Broken Bread

COVID-19 and a theology of suffering

Instead of giving simplistic explanations of unexplainable things to those who are going through pain, loss, and suffering, let us offer salvation by faith and hope in a loving God.

The Covid-19 pandemic has influenced the entire world in profound ways. While its impact is still being felt and studied, one is forced to acknowledge that the pandemic has revealed many weaknesses in human systems, international relationships, scientific advancement, economic
equilibrium, and government policies around the world. Although churches have been able to minister to confined people in creative ways during the early stages of the pandemic using technologies and innovative ministries, several weaknesses have manifested in their responses. One was the lack of an adequate theology of suffering in many sermons, isolated church members, and frightened secular people heard online. Despite their good knowledge of the biblical content, many preachers could not present a biblically sound understanding of suffering to exhort, edify, and comfort the people of God and promote evangelism.

Some Indian preachers were so sure that they knew where the coronavirus pandemic came from and why. A few claimed that the coronavirus was God’s punishment of the entire world for the backsliding of the Pentecostals in tiny Kerala. I am not sure that this approach really led many listeners to repentance or the secular people to embrace a loving God.

The Bible gives the best understanding of suffering, but it does not give a full explanation of all suffering. Jesus did not explain suffering, but he did everything he could to alleviate suffering and trained his disciples to do the same. To the disciples who were eager to pin the blind man’s illness on his personal sin, Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned… but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

We should not ascertain the exact cause of historic human suffering such as the coronavirus pandemic, especially as it is still unfolding. It is better to wait for better understanding or to leave things to God. Suffering can result from personal and corporate sin and due to the sinful nature of this
fallen world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, was right when he said that we live “between the curse and the promise.” Sometimes the best answer to questions regarding the cause of profound suffering is “I don’t know.” It is better not to explain the unexplainable. George Buttrick, an American based Christian preacher, author, and lecturer said that to cope with suffering, “what we need is not an explanation, but salvation.”

In Christ and Human Suffering, Stanley Jones said that suffering comes to us through nine avenues,
but suffering makes sense only one way––in the light of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. He said that through the suffering of Jesus, God turned the darkest moment in history into the brightest. During times of great suffering, it is better to let the saints and the lost world see this bright spot.

C. S. Lewis would agree. In his Problem of Pain, Lewis balanced Christian hope and a call to repentance. He said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, and shouts in our pains.” Instead of giving simplistic explanations of unexplainable things to those who are going through pain, loss, and suffering, let us offer salvation by faith and hope in a loving God.



Thomson K Mathew, D. Min., Ed.D., is a professor emeritus and former dean of Oral Roberts University. His books include Spiritual Identity and Spirit-Empowered Life, What Will Your Tombstone Say? and A Seminary Dean’s Experiment with Servant Leadership.

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