The short answer: God is amid us in the suffering
November 9, 2020
Pastors from four churches invited congregants to listen in recently 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, North Carolina; and Park Lake Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida.
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.”
- 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.
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. 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.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Where is God in a Pandemic?
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Lord, we lift up those in our communities who are struggling and dealing with terrible stress, abuse, depression or even thoughts of suicide. We pray for those assisting others in their crisis and that their vital ministry would continue. Amen.