My family and I were driving to the beach not long ago. My husband, my mother and our three children loaded up the mini-van and decided to spend the day playing in the sand and splashing in the waves. Day trips have become fairly common these days during this Coronavirus quarantine. There I was, sitting in the very back seat of the mini-van next to my 7-year old son. I watched him as he stared out the window and made comments about the cars driving by.
Out of nowhere, he turned to me and said, “Mommy, I think God gave us the Coronavirus so that we could spend more time together as a family.” I froze. It was one of those moments where, as a parent, time stands still. I didn’t know what to say.
On one hand, I was happy that he was grateful for all of our extra family time. I thought about all of the ways we had practiced gratitude together and this told me that something was sticking with him. On the other hand, I was panicking inside because of how he viewed God. I didn’t want him to view God as one who gives viruses. This is the “Divine Child Abuser God” that I have spent the last ten years ridding my theology of. This “Corona-Virus-Giving-God” is the one who orchestrates suffering “for our good.” This is the God who will “never give us more than we can handle.” This is the God who claims “one more angel for heaven” when a child dies, and all the other clichés that I have grown to hate.
I didn’t want my son to see God this way! I lamented my bad parenting in my own mind. Surely he did not learn this from me or his dad, I panicked.
His innocent comment exposes the human condition, especially our condition in the midst of suffering. We are searching, seeking and grasping for meaning. We want to make sense of our suffering and some of us believe that if God ordained it, then surely it has a divine and redemptive purpose. In other words, one way we make sense of suffering is by believing that God has given it to us in order to teach us something.
The problem with this view of God (as a God who doles out suffering to teach a lesson about realigning my life with Christ) is that it puts the onus of faith on me. I must realign. I must repent. I must awaken from my slumber, which shouldn’t be too hard to do in response to a thunderclap! I must “learn this lesson” before God takes away my suffering. The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t work in causing humans to “realign” their lives with God. Suffering doesn’t point me to the “infinite worth of Christ.” In fact, most people I know are not interested in a God who has to use a Coronaviruses to get our attention. This God seems weak and petty and really not all that creative. (Really, a virus when God could have used something more flashy?)
Here is an alternative way of thinking about God in the midst of suffering from James Cone,
“I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself. The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on a cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair…”(The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone, 150, emphasis mine.)
Cone, and many other liberation theologians, believe that God is present and in solidarity with humans in the midst of suffering. In other words, we can participate in a supernatural reality of oneness with God in the midst of our own suffering and in this, we find redemption.
The redemption in suffering is not that we will see the suffering as “God giving us a spanking” and thereby run to our disciplinarian parent for comfort. No, the redemption in suffering is that God identifies with the one who suffers, weeps with the one who weeps and eventually conquers suffering in the resurrection.
So, I explained this God to my 7-year old. I said, “Son, God did not give us the Coronavirus. We have the coronavirus because we live in this sad and broken world. And in the midst of this sad world, two things are true today. One, the virus is awful and devastating and scary. And two, we are driving to the beach to enjoy a beautiful day with our family. Both are true.”
The redemption in suffering today is found in our faith that God brings life out of death, victory out of defeat, hope out of despair and family beach days out of a coronavirus quarantine.