10For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
The Second Reading is from 1 Peter, and includes this:
14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed… Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…
We moderns cringe at the idea that God is the author of suffering. Surely it is primitive, unscientific thinking that would conclude that the Lord would send us the Covid-19 virus to punish us for anything.
But when one side says the plague is a sign of divine disfavor of homosexuality or socialistic trends in society, and then the other says, “Baloney, God would never do such a thing;” are not both sides guilty of claiming far more than they can truly know? If there is a God, then there is a transcendent dimension to everything. There is something deeper and beyond.
Biblical faith is, from beginning to end, a radical monotheism. The prophet Amos states it shockingly when he writes in chapter 6, “Does disaster befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?
But this faith is in the ultimate—the most transcendent—the what’s behind what’s behind the sky dimension.
In one dimension, there is absolutely no good in Covid-19. We can only, and should only grieve when a child of God, in their 70s or in their teens, in our county or in China, suffocates and dies alone because of this evil virus. But, ultimately, God is at work in all things. If God could test the psalmist, put burdens upon her, drag her through fire and water, God can test us. In this scenario—in this ultimate dimension of meaning that may be only accessible by faith, but is still accessible—we are like silver, and evil is turned to our salvation. We come, in the eventual, to a more spacious place.
And again, as 1 Peter says, raw suffering can turn two directions for us. Here again, the test. If we suffer for evil, we will be overcome by evil. If we keep our conscience clear, and return blessing for curse, we will flatten the curve of evil, and turn it to our own blessing.
I suppose that the crucial measure of how we speak of the meaning of the virus is whether our words and actions use it as evil or good.
The wicked who are headed for God’s judgment, use the suffering of others to win arguments. They blame. They say, “I told you so.” They glibly claim to speak for God.
One thing holds true: damnation is not a means of grace. Just so, judgment is never the final word. Gospel is always good news. It is always, always about forgiveness, and ultimate love.
We hear that “final word” about suffering in what Jesus said about the blindness of the man in John 9: Ultimately, the meaning of this suffering is not to be found in laying blame. It is an opportunity to see the works of God in the form of healing.
But radical monotheism demands also that we do not too easily exonerate ourselves. If we feel guilt, we should deal with it. We should listen closely for God’s call to repentance. Is God using the virus, a basic component of Creation, to scream at us for our abuse of the Earth? Do we need absence of touch to remind us how we have taken hugs for granted? Have we sold embodiment cheap? Do we still need to learn the limits of “virtual” community? Are there ways we can change our lives so that suffering is shared in healing ways–with each other and with our God?
The Bible gives us a host of ways to look at the virus. But one thing it insists on: God is in it all. In the midst of it: Calling us to learn from it, to repent because of it, to rise above it, to get through it, to find transcending mercy in the midst of it.
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