Life in the Midst of a Pandemic
Over the last three weeks, I have worked from home, talking with people over the telephone or by FaceTime. Nobody is unaffected by this virus. In fact, many of us feel as if we are adrift in an ocean of uncertainty because of this pandemic. It is this not knowing that stokes the negative emotions and confusing thoughts within us. We are all of us being squeezed, and what comes out may either surprise us or leave us dismayed: anxiety, suspiciousness, helplessness, anger or rage, the need to blame, the wish to ignore or deny, the desire to lash out at whatever or whomever we suspect is responsible.
On the other hand, many find this time to be an invitation to re-think their lives, to reconsider their actual priorities as opposed to their idealized ones. Many turn toward the Transcendent, toward God. Depending upon the individual and the dynamics within, this may bring untold peace or it may stir up anger: “If God loves us, why doesn’t He stop this NOW?!” Their conclusion may be that God does not exist or else there would be intervention. Others may be forced to admit that if God exists, He is either not as benevolent as many claim or else He is powerless.
During moments like this, I draw not only on my clinical psychological or psychoanalytic training and experience, but my pastoral and theological background as well. I realize it may be impossible to draw the boundary between soul and spirit, but typically, matters that exist beyond the purview of scientific discovery, by definition, fall into the realm of faith. I would like to try to integrate a couple issues of faith with psychological/ psychoanalytic discovery in order to create some space for us to think about what we are experiencing. I offer up two matters: 1) the apocalyptic literature in the Bible, and 2) the problem of evil itself. I talk with people from many religious backgrounds, so I hope what I share may be applicable in some way to everyone.
All of the monotheistic faiths include apocalyptic literature in their Scriptures. That certainly is true of my Christian faith. About the time my mind began to grasp the scope and nature of this virus (I did not want to believe it was as deadly as it was being claimed — part of my coping strategy I guess), I recall thinking about the “bowls of wrath” in the book of Revelation (chapter 16). For many Christians, this book simply leaves us scratching our heads and saying, “Huh?” But within its pages are vivid images of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the beast out of the sea and the beast out of the earth, the dragon who attempts to kill the child, and more. One poignant passage reveals the cries of those who had been martyred for their faith:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed” (Revelation 5:9-11, NIV).
Here we see that the human demand for justice, for making things right, transcends the grave, and those who had suffered are being comforted and told to wait. The remainder of this apocalyptic book describes the cosmic battle between good and evil, with evil eventually being vanquished.
This book, the Revelation of St. John, was intended to give comfort and encouragement, especially to those who were being persecuted by Emperor Domition, who ruled between AD 81-96. In fact, the church faced periodic episodes of harassment from the time of Christ’s crucifixion until Emperor Constantine in AD 311. When St. John penned his Revelation, Domition was emperor. All of the apostles had already been executed by the state except John, who was exiled to the isle of Patmos off the coast of modern day Turkey. But in this complex message, John deals with issues of injustice, battles against a demonic and supernatural realm, and ultimately, describes the battles’ end and a new earth, giving the persecuted hope. His is a message of life in the midst of persecution, but it seems applicable to life in the midst of a pandemic. He did not understate the nature of the suffering and the evil facing them, nor did he overstate the great hope that would sustain them. In the end, John wrote, we overcome! So he encourages us to hope, to trust, to remain constant, to endure. That’s life in the midst of a persecution. That’s life in the middle of a pandemic.
The Problem of Evil
Secondly, the problem of evil always haunts us. It is presented in different ways: if God exists, why does He allow such suffering and evil to continue? If God is all-benevolent, why doesn’t He get involved in our lives and rescue us from the horrors we must face? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He show it: stand up to the cosmic Bully who keeps bringing misery and death into our world? For some, these questions leave them completely vacant. They give up on the idea of God, or at least on the idea of a perfect, loving, omnipotent God. They experience him as the supreme Abandoning Parent or worse, the Negligent Parent or Abusive Parent (in which they hold God accountable for causing the suffering).
In seminary, I took a course entitled, “The Problem of Evil.” I recall an essay by a skeptic, who satirically described the pains to which God went when He sent the flood during Noah’s day, to preserve the mosquito, bacteria, and life-forms that cause us pain. Such theological and philosophical notions can become the rocks against which many have shipwrecked their faith and their hope, and have wound up living hollow, if not cynical lives.
For those who want to hold on to their faith in the Transcendent, as an all-loving, all-powerful, personal God, but who want to do so with their eyes wide open, we must not shove these doubts below, afraid to face them. The truth is that for every doubt about the existence of a loving, personal, and powerful God, we have even stronger assertions to bolster us. Near the top of the list is the notion of creation itself. No one has successfully argued that something comes from nothing … and those who tell you they can prove such a thing have deceived themselves, possibly for psychological reasons (e.g., their need not to believe in a God). In the end, it is not a matter of whether or not you will have faith; it is a matter of where you choose to put that faith.
So, what does that have to do with this modern day evil, this pandemic which has at the time of this writing, afflicted 1,536,979 people globally (that we know of), leaving 91,783 dead? Unless we simply want to avoid facing the meaning of such an evil being spread across our world, we must ask ourselves some rather pointed questions. One such question is this: What are we to make of such suffering? Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, physicians, and serious-minded people everywhere from all times have wrestled with this notion. Here are some of the responses:
1) Suffering can lead to the elimination of the unimportant or the superficial. It can purge us;
2) Suffering can lead to a focus on that which is eternal, to push us to look beyond the shores of this life;
3) Suffering can lead to a broadened and deepened capacity to be loving and empathic toward others;
4) Suffering can train us to lean upon and experience God, the Transcendent One, in our daily lives in order to teach us to abide in Him.
5) Suffering requires us to tolerate mystery, to live without answers and explanations, which forces us to acknowledge our limitedness, our humanity.
I am certain you may have other ideas as well.
About ten years ago, I explored the meaning of suffering from the perspective of my Catholic brothers and sisters. Catholics have tended to look on suffering in a way that I, in my Protestant worldview, had not. I write this today, in the middle of Holy Week, because it is the perfect time to make this point so vividly. Catholics speak of the “way of the Cross,” that just as Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and rose again, we too will follow that path perhaps over and over again across our lives. In other words, Christ’s suffering and resurrection points us to the most important realities in life’s journey: we will suffer and die, yet we will resurrect, stronger. While most of us are certainly up for resurrection, the kicker is that the only way to reach it is through death. Our lives on earth force us through many sufferings, deaths, and resurrections. Who knows how many times this has happened in your life! We are in the middle of one such round right now. For many Christians, this leaves us feeling a unity, a solidarity with Christ, who faced the evil and overcame.
We too will overcome, though we suffer now.
Blessings to you in the midst of this crisis!