WE FEEL a deep sense of precariousness in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. We realise how fragile and vulnerable we are to outbreaks of infectious diseases. It is as if we are suddenly blindsided and brought to a standstill by the pestilence. Unsure of what will happen next, we often take a deep breath to calm our racing pulses.
The prognosis is for more people to be affected by the virus in the coming days. The steep economic downturn and concomitant loss of jobs and incomes, economic distress, and lowered quality of life due to the pandemic deepens the all-round gloom. Whether Covid-19 poses an existential threat to the human race or not, it has certainly become a serious global health crisis. It is spreading rapidly, assuming alarming proportions and causing much psychological anxiety.
None of us were prepared for this outbreak. Some are led to ask why a good and loving God allows pandemics such as this in our world. In times such as this, it is normal and natural to ask where God is. The Psalmist cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some conclude that struggles such as these are evidence for the non-existence of God.
THIS is, however, a time to wait patiently for hope to spring from our life of “social distancing” and “self-isolation”. We need not retreat from our faith, even in the face of suffering in the manner of Job. Even if we turn away from God momentarily, we can return to God and re-establish our relationship with him. We come to terms with our difficulties in the belief that God cares for us despite the pandemic and its effects. In fact, we can take time in prayer to derive strength from God to bear the trials and tribulations of life, or, to use a Shakespearean phrase, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, and overcome them. God is our solace and succour.
I do not claim to have found a final answer to the question of suffering, especially that which is caused by a global pandemic. Nor am I inclined to wish away or downplay in any way the enormity of pain and suffering that it causes. I would readily concede that the misery and the sense of loss engendered by the virus and related difficulties are beyond words.
Still, I would endeavour to offer a few angles through which we can look at the situation and see whether we can still have faith in God.
First, it is quite clear that denying the existence of God does not diminish the problem in any way. It is true that people are disposed to look at the sufferings, which are sometimes more than they can bear, and conclude that there is no God. But we have to be clear that that conclusion does not help in the alleviation or abolition of suffering. On the other hand, faith in God can give us the strength to bear the suffering, and bring us hope that, with God’s grace and help, things will change for the better.
Second, for believers, God dwells among the people and never leaves them alone. As the Psalmist puts it, even in the deepest valleys of suffering, God is there. This is what the gospel of Christ teaches us, too. The love shown by Jesus Christ on the cross affirms that God stays with us when we are afflicted. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, knows our pain and suffering, and identifies with us when we go through them. He stays with us in times of pandemic and related difficulties, too. A true friend stays with us when we are in pain. God, our Father and true friend, does not go away when we suffer, but stays with us.
THIRD, we have to acknowledge that we live in a fallen and broken world. The present epidemic is a crisis delivered by nature. Here, we must accept the simple truth that you and I sometimes suffer not because of our own mistakes, but because of others’ faults, too. Sometimes, we are also caught up by natural calamities such as the pandemic. In other words, suffering is part and parcel of life. No one is exempt from suffering in this far from perfect world.
Fourth, we need to learn more readily to accept that this world is no heaven, and to go one step further and see pain and suffering as evidence — a sort of precursor — of something better that is to come. People who put their trust in God believe that their life in this world is only a temporary one, and everlasting life begins when they live with God in heaven. This acceptance helps them to hold on to their faith in God.
Fifth, whether we believe in God or not, pain is real. Both believers and non-believers go through “heaven and hell” — happy and sad experiences — in this world. Faith lends a sweet dimension to life (as they say, it “adds spice” to life) and makes it worth living. Faith is therapeutic: it is an antidote to despair and depression. Faith in God promises and provides “peace that passeth all understanding”.
Sixth, when we lose faith, we lose the basis of our moral values. The civilisation that is built on Christian teaching remains strong and unshaken by “storms”. Christianity as a moral compass enables us to thwart the designs of the “selfish gene” and behave altruistically.
One of the basic tenets of Christianity is that we should love our neighbour. The pandemic should promote global co-operation and collaboration, make us aware of the futility of fighting among ourselves and tame our aggressive instincts, result in the reduction of manufacture of arms and ammunition, and make us more scientific in our thinking and lifestyle. Science is a gift which should be used for constructive purposes.
Seventh, I hear some people say that they wish that they had a faith, something to cling on to. Perhaps they are unable to have faith in God because of their bad or bitter experiences in life. In that situation, I would try to persuade them to be open-minded and to seek God. In his abundant love for humanity, God promises that those who seek him will find him. God keeps his promises. I would here add that we should not give up until we find God — perhaps, more precisely, until God finds us.
A LIFE with faith in God is a journey undertaken with the hope of reaching the destination: “God who is our home”, to quote William Wordsworth. Ups and downs are normal in this “arduous” journey, and it is through ups and downs that we grow in faith.
The Bible invites us to trust that, if God allows pain, he will give us the strength to go through it, and he will show us the way out of it. I pray that God will help us to know his peace, comfort, and healing in the midst of the pandemic, or any other suffering that we may go through in life.
The Revd Dr Godfrey Kesari is the Vicar of Holy Innocents, Southwater, in the diocese of Chichester.