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Does God Care?

 

Much of human life is spent in an illusory world that is mistaken for reality. The sun comes up each morning, runs its course, and day by day we fall into routines that we pretend will never end. When crises come, as we know they will, false confidence and phony optimism are shattered by calamity. Overwhelmed by anxiety and grief, we feel mistreated, betrayed, or helpless. Then comes the thought: “Am I all alone? Does God care?”

Public health guidance for fighting COVID-19 amplifies our sense of isolation. Keep your distance – at least 6 feet. Isolate anyone exposed and quarantine those infected. Hospital care brings more stringent separation as visits from anyone other than caregivers become impossible. Loved ones who enter the hospital too often die surrounded by emergency caregivers covered head to toe in protective gear that prevents even the solace of human touch as life ends.

The global COVID-19 epidemic is as horrific in the 21st century as the Black Death was throughout Eurasia in the 1300s and as smallpox and measles were for Natives of the American continents that encountered Europeans in the 1500s and 1600s. These events are what modern insurance parlance terms “acts of God,” because, like hurricanes, they “just happen.” This terminology is a vestige of ancient thought patterns that can still trouble even educated believers in science. Deep inside we ask: “How could God let this happen?”

Spiritual crises naturally develop along with public disasters, whether they are human-generated or “acts of God.” The Holocaust remains a dark spiritual issue for modern Judaism, just as the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon troubled those who compiled the Old Testament. The 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed numerous horrific tragedies that were generated by human actions, all of them leading to spiritual battles as well. Prophets using scientific data have tried to draw attention to human destruction of life on our planet through unchecked industrialism and nuclear proliferation, yet they are being ignored by too many national and spiritual leaders. Our current pandemic is just one of the predictions that have been ignored.

The Bible itself is evidence against belief in a normative or holy response to spiritual crises. The 23rd Psalm, for example, compares God’s reliability to a shepherd who protects those who depend on him. Yet in Psalm 22, there is a horrific cry from the depths of despair: “My God why have you forsaken me?” Another paradox is found by comparing the assurances in Psalm 1 with the story of Job. Promises that fidelity to the Torah will bring prosperity and long life stand in contrast to a dedicated believer who unjustly loses everything yet refuses to curse God.

The same paradox is also found in Jesus’s teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. Childlike trust in God is recommended by pointing to the “lilies of the field” and birds who represent faith in God without anxiety (Matthew 6:25-34). Yet another story (Matthew 25:1-13) contrasts the forethought of ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom they knew would arrive when not expected. Those who prudently brought oil for their lamps were rewarded while those who ran out of oil were excluded. In other words, it pays to plan ahead for something you know will happen sooner or later.

Therefore, how can we answer our nagging question about whether God cares about those of us stuck in this crisis? Furthermore, if the answer is yes – how does that make a difference?

The best answer, from our human vantage point, is something that each one must decide for herself or himself. Here is my own roundabout way of getting to Yes.

First, begin with Job’s experience of the whirlwind. To the extent that God has a purpose, it is something beyond human knowledge or comprehension. We are likely to comprehend a Being that is beyond us to the extent a frog or fish can comprehend human thinking. In short, don’t underestimate how inadequate our understanding of God probably is. Nevertheless, our failure to understand does not make God unreliable or untrustworthy. It is our expectations and hopes that are more likely to prove untrustworthy.

Second, combine the trust and prudence found in the two selections from Matthew. We must take responsibility for planning and act based on current knowledge. We must do what we can and should do, recognizing some consequences and surprises will happen despite our best efforts. Worrying about things that are out of our control is fruitless. Figuring out who to blame is wasted energy that detracts from tasks that need full attention. Trust in God is an active strategy to help us focus on our immediate responsibilities without letting fear or timidity undermine our focus.

Third, don’t confuse our awareness of God’s presence with the reality of God. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is recognized for her tireless commitment to the poor, yet her correspondence collected in Come Be My Light indicates her fear of God’s absence. The sense of God’s presence often is something we realize in retrospect, not while we labor on without internal assurance of God’s help.

Finally, recognize that our behavior in this crisis is a way that God is present. As we trust God for things we don’t control and act responsibly where we should, we impact the lives of those around us. Agents of God’s caring are acting as First Responders braving personal danger to save others in a variety of ways. Each of us can be God’s representative. So let us not ask God to prove caring to us – let’s get busy as agents for a caring God.

About the Author

Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study, and the author of two articles in the forthcoming The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider and being published by Wipf and Stock in the summer of 2020.

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