“We’re living in unprecedented days!” I’m sure not the only one to have noticed this oft repeated phrase. Is it true? That’s difficult to tell, perhaps harder still to justify. However, this pandemic is challenging us all and it’s not going away anytime soon. But how are we to understand these times? Is there a wider context to this crisis that may help us navigate it with wisdom and perspective? This is where the Bible is our great help.
We can’t cover everything in this brief article. My aim then, is to take you around this topic like a large house and give you some bible windows to look through.
Window 1. We Live in a Broken World
Wherever you look, it’s clear that this world isn’t as it should be. It’s broken. ‘We know that he whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Rom 8v22).
It didn’t start out like this! ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’ (Gen 1:1,31). But it didn’t stay that way for long! Adam rejected God. At that moment “sin entered the world” bringing death to all.
‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned’ (Rom 5:12). This affected everything! Man’s relationship with God was shattered. Rebellion against a God of infinite goodness, holiness & truth is infinitely evil. The consequences were so far reaching that the entire cosmos was dislocated.
When looking for someone to blame for evil and suffering, no-one can point the finger at God. Creation is groaning and it’s our fault.
Window 2. God is in Control
The Bible teaches that God is Sovereign. Even though we are responsible for our wicked actions God is at work through it all.
Do you remember the story of Joseph. His jealous brothers attacked him at just 17. Sold him as a slave. 20 years in a jail for something he didn’t do? Was God really in control of that terrible suffering? Joseph says ‘Yes!’. ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’ (Gen 50:20).
Those brothers were fully responsible, but God was at work through their wickedness to save many lives. He intended it for good.
We see the same at the cross. ‘This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross’ (Acts 2:23).
If God is in control what is he doing through disasters and suffering? I can see that with Joseph and the cross he was saving. What about today? He’s doing the same. He initiated the groaning as a taste of judgement in order to turn us back and be saved from it in full. ‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it,…’ (Rom 8:20) At the fall God put creation under a curse (see Gen 3:17,18).
The pain, disorder and suffering reveals a good God’s attitude to sin. He knows we don’t think of it like this, but we must look! A history of the 20th century reveals 100 million died violently. That’s 2,400 a day. Not to mention, disease, accidents, family breakdown, social injustice, tsunamis, earthquakes, sick babies, and Covid-19! That’s how awful sin is. God wants us to see this. To turn in hope. Romans 8 continues from verse 20 ‘…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Rom 8:20-22).
God is working out his plan for birthing something so overwhelmingly good that all this pain will make it worthwhile!
I turned on the TV last week and was shocked to hear a woman shrieking in pain. It was a documentary based in a women’s prison. My mind started to race as to some of the terrible things that could have been happening to her. My fears disappeared when I realised that she was giving birth. That pain would all be worthwhile.
Window 3. God Has An Eternal Perspective
Unless we stand back we’ll never make sense of this broken world. If you stepped inside that labour room it would be a difficult experience, but all of it would make sense once you saw the joy on the mother’s face as she held that baby in her arms.
What then is the baby? Our hope? ‘For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. ’ (Rom 8:19-21). The freedom of being God’s children forever in a creation that will never groan. Seeing God for who he is, sharing him with each other. Enjoying him eternally.
I find it quite hard to get my head round words like forever and eternal. Here’s an illustration that helps me. Imagine a long white electricity cable lying at your feet. As you see it there crossing your path you realise that it stretches in both directions right out and over the horizon. As you pick it up you notice a tiny scratch. There’s your life in eternity. Even those who’ve experienced the most horrific disasters will quickly forget them in the context of forever. Either because of the delight of being with God or the agony of his judgement. That’s the other side of eternity.
What grace, to give us a taste of judgement in this scratch, so we could avoid it forever.
Jesus himself responded to a question about natural disasters just like this. (read Luke 13:1-5). What does Jesus do? He uses disasters – here in the scratch – to turn people back to God.
Window 4. There is Such a Thing as Innocent Suffering
Last time I found myself considering this topic was just after Haiti. Do you remember the earthquake? I’ll never forget seeing a five year old girl, Ann, rescued from the rubble. After four days a cousin saw her legs and heard her voice “Papa take the rocks from my head they’re hurting me.”
She didn’t do anything to deserve that! What will God say about such unjust suffering? There’s a whole book on it! Job experienced a catalogue of natural disasters. He lost over 11,000 animals, his servants killed, and all 10 of his children died when a tornado struck his house.
He didn’t deserve that. How will God explain it? It’s a long book but you’ll find none. His friends try to find one but they only make his suffering worse. He’s suffering, it’s not fair and he wants God to tell him why.
God responds with questions. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” “Did you design the snowflake?” “Did you cast the constellations across the skies?” “Where were you when I called forth the light?” This goes on for two chapters!
Job says “alright alright I get it”. God isn’t finished. 2 more chapters of questions. After this Job responds…
Then Job replied to the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:1-6
Job discovers peace and relief by just seeing something of God. And through this he becomes content not to know why.
In the face of innocent suffering we don’t need to know ‘why’ we just need to see God. Job had creation. We’ve got that and Jesus!
Let your friends who are suffering see Christ. Point them to him. I once sat opposite a friend who was dying. Only a few years older than me. He said “Why’s God let this happen?” I found it so hard to know how to respond, so just started to talk of God’s love.
Window 5. God’s Love
How do we know that God loves us? Is it by the things we experience, the things we own, the way we feel, or is there something more certain that we can cling to? Here’s John’s answer. ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10) At the cross we’re shown the love of a Father prepared to sacrifice his Son. The love of the Son who chose to stand in our place here in the scratch so that we could be spared the eternal pain we deserve.
He took the judgement. What was that like? Natural disasters are just a foretaste, ‘he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished’ (Rom 3:25).
Jesus needed to die in our place, but have you ever wondered why the process had to be so brutal. I feel sick just beginning to think about the cross. Jesus experienced the fullness of God’s judgement, from the beginning of this broken world to the end, so that he could offer heaven to all. That’s how much he loves you. Stand a while at the cross and you’ll be unable to question his love.
That friend stopped having to ask his question. He found the love of God in those nail pierced hands.
Be open with your friends. “I don’t have many clever answers, but I know that God loves me and I know it will all end. Can I tell you why?”