There is probably not a single person in the past several weeks who has been left unaffected in some way by the spread of the virus called COVID-19, otherwise known as coronavirus. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the end is quite in sight yet. People are continuing to die, lose their jobs, have their normal routines disrupted, be kept separate from their loved ones that are most vulnerable, and miss out on significant life events, like graduations. As a result, it isn’t surprising to learn that many are wondering where God is at in all of this or asking why God is letting something so destructive have such a strong hold on our world. In some cases, you may even hear people suggest that God might have directly caused this disease in order to punish humanity for its sins. If any of these difficult questions have crossed your mind, let’s explore the answers together.
I think that the best place to start with questions of this sort is to reflect on what causes suffering in the first place and, then, on the nature of suffering itself. If we take a look at where everything started – the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament – we learn that suffering and death entered the world as a result of humanity’s choice to disobey God. Because of this choice, a world that God had intended to never know the pain death was suddenly introduced to it. All of creation, while still retaining its overall goodness, began to decay and express disorder. Had humanity never fallen, we probably never would have even heard of, or experienced, something like COVID-19.
That being said, we must be very clear here: the entrance of sin and death into creation did not, and does not, bring God pleasure. God did not desire this for us. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that God created the world in the first place because God is good and loving and, by their very nature, love and goodness are things that look and extend beyond themselves; they create. Think of a married couple! They love each other and, as a result of this love, often bring children into the world. Goodness and love simply don’t destroy, exploit, or damage like sin does. Keep in mind that God is a perfect, complete being. If something is perfect, there is nothing that you can add or subtract to it to improve it or make it better. This means that God’s decision to create all that there is must be an entirely selfless and truly benevolent act because it wasn’t possible for Him to gain or benefit from it.
I hope that this makes it very clear that God, as a being of love and goodness that has selflessly gifted us our lives and the world that we live in, is simply not capable of causing evil, desiring evil, or taking pleasure in evil. This, of course, includes human suffering and the disorder that sin has brought into creation. None of these things brings God pleasure!
Why does a good God allow suffering?
Although God doesn’t like suffering, we clearly see it all the time in our world, like thousands dying from COVID-19. Why is this? It must be acknowledged that, while God does not cause suffering and evil, He does, in his mysteriousness, permit evil. As human beings, we will never fully understand God’s reasoning for this, but we can absolutely scrape the surface. For example, the great thinker St. Ambrose of Milan reasoned that God, again, as a being of love and goodness, would only permit sin when He could use it to bring about something greater. In other words, God can use sin as a tool to accomplish good things and further His plans for humanity. And, if we spend time reading Sacred Scripture, we can see that this is very clearly true time and time again.
For example, Moses and the Israelites wandered and suffered in the desert for forty years because of their sinful rejections of God. This is clearly not something that God wanted for them. But, God was able to use their miserable experiences in the desert to slowly teach the Israelites the dangers of sin and to rely upon Him more fully. I think we can see this exact theme most clearly when we take a look at Christ’s death. A completely innocent man being murdered through hanging him on a cross is objectively evil, wrong, and sinful. God did not want any of the people — whether it be Judas or Roman officials, that were involved in killing Jesus — to sin. God also did not want Christ to suffer. But, through Christ’s death, God brought about the salvation of humanity, opened the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven, conquered death, and made it possible for humanity to have eternal life. If God is capable of bringing goodness out of bad situations like these, He can, and will, bring it out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a clarification, we must be very careful in how we understand these realities. It would not be good to tell someone who is suffering, or has suffered, through something like the effects COVID-19, or another tragedy, not to be upset because God will bring something good out of it. This is because the good that God will inevitably bring out of suffering, evil, and sin may not always be something that is immediately, or ever, evident to us. It is not good to minimize the difficult parts of life as if they were ultimately meaningless, because that simply isn’t true. It also is not good to treat sin and death as insignificant just because God can later bring something good out of it. When God created humanity, He didn’t desire for us to experience death. So, although God can bring good out of suffering, that doesn’t make the suffering itself good. God takes no pleasure in our suffering and would have been much happier to never have had to bring good out of it at all. Think about all the Israelites, such as Moses, that died before entering the Promised Land. We can be honest and say that this, and other sufferings that the Israelites endured in the desert, truly, are very sad and worthy of mourning. This is genuinely sad because the Israelites had to suffer in the desert for forty years. God didn’t want this for them. It is also sad because so many of them never got to experience, at least during their earthly lives, one of the most significant good and beautiful things that was brought out of their suffering. Again, God didn’t want this for them. I’ll say it one last time: God takes no pleasure in our suffering and didn’t want humanity to experience it.
But, as always, we must find balance. Don’t be afraid to lean into your sufferings, mourn, truly feel the pain that they bring you, and allow them to sanctify you. Christ suffered immensely during his earthly life, so, when we suffer, we are becoming increasingly like Christ. This said, don’t let these sorrows completely overtake you. Despite all the sufferings and sadness that we all experience during our lives, God loves each and every one of us through every single moment of it. Suffering is not something that God wants for us and, one day will lift it from our shoulders entirely. St. Thomas More once said, “There is no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” This is absolutely true. Sadness, pain, and sin are all parts of a world that is passing away; their time is running out. Ultimately, God has already conquered sin and death. He’s won the battle for us! Don’t forget this amidst all the suffering you see in the world or you might just miss God transform it into something beautiful.