Making Sense of Suffering, Death, and Global Pandemics

The world has changed dramatically over the past few months. Well over a million people have COVID-19 and tens of thousands have died from it. In many ways, life will never be the same again. Many people are scratching their heads, asking big questions, and searching for answers. This is a good thing. If you are in that category, then I have good news. The Bible has answers. And what we find in the Bible is not in any way trite or simplistic. Rather, the message of the Bible is encouraging, realistic, enlightening and it is most helpful in the sense that it points us to the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Here is just an introduction to what the Bible teaches about suffering, death, and global pandemics.

First, we live in a fallen, sinful world. The sin of Adam and Eve and the fall of man (Genesis 3) had devastating consequences. There is not an hour that goes by where we don’t feel the effects of the fall. When someone gets cancer, it is because of the fall. When war breaks out, it is because of the fall. And when thousands die in the midst of a global pandemic, it is because of the fall. This side of heaven, we cannot escape sin and its effects.

Second, as Christians we need to grieve with those who grieve and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Suffering and death are sobering realities in this world and the last thing we want to do is live in denial. Sooner or later they are going to touch us in some way or another. Therefore, it is critically important for the church to be the church. We want to be there for one another and to seek to find ways to minister to one another (Galatians 6:9-10), which in turn serve as a powerful testimony to the watching world (John 13:34-35).

Third, God is sovereign and governs the affairs of the world according to his purposes. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:9-10). How silly it would be to think we could understand all the ways and purposes of God (Isaiah 55:8-9). Finite minds cannot comprehend the infinite, but we can have absolute faith and confidence that God is in control, knows exactly what he is doing in our own lives and around the globe.

Fourth, God is just and merciful. There are times where God acts in such a way to judge nations and peoples. In a Bible study several years ago, I was teaching through the Old Testament book of Hosea. The prophet was preaching to a people on the brink of judgment and was warning his people (the northern kingdom of Israel) that if they did not repent and turn back to God, they would be judged. History tells us that they were conquered by the Assyrians and sent into exile around the time of the prophet’s death.

The point is that those who do evil will be judged by God; if not in the present life, then most certainly in the afterlife. But we must always remember that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8). Time and time again in the Scriptures we see this. After sinning by taking the census David said, “Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (1 Chronicles 21:13). Following tragedy, we often hear that it was a miracle that more people did not die. But the Christian already knows why – the mercy of God.

Fifth, in the midst of pain and suffering, God ministers to those in need in remarkable ways. Only those who have gone through the fire truly know this. As the apostle Paul testifies, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

As Paul reminds us, God often ministers through His body, the church. History has shown that Christian’s are often on the front lines of mercy and relief efforts around the world. As ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we are to be reflectors of God’s mercy to the world.

Sixth, God often uses suffering to sanctify his people. “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). We don’t always like this, but God knows we need it and that’s why we can rejoice in our suffering. James puts it this way: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

Seventh, in the midst of suffering and evil, we must remember to give glory to God. Job, the epitome of suffering, is a great example of this. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). We must remember that God is the Giver of all good things (James 1:17) and He does all things well (Mark 7:37).

Way back in 1758, one of my hero’s of the faith, Jonathan Edwards died from a smallpox vaccination at the age of 54. His wife Sarah responded to his death in a letter to one of her daughters. “My very dear child, what shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be. Your ever affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards.”

Eighth, the reality of evil and suffering make us long all the more for heaven. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Who wouldn’t want that?

Ninth, God suffered Himself. This is the most important point because it shows us the way of salvation. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ suffered and died! Therefore, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). Through his suffering, Christ defeated sin, death, and Satan. In essence, He conquered the powers of evil. He did not leave us in our helpless, sinful estate, but rescued and delivered us from the domain of darkness.

This last point is what separates Christianity from all other world religions. In no other religion do you find a leader who enters into suffering like the God of the Bible. But that is the power of the gospel. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Praise God!

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