May 12, 2020

Where is God in this time of corona?

By Br. René Stockman *
Credit: Voice of America/public domain.
Credit: Voice of America/public domain.

It is a question that we regularly hear and read. Some see in it the direct hand of God, of the punishing God who wants to say to people that they have strayed too far from His commandments. We hear these voices especially in America and Africa. Others see in it a sign that God gives indirectly and wants to point out to us the ecological mistakes we have made by not respecting His creation. The latter have a point, of course, because even today I read a scientific article saying that we can expect even more epidemics that are difficult to contain, because there has been a large-scale destruction of ecological systems causing a profound disturbance of the natural balances. Many people in Western countries see no connection at all between the coronavirus pandemic and God, because they have completely removed God from their mindset so that He no longer has anything to do with what is happening in the world. Some are calling God to account and wonder why God is allowing this to happen and why He is not intervening. Still others find solace and strength in praying to God at this time. Now that there could not be any Easter celebrations in the churches, the number of viewers on the internet and on TV watching the Easter celebrations turned out to be very high. When people are in distress, a lot of people apparently find their way back to the church, to prayer, and to God. Once again, He becomes the certainty at a time when all other supposed certainties fail.

But where is God really in this coronavirus pandemic? Is He there or is He not? And if He is there, what connection can we see between God and corona?

We cannot give a conclusive answer to this question. Nonetheless, as Christians, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on this fascinating question.

In earlier centuries, illnesses or anything that could not be explained were directly attributed to the intervention of God. When the plague broke out in the Middle Ages, society considered it a punishment for the sins that people had committed, both personally and as a community. However, science was able to identify the causes of the plague, and there are scientific explanations for the coronavirus as well, although they are not unanimous at this time. They are still guessing at the true origin and the way in which the virus has been able to infect humans. In any case, the coronavirus can be scientifically explained. Is it completely absurd, then, to speak of God in the context of a pandemic?

In the Bible, illness, suffering, and death have to do with the disharmony that exists in man. The story of creation, which describes man’s true nature, sublimely captures the bond between God and man, and also explores the cause of this disharmony.

The story of creation is more than a purely mythical story, but contains a number of fundamental theological, philosophical, and anthropological reflections on man and the world. Man was created by God in his image and likeness, and originally lived in total harmony with his Creator, with himself, with his neighbour, and with his environment. Man was elevated above the transience that was and is present in all of nature.

The story of creation also mentions the reality of evil - called the devil - as the cause of the rupture of the harmony. With the rupture of this harmony, the immortality of man came to an end and he became subject to transience. This explains illness, suffering, decay, and death for Christians. God is not the cause of it, nor is it a punishment from God, but it is the consequence of the broken harmony between man and God.

Suffering in general is therefore inextricably linked to the evil with which man is constantly confronted. Pathogenic and deadly viruses are part of this evil and can affect humans and animals like any other illness.

But is that the whole story and do suffering and death have the final word?

Of course not.

After all, as Christians, we confess that through the coming of Christ, through his suffering and death, and through his resurrection, man was redeemed and saved from the hopelessness of death. The disharmony caused by death in earthly life is finally restored to harmony in eternal life. This is the mystery that we celebrate time and again at Easter and at every Eucharist.

As Christians, however, we are also encouraged not to undergo suffering passively, but to learn from it. Was this pandemic inevitable? Was it the result of scientific experiments, of the irresponsible treatment of animals, of the disturbance of the balance of ecological systems? Pope Francis does not fail to remind humanity of its responsibility in all these areas. He invites us to reflect on the way in which we have lost an important dimension in our lives, which we must take up again, the care of Mother Earth. There are many passages in the Bible about how God uses nature to call people to repent. Just think of the plagues of Egypt and the descriptions about the end times, which would be preceded by all kinds of plagues.

If man does not care about the disastrous consequences of the destruction of ecological systems, if he leads a life that is contrary to his human dignity, even to his human nature, one might wonder whether man is not bringing about the end times himself?

The coronavirus pandemic must therefore become a time for reflection, not only on our ecological misdeeds, but also on our loss of human dignity and the sins against our human nature.

Here, we come close to Paul’s theology, which explicitly indicates how everything has meaning, but it is up to us to discover that there is meaning in both the good and the evil that befall us, and that suffering, in particular, can lead us to purification. Looking up at the cross, where we witness the seemingly most senseless suffering, we believe that it was through this suffering that we as human beings were saved from the hopelessness of our lives. This pandemic, which is now putting us in quarantine, can encourage us to become true ‘freed people’ and to fulfil the freedom granted to us by God time and again according to the example of Christ. Freedom is the highest good we have received as human beings, and it makes us different from everything else that was created.

In this time of corona, the question of the meaningfulness of prayer is sometimes raised. Why would we pray, if God allows all this to happen?

Can we pray that He would protect us from the virus, that He would give us strength to endure the suffering that a possible infection would cause, that He would especially give us the strength to keep it going?

As Christians, we can trust in God for everything that concerns us. We can also pray for others, both the living and the dead. In fact, this is a work of mercy. God is deeply involved in our lives and in everything that happens. He is with us and He suffers with us. However, God is not a ‘deus ex machina’, as if He would magically intervene and completely control everything that is happening. In doing so, He would not respect our human freedom, for He left it intact from the moment of our creation, even when there was a rift between Him and man.

God created man out of love, and precisely because of that love, He gave man the freedom to develop his life and to respond in total freedom to His invitation whether or not to enter into His love, to enter into a relationship with Him, to believe in Him or not. Prayer is the perfect moment to be with God and to grow our relationship with Him.

If God touched our freedom, he would touch the most essential part of our humanity. With this freedom, we can do a lot of good, but unfortunately a lot of evil, as well. Could it be that man - by increasingly behaving as lord and master of creation by controlling everything - has come to consider himself immune, even to such deadly viruses?

Was it not a form of pride to live under the assumption that pandemics and deadly viruses were part of history? According to the already mentioned Bible story, pride is the cause of all sins and the greatest sin we can commit: it is man who wants to be his own god.

Prayer can help us become humble again and come down from the divine throne we were claiming for ourselves. The powerlessness and fear that many are now experiencing can be an invitation for us to repent and look up to God again instead of looking down on Him out of human pride. Perhaps prayer is currently arising for many as a cry for help because we genuinely feel that our existence is threatened - hoping in vain that God would intervene as a ‘deus ex machina’. But this can also be a moment in which we turn to God and find Him (again) as the God who is there for us, who does not abandon us, not even in this corona crisis, as a God who is called Love. It can be the moment when we find God again as a forgotten childhood friend whom we thought was long gone, and allow Him back into our lives as God.

Where is God in this time of corona? He is there, as He is there in everything and everyone, but not always as we like to phrase it or claim it with a certain degree of determination. Nevertheless, let us pray to Him with trust and hope that all those who are somehow confronted with this coronavirus pandemic will once again experience Him as the Lord of life, the Lord of the living and the dead, including those who were unexpectedly welcomed into His presence.

Brother René Stockman serves as Superior General of the Brothers of Charity, an international religious congregation founded in what is now Belgium in 1807 with a strong commitment to various social problems.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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