The Reset Button
I woke this morning to an opinion piece by David Brooks that was published in the New York Times. He opened with these words: “It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams. Life and death can seem completely arbitrary. Religions and philosophies can seem like cruel jokes. The only thing that matters is survival. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over. This mind-set is the temptation of the hour—but of course it’s wrong. We’ll look back on this as one of the most meaningful periods of our lives.
“This particular plague is hitting us in exactly the spots where we are weakest and is exposing exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.”
Does it feel to you, as it does to me, like God has pushed a reset button? This time of resetting has found me returning to essential questions and wondering how this pandemic, this plague, might be used of God to call the wayward to the Way, the Truth and the Life who is the Savior Jesus Christ.
So many across the world have turned their backs on God, but perhaps they may now—while there’s time on their hands—perhaps now they’ll turn around. Now that turn around may start with some fist shaking: if you really exist God, if you’re so all-powerful and all-loving, how could you allow this to happen and why don’t you stop it…right now? Have you ever responded like this in years past when personal catastrophes have hit? Why, God? Why?
Why is it so that so often we must come to the end of ourselves before we’ll look to the One who holds the world in His hands, the One who has all the answers? When will we move each question from the Why to the Who?
On August 29, 2005 at 6:10 a.m. Central Daylight Time, Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 3 hurricane bringing with it devastating floods, battering winds . . . catastrophic destruction. More than a million people came under evacuation order. Damage in dollars totaled 81 billion; a mere $40.6 billion of which was in insured losses. More than 3,000 deaths were—directly or indirectly—attributed to the storm. More than 400,000 jobs were lost.
The fall-out from the hurricane spilled out all over the United States in terms that were not only physical and material but also emotional and spiritual. Some folks expressed deepening fears about, concerns over, our safety as a nation. One blogger hinted that the storm was God’s answer to the gambling casinos in Biloxi and/or to Southern Decadence Day, an event scheduled in New Orleans for—what turned out to be—the weekend of Hurricane Katrina. Others, of course, saw the event as evidence that we were nearing the end of the end-times, linking the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean in which 200,000 people lost their lives and 9/11 wherein nearly 3,000 died to the Luke 21:11 prophecy: “There will be great earthquakes, fearful events and great signs from heaven…”
But others wondered how New Orleans could have survived as long as it had, lying well below sea level surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico with inadequate levees that were ripe for breaching, just waiting for the right conditions for disaster to be met. The human-made dimensions of the catastrophe, they insisted, had to be recognized in the middle of any discussion of Hurricane Katrina.
Others pointed fingers at the government. President George W. Bush addressed the nation and attempted to assure Americans that elected officials were concerned that people be safe. He also sought to assure the country that healing could be found not only from the losses of life and property but from the divide that was in evidence between the haves and the have nots. Relative to this, the question was asked by one reporter: “How could self-interested, shortsighted politicians put off reinforcing the levees?” The same reporter also asked, “How could God allow the negligence, racism, indifference or hardheartedness that long gnawed at the social fabric of New Orleans or the blindness or incompetence of officials who should have understood the brewing human storm, as well as the meteorological one?”
Natural disaster? Punishment for sins? A sign that the end is near? Evidence of human folly? A breakdown of leadership? God’s inattention?
Do those questions sound familiar? Does the finger-pointing sound familiar? Aren’t we hearing those same questions, seeing that same finger-pointing in the era of COVID-19? How do we sort through the realities of evil, pain and suffering in the light of a good, gracious, and giving God? Why does God allow suffering? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, can’t God stop both moral and natural evil? And, if He can, why doesn’t He?
As Will Reaves noted in a Christian News and Research article: “That these perennial questions arise in response to every tragedy, war, and disaster shows the enduring nature of our doubt and the magnitude of the question." Both "natural" evil—such as hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, the spread of viruses—and "human" (or moral) evil—such as genocide, terrorism, various forms of injustice, human folly, human selfishness—challenge our ability to make the reality of an omnipotent, loving God sensible in the wake of suffering.
