It seems that every natural disaster comes pre-packaged with religious provincialism. Every time the world brings us some unexpected or unexplained phenomenon, some religious leader will ascribe it to God and connect it to his cause.
Those of us who have lived through calamity before know this kind of thing is coming. We wait for someone to christen each new tragedy as God’s judgment on His enemies. When religious leaders do this, they show that they misunderstand their own faith. No major religion explains the vagaries of life with such neatly kept formulas. Hardship is not always God’s punishment; prosperity, not always a blessing.
The question of why bad things happen is one of humanity’s oldest and most vexing questions. We don’t have space to answer it in this column. But here are four things we can confidently affirm:
God is not in the business of causing suffering.
But He does allow suffering. I’ll admit, that distinction may seem like hair-splitting, especially to the one who is suffering. As one seminary professor taught me, God’s wrath is more about His absence than His anger. Wrath is God saying, Let me step back for a minute so you can see what the world looks like when I’m not saving you from yourselves.
God’s reasons are His own.
They are varied and inscrutable. Sometimes the Bible describes God allowing suffering for a specific purpose. Other times, suffering is the result of human decisions or random chance. Unless God speaks through a prophet to connect a specific world event to a specific chastisement, we cannot presume to know His reasons. And it’s foolish to pretend to.
We are not God.
The most important thing for us to remember when we wrestle with these questions is that we are not God. Our approach should be both curious (wanting to understand) and humble (realizing the limits of our understanding). To claim some kind of direct revelation or sneak peek into the mind of God is to play a dangerous prophetic game.
We have work to do.
Regardless of the cause of suffering, we all, as ambassadors of the God of all comfort, have a responsibility to our fellow humans to ease suffering. Our response to calamities like hurricanes and pandemics should be to care for the hurting, not to look for openings to score points in a culture war.
It can be said that God punishes, even with calamity; Noah’s flood being the most cataclysmic example. But it shouldn’t be said that this event is because of that sin. Remember Jesus’ caution when presented with the same line of reasoning about a news item from His day: “Or those eighteen that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed—do you think they were more sinful than all the other people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well” (Luke 13:4-5).
That last sentence is a warning, but not a threat. All people are guilty and all need to repent, but not all will have a tower fall on them or a virus infect them if they don’t.
So, no, God did not send coronavirus to punish the enemies of Islam or Christianity or any other religious group. But, yes, He might have something to show us in the midst of suffering. The difference is between a parent asking “What can you learn from this?” And a bully saying, “I’m going to teach you a lesson.”
God is a divine Father, not a bully.