the church,” said the Rev. Jody Welker, senior pastor at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church. “The call for me is to trust that God is ahead of us in this thing. That’s the story of Scripture from Abraham on.”

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