Updated: Jun 17, 2020
OK, so I thought I'd come up with pretty much all the puzzle pieces when I wrote The puzzle of suffering #3. But still Covid-19 keeps going and causes suffering across the world. Reading back over parts 1-3, I don't think there was enough compassion in them. Certainly there is love and hope there, but probably not enough empathy.
I speak of suffering in terms of a jigsaw puzzle where Christians have some but not all of the pieces. If you're starting here, check out The puzzle of suffering #1 and The puzzle of suffering #2 first.
Jesus wept. Every teenager knows that verse. It's the shortest verse in the Bible, But why did Jesus weep? Here's the context of that action in John 11.35. Lazarus has died and Jesus proclaimed, "I am the resurrection and the life." Jesus is just about to raise Lazarus from the dead. And yet, he weeps. Why does he bother to do that? He knows he can and will raise him and yet, he weeps: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 'Where have you laid him?' he asked. 'Come and see, Lord,' they replied. Jesus wept." He weeps when he sees Mary and the others crying. He cries with them. Even though Jesus knows the answer. Even though Jesus can put more pieces in the puzzle of suffering than I could ever do, he puts one piece in - that of the resurrection - then he cries with them. And the people get it, because they say, "See how he loved him!" How does Jesus feel about people dying in care homes or in hospitals or at home? He weeps. And we should weep with people too.
Prayer. Christians are not on our own, helpless in the face of Coronavirus, we can cry out to Jesus in prayer. Pray for an end to Covid-19. Pray for healing. Pray for protection for the most vulnerable in the world. Pray for protection for the carers. God says in 2 Chronicles 7.13-14: "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." God will bring healing in response to our turning and calling out to him. In Philippians 4.5-6, Paul reminds his readers: "The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." In Genesis 18.16-33, Abraham pleads for God to have mercy on Sodom. Again and again, Abraham pleads. We should not be afraid but be pleading with God again and again to have mercy on a world ravaged by Covid-19.
To live is Christ, to die is gain. In the face of a pandemic bringing suffering close to home for many of us, It is difficult to remember and believe what Paul writes in Philippians 1,21. He goes on to explain: "If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body." Paul is torn between living (to be a blessing to others) and dying, because he sees that death 'to be with Christ' is 'better by far'. We rightly mourn when people suffer and die with Covid-19 but at the right time, we need to be heard to say, with Paul, that death is better by far. There is the better hope of resurrection to be with our Saviour and Lord forever in a place where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev.21.4). I pray that we come to realise that 'to die is gain.'
Those are the thirteen pieces I can put into the puzzle of suffering. There are certainly more pieces to be found, but can I ask you: "How would you explain suffering?" If you don’t believe in God, is everything that happens random and meaningless? Is there no one who can put a stop to suffering long-term? No one who is with us all the time, even in isolation? No all-powerful being to cry out to in our distress? No plan for us through Covid-19? And no hope after death? And for people who have caused dreadful suffering then died, is there really no judgement, no reckoning? Is that really a better answer? If you do believe in God, are you remembering the hope in Christ that you have for eternity and that it is 'better by far'?
The Bible talks of a good God who is close to us, who works through suffering, even going as far as to send his Son, Jesus, to die on a cross, to fulfil his plan to bring suffering people home to be with him for eternity. I look forward to the day when I see the completed picture.
Dave Thornton is author of 'Raising the Bar: Nearly everything you need to know about Christian youth ministry'. Find out more here.