Like many of you, I was horrified when I saw this headline in The New York Times last week: “When You Die of the Coronavirus, You Die Alone.”
Although the newspaper has since changed the headline – it now reads “I’m on the Front Lines. I Have No Plan for This” to undoubtedly soften the blow of Dr. Daniela J. Lamas’ dismal account of her experiences at a Boston I.C.U. – the original sentiment still haunts me. No one wants to hear stories of patients who spend their final moments in total isolation, away from not only their loved ones, but also from the medical workers who might otherwise provide some form of comfort.
Nevertheless, such is the nature of this virus. Incredibly contagious and devastatingly taxing on patients’ abilities to breathe and communicate – especially when ventilator machines make it impossible for patients to talk – there is no other way for hospitals to responsibly handle the situation.
This devastating reality left me with many questions. At first, I only asked questions about medicine and proper healthcare practices, but soon, my mind started to wander to bigger issues. I thought about family, about love, about death, but most importantly, I thought about the biggest question of all: Who is the God that allows this to happen?
As I lack both the audacity and the wisdom to answer this question in good conscience, I will not attempt to do so. Therefore, I will attempt to seek some clarity through the tools at my disposal: God’s revealed word in scripture.
Before I begin, however, I would like to posit this thought: the loneliness that accompanies this pandemic is not a new phenomenon. Although Dr. Lamas’ warnings of “dying alone” – in addition to the overall issue of “social isolation” and its implications for those who live by themselves – present an extreme example of loneliness, it is no secret that the scourge of loneliness plagued our society long before any of us heard the term “COVID-19.”
Indeed, numerous studies from the past several years identify what some call the “Loneliness Epidemic.” According to some surveys, almost half of Americans “report sometimes or always feeling alone.” This response might come as a surprise in our era of increased connectivity – after all, you can call or message anyone, anywhere with the click of a button – but mental health specialists note that social media use has a strong relationship to increased feelings of stress, social anxiety, and loneliness.
In a certain sense, this epidemic is just as bad as our current pandemic. The CDC found that “suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016,” and even as rates fall around the world, suicide is now the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of ten and thirty-four. In 2018 alone, almost 50,000 Americans took their own lives. It is no wonder that more than half of us report having been affected by suicide in some way.
With this in mind, then, I return to my question: who is the God that allows this to happen?
Of course, these facts now make it even harder to answer this question. However, I believe that God’s word is thorough enough to provide the guidance we need.
To begin, I will turn to the Jewish liturgical calendar. This week’s reading includes selections from Jeremiah that stand out as particularly relevant to our discussion of God’s character against the backdrop of devastating loneliness. Unlike other parts of the Bible that offer blanket reassurances of God’s protection, God does not mince any words in his message to the doomed people of Judah. Instead, God speaks candidly about the reality of human suffering, and specifically about the coming Babylonian invasion:
“Assuredly, a time is coming – declares the Lord – when men shall no longer speak of Topheth or the Valley of Ben-hinnom, but of the Valley of Slaughter… I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin” (Jeremiah 7:32-34).
God’s declaration here is certainly not the sort of feel-good message that one might expect from a benevolent creator. Fortunately, however, God soon provides a more familiar promise of hope:
“Thus said the Lord: let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory: in his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight – declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:22-23).
Still, you might wonder how you can trust such an uplifting promise of “kindness, justice, and equity” in the face of all the aforementioned promises of death, pain, and ruin. I frequently wonder this myself – especially when all around me I see millions of my fellow Americans both living and dying alone and afraid.
Nevertheless, I refuse the temptation to reject God’s promise. In fact, I would argue that God’s blunt description of human suffering and destruction does not detract from his ultimate benevolence, but instead reinforces it.
Consider this: would you prefer a God who refuses to acknowledge the reality of suffering, and instead only offers vague reassurances of happiness, to a God who directly engages with it? Would you prefer a Bible that reads like a fairytale, consisting of only positive stories, to one that realistically depicts the tragedies of human existence?
It is only through His initial acknowledgment of pain that God’s promise makes any sense. If God ignored all suffering – or magically snapped his metaphorical fingers to make it all go away, as all of us desire on some level – nothing would ever change: the wise man would spend eternity glorifying in his own wisdom; the strong man would always have the strength to take advantage of others; and the rich man would do nothing but bask in his own riches. “Kindness, justice, and equity” would all mean nothing, for life itself would be nothing but stasis.
Of course, this does not mean that suffering is good. Loneliness, pain, loss – these are all terrible realities that have very real implications for each and every one of us. What it does mean is that the God worth following is the God who provides the solution to life’s tragedies. This is the God who “delight[s]” not in pain, but in the final victory of “kindness, justice, and equity.”
Our God is not magically above the effects of suffering, death, and physical and emotional pain; he shines and operates directly through them. If He truly did not care for humanity, Jesus could have left us to our own devices and spent eternity in heaven glorifying in his own endless wisdom, strength, and riches. Fortunately, however, God adheres to the same commands that he gave us in Jeremiah: for reasons I will never fully understand, He left his exalted throne and sacrificed Himself to give us the eternal life we do not deserve.
If all else is false, let this be true: our God does not let us suffer alone; he suffers alongside us. With God, no one has to live or die alone, and no one has to live or die in vain. There is a reason why Jesus did not comply when one of the criminals dying next to Him challenged, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). Jesus knew of what was to come in just three days’ time: the Resurrection, the final defeat of death, and the ultimate victory of God.
“Truly,” Jesus instead declared, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:40). I pray that, when the world gives us nothing but pain and loneliness, we might all hope for the day when we hear those words from the mouth of God Himself.
*The author’s full name has been omitted for privacy reasons.
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