by Peter Gathje
…I know this is not simply an intellectual question… the response (not the answer) comes in how I live, in my journey of faith, hope, and love in continuing openness to God.
“When is the virus going to be over?” My four-year old regularly asks me this question. Her world has been upended. She misses her school friends from Pre-K. It closed early and went ‘online,’ supplemented by homeschooling my partner did with her. The Children’s Museum, along with its splash pad, is closed. City parks with their swing sets, slides, and monkey bars are closed. The Zoo is open, but not the wading pool where she swam last summer. I do not know how all of this is going to affect her for the long run, but for now, she is wrestling with the strangeness of the times, as we all are.
I am trained as a theologian. I teach at Memphis Theological Seminary. Some people expect me to have answers to questions like, “Where is God in the midst of this pandemic?” Or as my daughter more practically puts it, “Why doesn’t God stop this virus?”
There are a multitude of books to read and classes to take in response to that theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil). Why DOES God permit evil? As a professor, I think those books are worth reading and those classes are worth taking.
But as a person of faith, I know this is not simply an intellectual question. Rather these are questions of the heart, of the spiritual life: Who is God and what is my relationship with God? These are questions for which the response (not the answer) come in how I live, in my journey of faith, hope, and love in continuing openness to God.
I recently read a short but powerful book by Pierre Wolff, May I Hate God?, that takes on those spiritual questions. Rather than try to figure out God in the midst of evil and
suffering, Wolff urges me to take my anger and confusion right into my prayer, right into my relationship with God. In other words, be truthful in my spiritual life! He writes, “when we think we are accusing God… in reality God is sorrowfully questioning the world through us.” In my Christian faith this means that when Jesus on the cross cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” he affirmed his faith that God is on the side of deliverance, not death; compassion, not crucifixion; salvation, not shameful execution.
This takes the question of God out of my head and into the practice of my life. The question of God and of spiritual health is the question of what am I going to risk my life for? Do I submit to the powers of hatred and death, or do I resist and draw upon the powers of love and life? Do I give my life in compassionate service and struggle for justice or do I seek more control over my life and the lives of others? Will I live with delight in the gifts of life or with a grim determination to dominate others?
As I face those questions, I find that I have to be continuously reminded to make the choice for love and compassion and delight. Two spiritual disciplines help me remember best, and foster spiritual health. First, I need to take time for silence, for meditation, for prayer, for writing, for reflective reading. I need to breathe in the strength of love and breathe out my fears. Second, I need to get out of myself. I need to reach out to people who are hurting in some way and share life with them.
In these spiritual disciplines, I honestly face the reality that death shapes much of the world. Human history is full of epidemics, and injustices. But I also embrace the reality that to live for love is all that makes life worthwhile, and even brings joy from time to time. As Camus wrote in The Plague, “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.” To live an ordinary, modest life, given in love in the face of death, that’s where God is, that’s where the human spirit flourishes, that is spiritual health.
“When is the virus going to be over?”
“I don’t know. I love you.”