John Stott has said that “the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” There is perhaps no greater obstacle to faith than that of the reality of evil and suffering in the world. Even for believing Christians, there is no greater test of faith than this: that the God who loves us permits us, at times, to suffer.
[I should note at this juncture that, in this message, I’ll be looking to scripture, but I’ll also be borrowing liberally from notes I’d taken down in earlier years from articles written by Albert Mohler, Rick Rood, and others. My citations will be incomplete as my notes were incomplete.]
Now, the Bible clearly reveals God as omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). The Creator rules over all creation. Not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge. He knows the number of hairs upon on heads. He rules and reigns over all nations. Not an atom or molecule of the universe is outside His active rule. And the Bible is just as clear in showing God to be absolutely righteous, loving, good, and just.
So…could God prevent natural disasters? Absolutely. Does God respond to prayers regarding the natural world? Of course. One example is recorded in James 5:17 where we read: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Another example is found in Mark, chapter 4, where we find Jesus rebuking the wind, ordering the waves to be still, calming the storm.
Does God sometimes cause natural disasters as a judgment against sin? Yes. In the book of Numbers, chapter 16, we read how God caused the earth to open up. He used an earthquake to swallow rebels who had challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron.
Is every natural disaster a punishment from God? No. In Matthew 5:45, we’re told that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
In much the same way that God allows evil people to commit evil acts, God allows the earth to demonstrate the consequences that sin has had on Creation. Again, Romans 8:19-21 tells us: “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 glorious freedom of the children of God.”
In these verses, Paul is looking back to the book of Genesis and reminding us that the fall of humankind into sin had an affect on everything, including the universe we inhabit. Everything in creation is subject to frustration and decay. We live in a fallen world that, like its human inhabitants, is waiting for renewal, waiting for the new heaven, for the new earth. Because of sin, throughout the ages, the world has been tainted. We experience illness, death, disease, natural disasters, all types of suffering.
God created us—not as robots forced to do His will—but as individuals with free will. He wants us to use that will to love Him and to love one another.
So why would a loving and all-powerful God allow the catastrophic—citing, for our purposes here, especially the plague of COVID-19—to occur?
Well, let’s go back to where we just were to a look at the possibilities.
Did this begin as a natural disaster? No, it began because of human folly and then it spread through natural processes. If it continues to spread, knowing as we do now, that social distancing can and does slow its progress, it will continue—in large part—because of human folly.
Can God bring great good out of a terrible tragedy? Romans 8:28 tells us, yes, He can. We may not know the reason for suffering in any given situation. But we can affirm, with relief and joy, that in “all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” The Psalms are full of cries for deliverance from trouble as well as the assurance that God is with us and will deliver us from suffering.
Could God use the COVID-19 plague for divine discipline? The Old and New Testaments make it clear that suffering can be an avenue of God’s discipline in our lives. Hebrews 12:10-11 illustrates this. There we read: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Is the plague a sign that the end is near? It has been said that we have been in the end times since the days of Jesus. While we are told to be on the watch, we are also commanded not to spend enormous amounts of time speculating on when the end will come.
I don’t know why God would allow the Covid-19 pandemic, and I wouldn’t dare to assert otherwise. God may have a different reason for every individual, every family, every community, every nation, even the world. But, you know, as Charles Spurgeon explained: when we cannot trace God’s hand, we must simply trust His heart.
You might be surprised to learn that when a poll was taken of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in shelters in the Houston area just days after the storm, eight in ten said that their faith had been strengthened through the ordeal. And 90 percent were hopeful for the future. More than half of their homes had been destroyed. Almost three-fourths didn’t have insurance to cover their losses.
