You’ve thought it.
It’s human nature…perfectly normal.
In the midst of suffering—especially in a global crisis like Covid-19—when life gets turned upside down, when people get sick, and when many people die, we want to know why this is happening. More specifically, we want to know what or who is to blame.
Some point the finger at China or the failures of previous leaders. Others blame the inaction of our current leaders. Still, others proclaim that this is divine judgment on humanity for the sinful state of our nation (or the world) or a sign of the impending second coming. At the heart of this is the idea that everything happens for a reason. When “the rules” by which our world operates break down, humanity’s natural inclination is to find the cause, explain it, and (hopefully) fix it. If bad things are happening, it’s because something’s gone wrong.
This is not a modern notion. It’s probably as ancient as the human race. When faced with the uncertainty of the world, humanity in every culture has sought ways to explain and even control the forces that governed the universe. Divination, idolatry, sacrifices, prayers, and rituals across a wide range of religions were designed to interpret, understand, appease, and even manipulate forces beyond our control.
This cause-and-effect mindset was alive and well during the time of Jesus. One Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples asked his opinion on this topic when they came across a blind man:
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”John 9:1-2, NRSV
We’ll get to Jesus’ answer in a bit. This question was not something the disciples dreamed up. It was a widely-held view: if something bad had happened, someone must be at fault. They had to look no further than the Hebrew scriptures to find backing for this notion.
In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. He tells them to be careful to follow the commandments they have been given. If they follow those commandments, then they will be blessed. If they choose to ignore those commandments, they will be cursed. In fact, the theme running from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings is how they generally failed to follow those commandments and were ultimately taken into exile. When bad things happen, there must be a reason. Someone is to blame.
The book of Proverbs includes numerous gems of wisdom that back up this retribution theology:
Therefore walk in the way of the good,Prov 2:20-3:2
and keep to the paths of the just.
For the upright will abide in the land,
and the innocent will remain in it;
but the wicked will be cut off from the land,
and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.
My child, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments;
for length of days and years of life
and abundant welfare they will give you.
For human ways are under the eyes of the LORD,Prov 5:21-23
and he examines all their paths.
The iniquities of the wicked ensnare them,
and they are caught in the toils of their sin.
They die for lack of discipline,
and because of their great folly they are lost.
The wisdom of Proverbs is pretty consistent: if you do good and live right, you will be blessed. If you choose to do wrong, you will be punished for it. But, does the bible include differing perspectives on this issue? Yes.
The book of Job challenges and confronts retribution theology head-on. Job gets caught in the middle of a bet in the heavenly court. He is struck with one horrific calamity after another–even though he is a righteous and blameless man. All his children die. His wealth evaporates, and he suffers horrible physical suffering. He’s outcast from society due to an infectious skin disease. Much like Jesus’ disciples, Job’s three friends try to reverse-engineer what he did wrong that caused all this to happen. The answer in the book of Job is remarkable in the context of Proverbs. Retribution theology is not a two-way street. While it may be true that if you do wrong, you will suffer for it, you can’t reason backward. Just because something terrible has happened to you, doesn’t mean that it was your (or anyone else’s) fault!
Then we get to the book of Ecclesiastes. This book contains the sayings of “the Teacher” (in Hebrew, Qohelet). The Teacher examines all aspects of life and says it’s all “vanity.” I think a better translation of that word might be exasperation or frustration. He sees no correlation between the blessings one receives and a person’s conduct:
There is a vanity [exasperation] that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity [frustrating].Eccl 8:14
In the end, the narrator of Ecclesiastes seeks to make sense of the Teacher’s sayings. In his conclusion, the narrator summarizes and interprets the Teacher’s views of the human condition:
- Life is complicated.
- Life doesn’t always make sense.
- Fear God and keep His commandments.
While this answer might be wholly unsatisfying to many, the older I get, the more I see the truth in the Teacher’s wisdom. “Stuff” happens. Deal with it.
Where God’s people run into problems is when we try to find the divine reason for our current suffering. Is God punishing us for our sins? That’s a very problematic theological view if one gives it 10 seconds of thought:
- Is God punishing us for our sins by disproportionately killing the elderly who get Covid-19?
- Why do the poor and people of color have higher mortality rates than wealthier, white Americans/Europeans?
- Why are the mortality rates lower in certain “non-Christian” countries than our “Christian” America? (If you couldn’t tell, this last one was sarcastic).
Just like Job’s friends, we cannot reason backward. Attempting to reverse-engineer the cause leads to bad theology and potentially inflicting additional harm.
So, back to Jesus. How did Jesus respond to his disciples?
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”John 9:2-3
Jesus restores the man’s sight. However, this causes quite the uproar, since Jesus had healed him on the Sabbath. What ensues is an almost comical series of exchanges between the man, his parents, and the religious leaders trying to ascertain what had happened and who did it.
I wonder how our perspective on the Covid-19 epidemic might change if we asked ourselves the question: how can God’s work be revealed in me through this crisis?
It’s time we stop pointing fingers at our leaders or claiming that our rights have been violated. We should quit griping that churches have been asked to restrict their meetings, or complaining about wearing a mask to inhibit the spread of the disease.
What if we refocused our attention on how God’s work can be furthered through this pandemic and how we can be a part of that work?
One thing I do know is that God’s work is going to be accomplished with or without us. In some ways, it reminds me of the story of Esther. Mordecai tells her:
Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.Esth 4:13b-14
I have seen positive outcomes from this pandemic. Within our church community, our food pantry outreach has grown significantly. The increase in families served has risen at a higher rate than the virus has spread. Our online services have reached people well outside our community–even in other states. Others have stepped out in faithful generosity to help those who have lost jobs. I know we are not unique. I’ve heard similar stories from friends and others.
Unfortunately, I’ve also heard lots or complaining and bickering from God’s people. I sincerely hope that God’s people will rise to the occasion. I pray that we will be part of God’s work to alleviate suffering in this pandemic. I pray that we focus less on our rights from earthly citizenship and more on the calling of our true citizenship.
Let us remember that we have been called for such a time as this.
Note: cover image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.