Where is God in a pandemic?

By James Martin

… The sheer horror of this fast-moving infection is coupled with the almost physical shock from its sudden onset. As a priest, I’ve heard an avalanche of feelings in the last month: panic, fear, anger, sadness, confusion and despair. More and more I feel like I’m living in a horror movie, but the kind that I instinctively turn off because it’s too disturbing. And even the most religious people ask me: Why is this happening? And: Where is God in all of this?

The question is essentially the same that people ask when a hurricane wipes out hundreds of lives or when a single child dies from cancer. It is called the “problem of suffering,” “the mystery of evil” or the “theodicy,” and it’s a question that saints and theologians have grappled with for millenniums. The question of “natural” suffering (from illnesses or natural disasters) differs from that of “moral evil” (in which suffering flows from the actions of individuals — think Hitler and Stalin). But leaving aside theological distinctions, the question now consumes the minds of millions of believers, who quail at steadily rising death tolls, struggle with stories of physicians forced to triage patients and recoil at photos of rows of coffins: Why?

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In the end, the most honest answer to the question of why the Covid-19 virus is killing thousands of people, why infectious diseases ravage humanity and why there is suffering at all is: We don’t know. For me, this is the most honest and accurate answer. One could also suggest how viruses are part of the natural world and in some way contribute to life, but this approach fails abjectly when speaking to someone who has lost a friend or loved one. An important question for the believer in times of suffering is this: Can you believe in a God that you don’t understand?

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Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of illness. … Moreover, in his public ministry, Jesus continually sought out those who were sick. Most of his miracles were healings from illnesses and disabilities: debilitating skin conditions (under the rubric of “leprosy”), epilepsy, a woman’s “flow of blood,” a withered hand, “dropsy,” blindness, deafness, paralysis. In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things.

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When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was “moved with pity.” He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity.

Whenever I prayed in that church near 68th and York, I would pause before a statue of Jesus, his arms outstretched, his heart exposed. Just a plaster statue, it wasn’t great art, but it was meaningful to me. I don’t understand why people are dying, but I can follow the person who gives me a pattern for life.

To read Father Martin’s full column, click HERE

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