The great hope that we have in the midst of suffering is that, in a way that is beyond our comprehension, God is able to turn evil against itself. And it is because of this truth that we can find joy even in the midst of sorrow and pain. We are even counseled in scripture to rejoice in trial, not because the affliction itself is a cause for joy (it’s not), but because in it God can find an occasion for producing what is good.
And God is not only aware of our suffering. He feels it. As Paul Little has noted: “No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first passed through the heart and hand of God. Christians follow Jesus who the scripture reveals as the “Suffering Servant.” He understands our sorrows. He walks with us in our trials, in our sorrows.
Suffering can provide an opportunity for God to display His glory and to make evident His mercy, faithfulness, power and love, in the middle of painful circumstances. Perhaps you have a testimony to offer in support of that truth. It’s a testimony that must be voiced, that must be shared with those who are struggling in the darkness that is the world apart from Jesus Christ. He does not leave us alone.
As in the case of Job (who was tested through trial after trial and eventually came to offer an outpouring of thanks to the Lord for the lessons learned therein), our faithfulness in trial shows that we serve Him not merely for the benefits He offers, but for the love of God Himself (Job 1:9-11).
Trials also provide an opportunity for followers of Christ to demonstrate their love for others, to compassionately care for those in need. And, as we are comforted by God in our own afflictions, so we are better able to comfort others in theirs. Suffering also plays a key role in developing godly virtues, and in deterring us from sin. Oftentimes, we learn obedience in times of trial.
Suffering can also awaken within us a greater hunger for heaven, for that time when God’s purposes for these experiences will have been finally fulfilled, when we’ll understand far more than we do now, when all tears will be dried, when pain and sorrow shall be no more.
Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Seminary, in a March 26, 2020 presentation to his fellow residents in a retirement community in Tennessee, echoed the poet Rilke in suggesting that we not seek the answers which cannot be given to us, but rather that we live the questions.
We do that, Dunnam says, by first telling God and others how we feel. “That’s especially at the heart of our praying. Tell God and others how you feel. When we do that it reminds us that God is near enough to hear and feel with us, even to hear our complaints. In Psalm 38, the writer, unburdens his soul saying, ‘my heart pounds, my strength fails me, the light has gone from my eyes.’ To express our honest feelings is like a valve that releases all the pent-up tension. Though the burden may still be there, the weight of it diminishes as we name it for what it is and release it to God. The unburdening of our spirits, honestly sharing with God and others, is an expression of trust. The psalmist expressed trust when he prayed, “Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me…Come quickly to help me my Lord and my Savior.’”
Dunnam advises that, “we must flavor our expression of trust with expectation. Our big problem is that we want something different to happen in our lives, but we really don’t expect it to happen. There is a vast difference between wanting things to be different and expecting them to be different. The Bible doesn’t merely hold up the possibility that things may be different; the hope offered by the Bible is that we can fully expect things to be different.”
Another way to live the questions is to “allow the questions to teach us. One lesson here is that "life isn‘t fair, but life isn’t God.”
Dunnam reminds us that much of our pain and suffering is brought on by “decisions of unperfected persons exercising God’s gift of freedom in selfish, pleasure-seeking, immediate gratification kind of ways; and the fallout is destructive…But as we live the questions, bearing the pain, experiencing the loss, sharing the sadness—all in the fellowship of sorrow and suffering with others, encompassed by our faith commitment to Christ—the revelation will come in time, good will be recognized and glory will be given to God.”
He closes with this:
“Living the questions teaches us how fragile and how precious life is…Life is fragile and precious. But in a sense, that is a penultimate issue. The ultimate issue is that eternal life is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Our life-giving hope is to know that our life is not bound by the years we live here, but is boundless because of the gift of eternal life from Jesus Christ. It really is inappropriate to speculate that God is the author of this pandemic; we can trace the human actors and sequence of events that caused it to occur. That said, we must boldly affirm that God reigns over all human activity. Whether He initiated it or permitted it, it is certain that God will be using this Coronavirus for His divine purposes.”