God, Faith, and the Pandemic

David Schoen is Minister for Church Legacy & Closure, UCC Church Building & Loan Fund, dschoen@ucc.org .

What do Americans believe about God and the Pandemic?

Is the pandemic God’s punishment for sin?
If God is in control, has everything been determined already?
Is the pandemic a sign of end times and Christ’s second coming?
How does the way we care for self, family, others, and our community show our faith?
Is there a God at all?

Has the pandemic impacted or reshaped your faith?

Early during the pandemic, The Joshua Fund, an evangelical Christian organization published a report and survey in March 2020 on “What does the Bible teach about pestilence, plagues, and global pandemics?” In their survey, they reported that of American adults; 5% said that the pandemic and economic troubles were a sign of coming judgement, 17% said they were a call to turn back to God, and 22% said they were both a sign of coming judgement and a call to turn to God. However, 47% said the pandemic and economic trouble had nothing to do with God or Biblical prophecy. Eight percent answered, ‘don’t know’.

More recently, Pew Research released a survey in November 2021 reporting “Few Americans Blame God or Say Faith Has Been Shaken Amid Pandemic, Other Tragedies”.  When asked why suffering exists: 86% said bad things just happen; 71% said people’s actions are often the reason; 69% said it’s how society is structured, and 62% said it’s an opportunity for people to come out stronger.

A large majority (80%) of adults who believe in the Biblical God, or a higher power said that most of the suffering in the world comes from people rather than from God. At the same time, half of all U.S. adults and 56% of believers also endorse the idea that God chooses not to stop the suffering in the world because it is “part of a larger plan.” Forty-four percent of all U.S. adults and 48% of believers say that “Satan is responsible for most of the suffering in the world.”

Dealing with the pandemic that has killed nearly 6 million people and other social concerns these past years, 23% of U.S. adults said they have mulled “a lot” over the topics of the meaning of life, suffering, and why bad things happen to people. The survey discovered, however, that “relatively few Americans seem to question their religious beliefs.”

You can count me in to the 23% who have thought a lot about my understanding of suffering and life.  The pandemic, as well as societal, political, and environmental concerns, has led me to examine and question my understanding of God and my faith. It has been hard at times during the pandemic years to reconcile such suffering with the words of Psalm 27 ‘I believe that I shall see the goodness of God (Yahweh) in the land of the living.’ Reflecting on faith questions is for me part of what we as individuals and a community of believers are called to do. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I believe that is true of faith as well.

Source: Photo by Deb Dowd on Unsplash. Image: Praying hands statue.

Two theologians wrote books in 2020 exploring Biblical faith and the pandemic: God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath by N.T. Wright and Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief and Uncertainty by Walter Brueggemann.  A review of both books was written in Christian Century by Jason A. Mahn in which he notes that both authors “resist easy answers to the problem of suffering.”

Central to Wright is Paul’s language in Romans 8 of humans groaning together with the entire creation as the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. Not only do we, as believers, not have words to say, any great pronouncements on what this all means to the world; but we find ourselves caught up in the groaning of creation and discover that at the same time God the Spirit is groaning within us. “That is our discipleship: to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain.”

Wright looks at Romans 8:28 (NSRV) “All things work together for good to those who love God.” This text in these times could uphold that God is in complete control and so things will work out fine. I appreciate however that Wright interpreted and translated Romans as “God works all things to ultimate good with and through those who love God.” We are called to be “sign-producers for God’s kingdom….to set up signposts – actions, symbols, not just words of new creation, of healing for the sick, of food for the hungry and so on.”

Not surprising to those who know Brueggemann’s writing, Walter also speaks of lamenting. He focuses on the necessity of groaning, but he also addresses the dangers of doing so. The self-concern that laments express can also “become self-consuming and refuse the reorientation that comes from reimagining our relationship with a wholly free God… a mysterious other whose freedom and power transcend anything manageable or handy.” 

Groans of pain are a faithful posture that reflect the loss of control of former ways and the letting go of the old dysfunctional creation to wait for newness. Brueggemann describes God’s new creation as a “new network of care”, a new world of justice, mercy, compassion, peace, and security. Our groans “are the very sounds of expectancy and receptivity to its coming—a kind of dissonant harmony between lament and hope that is sung out somehow, somewhere between the painful undoing of our culture of domination and our having been reordered for neighborliness.” We can glimpse the real presence of God both hidden and revealed in these times of pandemic without imagining God is the cause of it.

Have the pandemic and these times impacted your faith?

Not all my questions are answered. But through questioning, praying, listening, and groaning, I believe that we prepare and attune ourselves to the possibility of newness in the world and in ourselves. It is comforting and encouraging that in such groaning, we are not alone.

2 thoughts on “God, Faith, and the Pandemic

  1. Thank you so much, Taylor–a very thoughtful and helpful piece. The statistics are interesting, but it is your theological acumen that is blessing me this morning.

    Liked by 1 person

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