Listen: Episode 79
Lifewords Q&A is the podcast where we explore answers to your tricky questions about the Christian faith, life, and the Bible – with journalist Clare Bruce, and pastor & writer David Reay. Explore all episodes.
Episode 79: “Why Does a Good God, Let Bad Things – Like Pandemics – Happen?”
CB: Well, this is a historic moment, our first episode recorded amidst a Coronavirus pandemic. So we’ve opted for the phone today. This is a strange new world of restrictions, isn’t it?
DR: It’s a strange new world but there, hopefully by discussions, we can get a little bit more clarity perhaps.
CB: Yeah, absolutely. Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about. The topic on the table is, “Why does a good God let bad things – like pandemics – happen?” And it’s such a relevant question for now, isn’t it?
DR: Yes, it is. And I suppose there’s a short answer and a long answer to it, Clare. The short answer is, “We wouldn’t have a clue!” No one has come up with an absolutely satisfactory response to any of those questions; lots of ink has been spilled on it.
[But] I think there are things that can help us adopt a perspective, and that’s all I’d be aiming for here. How can we as Christians adopt a perspective that brings God into the picture, without trying to offer neat and cliched explanations.
Is A Pandemic Worldwide Judgment?
CB: That’s good. One thing that people often ask or think, maybe depending on their religious background, or their view of God, is, “Do these bad things happen – like a virus or a natural disaster – does this mean God is punishing us for our sin? Is it sort of worldwide judgment?” What are your thoughts on that?
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DR: I don’t think that’s a helpful way of looking at it. I’m not a sentimental softy; I do think God does judge sin. There’s no doubt about that. But I think it’s far better to see pandemics, and all sorts of other things, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and so on, they’re signs of a disordered world. The world is not as it should be, because we are not as we should be. When we went wrong, we dragged the world down with us. And so we’re not the way we ought to be, nor is the created world, and because of that, these things happen.
So, in a way – “Is this a sign of, an indication of, human sin?” Well, yes, it is! But at the same time, I don’t think it’s helpful to see it as God’s specific punishment, because after all, it’s a pretty random punishment isn’t it? God has punished, in the Old Testament, certain groups of people for certain things. But this – this is worldwide. So I don’t think we’re seeing here, God punishing us. Rather, I think it’s a sign that this is a disordered world, and God is reminding us, it is a disordered world.
CB: What do you think about the thought of, “Is God teaching us lessons through bad things?” Often people, particularly people of faith, look for the opportunity to grow, and, you know, ‘character-build’ through seasons like this. What are your thoughts on whether God can use this time as a lesson?
DR: Well, I think I’d summarise it in this way: I don’t think he sends the pandemic to teach us a lesson. But he does allow it, in order that we might learn lessons. I think we can learn lessons from this, no doubt about that. All suffering, we can learn lessons from. But that’s not saying that God sends the suffering. I’m saying God is not the cause of this pandemic. It’s not as if God is sitting in heaven, saying, “Ah, I’m going to teach these wicked human beings a thing or two; so I’m going to send a pandemic; I hope they wake up to themselves.” I don’t think it’s quite as harsh as that!
But rather, I think, God, for whatever reason, is allowing this pandemic to happen in this disordered world. And as a result, he hopes, and I hope, that we learn lessons. Are the lessons to be learned? Yes. But did God send this pandemic in order to teach us a lesson? No!
Is God Really In Control?
CB: There’s a bit of a phrase that we throw around as Christians when terrible things are happening, and it can be very comforting, but it can be very glib at times. And that is, that “God is in control”. Sometimes it feels like “well, maybe there is a good God, but maybe he’s not in control of this situation”!
DR: That’s right! Look Clare, you’ve touched on an important thing, there. Not only in pandemics, but other things, we sometimes hear phrases bandied around, “God is sovereign”, “God is in control”. Now, I, for one, am in no way disputing that at all. But I want us to understand more clearly what it means. He’s not “in control” in the sense that he’s micro-managing this pandemic, or, he’s not arranging tornadoes to hit one town and miss another. I don’t think it’s quite like that.
I rather think that God is in control in a few ways.
One is, he is in control in that this doesn’t faze him or surprise him. I don’t think God has been caught by surprise by this. God will have the last word, on all this. God will finally work good out of what is happening. We must be careful, even there, not to lapse into a cliche. God will work good out of this, no doubt – but let him determine what ‘good’ is, let him define ‘good’, number one.
