There’s an old joke about a man who had terrible headaches, ringing ears and an inability to catch his breath. He finally decided he could not take it anymore, and so he decided to end it all. But he wanted to do it in style, and so he went to a tailor and ordered a brand new thousand-dollar suit. As the tailor was showing him various suits, he casually asked what shirt size the man wore so he could complete the ensemble. The man said he was a 16 neck, 34 sleeve and 43 chest. The tailor immediately grabbed his tape measure and started measuring. “I knew that was wrong,” he said. “Your neck is easily 171/2 inches. If you go around wearing a size 16 neck, you’re going to have terrible headaches, ringing ears and inability to catch your breath!”
Here’s our problem: we don’t feel like we should have to suffer like we are doing in this pandemic. We feel God is in the wrong, that we are being treated unfairly and that God is intentionally squeezing the life out of us. Here’s my question: why do we feel that we are being so mistreated? I would like to suggest three reasons for your consideration.
First, I wonder if we think we ought to be above such things. This idea has several pillars. First, I think our affluence, health-care systems and sciences have convinced us that we can overcome any difficulty. Second, I think we believe that we have a ticket to the good life and that no one should be able to take that away from us (being born in the right place and the right time with the right amount of money). Three, we believe that we are the zenith of humanity, the greatest people ever. And four, I think we are convinced that bad things only ought to happen to bad people (and to people who live in bad countries). Now, all four of those points are not true, and we would never say them out loud; but we certainly do feel them deep in our souls. In short, we feel we have earned the right to miss out on what the rest of the world has to endure regularly.
Second, I wonder if our culture has convinced us that since we have science, we don’t really need God. Need proof? Ask yourself in which you have more faith: in scientific advances, human progress and the ability of doctors and medicine to do miracles or in God? In whom do you have more trust: science or God? And in these days of anxiety and loss, against whom are you directing your anger, the CDC or God? In the past, people felt they needed God, but now I’m not so sure that is the case. To put it another way: it used to be that God was everybody’s primary insurance, but now he has been relegated to a supplemental policy that we can dig into if things go really bad.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I love our health care and our science and our doctors. And I am certainly not saying that we should just trust God and not use these things. Jesus, himself said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” which when paraphrased means, “Don’t be stupid and demand miracles from God” (Matt. 4:7). But there is a difference between seeing science and medicine as gifts from God for which we ought to give thanks and seeing science as our god and savior. And I think a lot of people get those two reversed.
Last, we can’t see any reason for why God would allow this, and so there can’t be any reason for it. Tim Keller, in his excellent book, The Reason for God, makes a parallel point. A well-known philosopher (JL Mackie) had argued that if a good and powerful God exists, he would not allow pointless evil. But Keller points out that there is a hidden premise here, namely that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless. And then Keller writes: “The reasoning is, of course, fallacious. Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.”
Now, I have no idea what God’s plan for the pandemic is, but I could easily come up with four or five things that God could be doing that would contradict the idea that the pandemic is pointless evil. For instance, maybe he is forcing us to see that trusting in our own strength and wisdom is a fool’s errand and that we need to trust in him alone. Or maybe God is showing us how weak and helpless we really are so that we will put our hope, not in our own devices, but in God. Or maybe he is simply reminding us that since life is so fleeting, we ought to invest in things that are eternal (things like the Fruit of the Spirit, for instance: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). Or maybe he is just answering our prayers for whenever we pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” aren’t we asking God to grow our faith, deepen our trust and energize our prayers, things that are happening now in many of us. Or maybe he is urging us when we come together again, to be serious about loving the people God puts in our path (unlike how we treated others before). I know that in the Middle Ages when the plague came, cities shut their gates and threw stones and spears at visitors who came to their door looking for shelter. I don’t want to do that (primarily because the only people coming to my door these days are Amazon, Hungry Harvest and the UPS guy). Instead, I want to be loving and kind and compassionate. Maybe God intends that we take his command to love our neighbor seriously when this is all over. Or maybe he is just trying to remind us that while life is so tenuous, it’s not how long we live that matters, but what we do with those years. Again, I don’t know what God’s doing in allowing this virus to run free; but just because I don’t know doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan. And I believe that if God has a plan, then that plan is for his glory and our good and that is a winning combination.
All of that to say, don’t put yourself in a bind by thinking that we ought to be exempt from suffering for whatever reason you feel is most poignant. Doing so will only give you terrible headaches, ringing ears, and shortness of breath. Instead, trust God even in the midst of pandemics and other horrible situations.