In a recent column, I wrote about people turning towards religion and faith in these difficult times. At the same time, there are those who are suffering new doubts. I heard an interview recently with a pastor who was questioning present realities and asking “Where is God?”
Maybe we can begin by asking where God is not. Some people insist that this pandemic is like the punishment of the Egyptians in the biblical plagues or, as medieval people also claimed, the anger of God coming down on a sinful world. These claims don’t make much sense unless you believe in an angry and vengeful God who just likes to wipe out massive numbers of innocent people to get at the bad ones who might be among them. Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, chapter 13, is asked about the sin of the people who were killed in an accident where a tower fell at Siloam. This must have been a news event on his listeners’ minds, like tragedies of our own times.
His response is to say that these people weren’t any worse than anyone else. He goes on to say everyone should just look to their own sins. If God made the world to function on its own, then sometimes things are bound to go wrong. We have almost all prayed for someone who was ill and they died anyway, or prayed for a certain good thing to happen and it didn’t. Mature people of faith know that the world is much more complicated than just having everything work out the way I want it to, every time and in every way.
What God does say is that whatever happens, we can hang on in strength and trust. There is a popular meme on the internet that claims that the bible says “Do not be afraid,” or some variation on that sentiment, exactly 365 times. Of course, those who have attempted to verify this haven’t been able to get anywhere near that number. But it is there often enough to show us that God really wants us not to be fearful. It is summed up well in Isaiah, where God says “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.”
As for Jesus, he says several times “Do not be afraid” in real situations like in a boat on a stormy sea. Certainly many people feel like they’re on a stormy sea, tossing and turning, right now.
That does not mean that we just throw caution to the wind and are never afraid of anything. The same God says to love your neighbor as yourself. Statistics on the pandemic have shown us how easily we can endanger others and how small acts of care or carelessness affect a wide circle. God wants us to set aside paralyzing fear that keeps us from doing the right thing, or fear that causes us to turn on others with bigotry or aggressive violence, not fear of a devastating virus or fear of the effects of war or climate change.
While Jesus tries to instill courage in his disciples in his lifetime, his message changes somewhat after he conquers death. Three times after his resurrection, but not before, he says “Peace be with you!” Now he can assure them in a new way that, although there are plenty of stormy seas of which they might still be afraid, he can promise them some peace in their hearts. The last thing he says before his ascension is “Know that I am with you always.” So where is God in everything you might be feeling right now, whether it’s sadness from losses or joy from the hope of better days to come? God is where God always is: right with you.