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Is God Silent on the Suffering of COVID-19?

By Yuhang Zhang

Within the Christian tradition, the believer’s petition to God captures a promise: Ask, and it will be given to you. This pattern of call-and-response reverberates across Scripture, one of the basest chords upon which the entire harmony between God and man is built. The enslaved in Egypt, the blind man in the temple, the disciples surrounded by storm—their cries mingle in despair, and their voices come before God in His temple. Indeed, “desire directed towards God is the only power capable of raising the soul … [it] alone draws God down. He only comes to those who ask him to come; and he cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often, and ardently."[1]

Yet, this harmony often rings hollow, a series of empty chords clinking lonely, as note after note is replaced with the echo of God’s silence. There are plenty of people calling – long, aching calls; often, battered by wave after wave of pain; ardently, often sustained until death takes over. Why is God silent? Why has God been silent? What could God even say?

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged not only human bodies, but it has hollowed out the centers of modern civilization, leaving husks of empty buildings and monuments. It has left families destitute, killed hundreds of thousands, and severely destabilized the First World while entrenching the Third. It sweeps invisible, covering everything with a fine dust that lingers invisible in some, manifests fatally in others.

What can we, as humans, do with this extreme suffering, and how can it be reconciled with God? A branch of Christian apologetics—theodicy—seeks to answer these questions. The center of the problem is that God is supposedly good and omnipotent, or all-powerful, and yet evil still exists within the world. With common definitions of those three traits of God and existence, there becomes a significant contradiction which seems to necessitate that one of them is false.

One answer to this problem is posed by the author Simone Weil. She states that for God to be who He claims to be, Creation must recognize it isn’t what it desires itself to be. The questions that drive theodicy hinge upon human life having a norm and a deviancy. The norm is taken to be a peaceful, joyous existence; the deviancy is violence, pain, death, and non-existence. Instead of that paradigm, Weil suggests that Creation possesses an inherently deficient ontology, and that “God permitted the existence of things distinct from himself and worth infinitely less than himself.”[2]

And so, the deviancy is the norm. Without God’s active self-denial in sustaining Creation, there is no possibility of joy and peace for it. Rather, there is only a singular perfection in the Trinity, and everything outside of it is necessarily dust. It is because of the nature of our existence that we must suffer—the non-suffering self cannot exist outside of God.

One thing that distinguishes a pandemic from, say, a hurricane or a terrorist attack, is that it amplifies the extremity of human suffering, not solely death. Suffering brings to the forefront the question of existence—is an existence plagued by suffering better than that of non-existence? Does the consent of the existed ever come into play?

The Book of Job in Scripture is one of the most profound, and difficult, meditations upon the existence and persistence of suffering. In response to Job’s petition and pleas, God not only establishes His identity as creator, ruler, caretaker, etc., but also establishes Job’s identity as a created, deficient being. And yet, despite Job’s status, Job is in the right. In his writings on Job, Danish theologian Kierkegaard writes:

“The secret in Job, the vital force, the nerve, the idea, is that Job, despite everything, is in the right. On the basis of this position, he qualifies as an exception to all human observations, and his perseverance and power manifest authority and authorization… He affirms that he is on good terms with God; he knows he is innocent and pure in the very core of his being, where he also knows it before the Lord, and yet all the world refutes him. Job’s greatness is that freedom’s passion in him is not smothered or quieted down by a wrong expression.”[3]

This reading is synchronous with Scripture. Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” and even before God, he does not deny this truth. Yet, Kierkegaard goes further—not only is Job righteous, but he does not let his “freedom’s passion” become “smothered”.

Who but God comes close to smothering Job’s passion? His wife tempts his faithfulness to God; Job responds with indignant righteousness. His friends take turns convincing him of his sin; Job responds, “I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” Job is good, God is just, Job’s suffering is real, and God is good. He believes it all.

But when the Lord speaks from the whirlwind, Job pauses. Does he truly dare to darken the counsel of the Lord? Does he truly believe he understands the ordinances of the heavens—he, a human, contending with the Almighty?

For Kierkegaard, Job pauses, but continues. Just as Abraham asked, “Does God command murder?”, and continued without the answer, Job takes the step of faith forward. He takes the step into irreconcilable opposition, into the ordeal:

“Job continues to take the position that he is in the right. He does it in such a way that he thereby witnesses to the noble, human, bold confidence that knows what a human being is, knows that despite his being frail, despite his swift withering away like the flower, that in freedom he still has something of greatness, has a consciousness that even God cannot wrest from him even though he gave it to him. Furthermore, Job maintains his position in such a way that in him are manifest the love and trust that are confident that God can surely explain everything if one can only speak with him.”[4]

It is irreconcilable—everything in Job’s life points to the inexplicable fact that God has let so much suffering and evil happen. Yet, Job also knows God’s character, and he knows his own character. Within this, Job trusts God to reconcile the humanly irreconcilable—and He does.

How do we translate this into a theodical approach towards the disasters of the world today? I think that the key is delineating our role as humans, compared to God’s role as a sustainer. Not only are we given the green light to present our sufferings and pains towards God, but this is also in some ways a necessity. There is no logical human construction of God that can bear the weight of inexplicable suffering, and yet there is no bearing of that suffering without a God.

[1] Simone Weil, Love In the Void: Where God Finds Us (Walden: Plough Publishing House, 2018), 8.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, 71., 2017

[4] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, 208

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