And number two, let him determine when that good will eventuate. It might not eventuate today or tomorrow, it might come in 10 years time, we might not even see it in our lifetime.
So yes, yes, God is in control. But I want to be very cautious about using the phrase, because I don’t want people of faith to think that because God is in control, he is the ultimate cause of these things.
He is never to be seen as the cause of evil. He is in control, in that, he’s not wringing his hands in heaven and saying, “Oh dear, what am I going to do now?” But that rather, he is looking with with tears and sadness on his broken world, and working even now to arrange good out of it. And also a very important aspect of him being in control is that, for people of faith in God, he promises to be with us no matter what; he is not going to leave us in the midst of this. He is in control in the sense that he is still overseeing our lives.
And that’s really an important comfort. We must not lapse into thoughtless clichés, as if “Oh, God is in control, therefore he’s arranging all this”, or that “God is in control, and let’s have no concern about the pandemic”. It’s not quite as simple as that.
CB: Well, that is comforting, to think of God as being sad about our suffering, and to think that he is involved, he is beside us, he is with us and he cares about us in these tough times.
DR: He really does. He certainly does. There’s another sort of a cliche here, but another phrase that we can bandy around a little bit at times: “God is all powerful”.
Now, it might sound like a heresy, but I’m challenging that. Because while I do believe God is all powerful, I do believe that in this broken and disordered world we live in that he voluntarily limits his power. Could God wipe out this pandemic tomorrow? Of course he could, no problem at all! He is all powerful! But he’s choosing not to exercise that power. He is choosing to limit his power. He could have taken Jesus down from the cross. He could heal every little child with a brain tumor. He could solve the problem of dementia tomorrow. He could do all that. He is choosing not to. Now, how and why he chooses not to as a very, very vast question. But my point is to challenge these cliches that come about; “Oh, God is sovereign, God is in control, God is all powerful”. Yes, yes, yes, all those – but they need to be carefully qualified, so that we can have a more helpful perspective on things like this pandemic.
We can’t, ostrich-like, bury our head in the sand, and just resort to phrases like that. We’ve got to thoughtfully think through what God is doing, and what God’s not doing.
CB: And just lastly, David, we talked a little bit about the lessons and the growth that can occur in times like this. What are a couple of those lessons that that you would leave us with – the types of things that we can look to try and grow in, and I guess – personal change?
DR: Some of those lessons will only be learned over time and sadly, knowing human nature, we might learn those lessons for the next month or so, and then forget all about them in a year or so!
But such lessons can include a deeper awareness of our links to the natural world. We think sometimes that we control the natural world, that we are the masters of the universe. We’re not! Nature can hit back as we’re seeing. And, I think also, the need for community. I don’t know about you, but it is so unnatural to be away from physical community. And community by phone or by zoom meetings is not really a substitute for that. No one is an island to themselves. And I think we’re really learning that.
I think there’ll be a, hopefully, an attempt on the part of our national leaders to rethink social and economic priorities. Perhaps trimming back on things we once thought essential. You know, you could be at least marginally hopeful for a less materialistic society. I don’t know, I hope we can learn such a lesson.
But also Clare, finally, I think one lesson we can learn is how grateful we can be for those who serve us. Whether it’s an aged care worker that is having to don personal protective equipment, every moment of every day; whether it’s people in the emergency services, whether it’s our government and health authorities who are wrestling with things they’ve never had to wrestle with before; whether it’s people who are just doing these lovely, neighborly things of helping one another in practical ways. I hope we can learn the lesson of gratitude. There’s so much bad stuff happening with this pandemic, that I hope we can learn there are good things happening as well.
And that ties into what I said before about God’s sovereignty. God is able to work good out of even these terrible things. Why he lets the terrible things happen, that’s a question we can’t fully answer. But when we don’t know certain things, what we have to do is to resort to what we do know, that God is faithful; that God will work good out of this; God knows what he’s doing, even if we don’t.
And yes, we can learn valuable lessons, so that this world, hopefully, prayerfully, maybe become a little bit less disordered than what it was.
CB: Awesome. Well, thank you very much for your insights once again,
DR: David. Thank you. And I hope we can do this again sometime and hopefully before too long be doing it face to face.
CB: Absolutely. Surely this won’t last forever. Thanks, David. This has been LifeWords Q&A, and if you want to send a question in that we can tackle, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.