We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God
--Romans 8:28 CEB
Things are a bit uneasy around my house these days. My two teenagers are “totally over” the boredom of the pandemic. I never thought they would get tired of video games and YouTube, but even those addictive narcotics have lost their power. They are ready to go back to school, to see their friends, to not be at home and to be away from their parents. Yet, our school system has yet to release an official plan of what will happen when school starts. No matter what plans they make, a likely COVID-19 outbreak at their schools will result in students working remotely from home again. I can already hear the disappointed groans of my teens.
I’m hearing a lot of disappointed groans as fall nears. Groans from parents disappointed their kids who are entering college won’t have the normal college experience, even though they are paying through the nose for one. Groans from restaurants and businesses looking at more months of economic uncertainty instead of recovery. Groans of senior adults trapped at home or in their retirement communities. Groans of those fortunate to still have jobs who face an endless parade of ZOOM meetings and struggles to work from home. Most of all, there are the groans of people without access to affordable health care facing the fear of getting sick and the groans of “essential workers” who must risk their lives in underpaying jobs to forestall eviction or worse.
Does God hear our groans? Whether we are disappointed teenagers or family members fearing a loved one’s death from COVID-19? Why does God allow the suffering to continue?
A few weeks ago, I preached on Romans 8 and shared it is my one of my favorite scriptures because of the hope it offers. I shared my take on Romans 8:28 which is starkly different from interpretations that boil the verse down to “everything happens for a reason.”
Sometimes there is a reason for suffering. In the present pandemic, there are lots of reasons things are not getting better, such as a misguided sense of “freedom” which entails individual choice rather than collective responsibility, failure of elected leaders to take unpopular but necessary measures, bureaucratic mismanagement and a healthcare system that puts profits above the common good. Sometimes there are no reasons that we can discern. In the current pandemic, it remains a mystery why some are susceptible to COVID-19 and others are asymptomatic carriers of it. Other times suffering comes because of chaos that by its nature is random and unpredictable. The current hurricane’s unpredictable path illustrates the point.
I don’t believe God is behind every action for good and bad. The Bible is quite clear that the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike, and often the wicked prosper while good people suffer. Plus, given the scale of suffering some people endure, if I believe God caused it, then I would question God’s morality. Why God allows suffering remains a mystery. Any reason I’ve heard for it (usually involving some appeal to free will) feels irrelevant in the moment a person experiences suffering.
Instead, I interpret Romans 8:28 to mean
Sometimes the good that comes out of bad makes up for the pain, but other times the bad remains bad and we learn wisdom from it. Either way God is at work among the suffering to bring out the best outcome possible under the circumstances, even though God alone may know what all the circumstances are.
Despite the promises of TV preachers, God never promises our lives will be free of disappointment and suffering. God does promise to be with us during it, even if we can’t sense God’s presence. God also promises to keep working to bring good out of the bad in our lives. These two promises can give us hope as we face an unknown future with COVID-19.
Joan Chittister writes,
When tragedy strikes, when trouble comes, when life disappoints us — as it surely will — we stand at the crossroads between hope and despair. To go the way of despair colors the way we look at things, makes us suspicious of the future, makes us negative about the present. It leads us to ignore the very possibilities that could save us, or worse, leads us to want to hurt as we have been hurt ourselves. When I say that I am in despair, I am really saying that I have given up on God. Despair says that I am God and if I can't do anything about this situation, then nothing and nobody can. To go the way of hope, on the other hand, takes life on its own terms, knows that whatever happens God lives in it, and expects that, whatever its twists and turns, it will ultimately yield its good to those who live it consciously, to those who live it to the hilt.
God does hear our groans, big and small, and God is at work to bring all the possible good out of our current circumstances living with the realities of COVID-19. Trust God, even if you’re having trouble sensing God’s presence. Stick with hope until we are through this time of disappointment.
Grace and Peace,
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