Suffering and Viruses

Thoughts written during ‘Lockdown’ 2020

Family relationships           29th March 2020

Many around us seem to be stunned by the scale of the disruption which has been caused by this infection and the response to it.  Some are saying that we are being chastised for our behaviour and that when this is all over we need to repair our relationship with ‘Mother Earth’.  But that is pagan thought – according to the Bible our mother is the church, the new Jerusalem (Gal 4:12), and the relationship that really needs repairing is with our heavenly Father.   Many seem ready to believe that we might have offended ‘Mother Earth’ but think it preposterous to be told that our lives might be offensive to our Heavenly Father.  Please pray that we may not be left unchanged towards God by this crisis for that would be a far deeper tragedy even than the death of many.  To love our neighbour but to neglect to love, serve, trust, believe and obey our Maker is dishonest and immoral because that relationship is more important than any other and because that command is No. 1 of the ten and not an optional extra for those who ‘choose to be religious’.

The origin of viruses           5th April 2020

If our Lord and Creator is good and loves to give good things (as the Bible claims) why is our world so troubled by a deadly virus?  (See also my April 2020 letter on this blog.) With many of us starting to hear of people we know who have become ill or have died this is definitely not an ‘academic question’ but one with sadness and tears and prayers.

When God created the world “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Sickness and death along with many other bad things only come in after man’s fall from grace in Genesis 3.  The world before the fall is related to the world after the fall – it’s the same world made, presumably, from the same elements – and yet, there is a decisive change, things no longer operate in the same way.  We know that many viruses are essential to life - we would not be here without them – so it seems likely that viruses were created by God before the fall and that they all had good effects (“it was very good”).  After the fall just as God added thorns and thistles to the varieties of plants (Genesis 3:18) we can assume he added bad viruses to the vast collections of good viruses, perhaps by the corruption of small parts of ‘code’ within previously good viruses.

Paul describes the change imposed on creation in Romans 8:20:
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it”. 

God’s response to man’s sinful rebellion was to change the whole of creation, to subject it to ‘frustration’.  Bad viruses, like every good thing that is corrupted in this world, are all part of God’s response to the fall of mankind and to a world that is in rebellion against him. 

The future of suffering     12th April 2020

Here’s how Paul continues in Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”  

The ‘frustration’ and ‘bondage to decay’ are temporary. 

As this is Easter, when the Old World of sin and corruption and death gives way to the New World of conquered sin and defeated death, I am going to say something about the end of the story.  As Jesus travelled around Israel he healed people, he restored them to wholeness, a foretaste of the complete healing and restoration that God intends to bring about for his people.  In the resurrection we see that victory in Jesus’ life – in his glorified body he will never again be subject to suffering, disease or death.  And he has promised to share that new life with all who put their trust in him.

So what does the future hold for those who belong to Christ?  Here are three passages that describe the transformation not only of individuals but of the whole cosmos.

1 Corinthians 15:51-57  Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--  52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."  55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"  56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 1:9-10  And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,  10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

Revelation 21:3-5  Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."  5 ¶ He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"

Why all the suffering?      19th April 2020

So far I have written about the origin of suffering (entering our world through God’s response to our sinful rebellion against him), the defeat of suffering (as Jesus, far from ‘keeping his distance’, came so close to us that our sin-disease killed him as he absorbed it all in his own body and left all who put their trust in him completely healed), and the destiny of suffering (it will be banished from the new creation that Jesus Christ is bringing about: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”  Revelation 21:4).

But, in the meantime, what purpose can suffering have in the world?  Although all suffering and illness is painful to bear, and distressing to watch, the Bible insists that God is dealing with us both justly and mercifully.  Ever since mankind’s fall we have been tempted to think of ourselves as invincible – lords over the earth, sure of our own goodness, masters of technology, untroubled for the most part by illness, with death treated as a distant foe.  But the truth is that we are not invincible.  The just penalty for our rebellion and rejection of our Creator is ‘death’ – physical death (sooner or later) and spiritual death (the rupturing of our relationship with our Creator).  Unless something or someone changes us, all of us will one day run straight into the buffers and our separation from God’s love and from all the good things that he provides will be confirmed for eternity.  And so God, in his kindness, gives us daily reminders of our frailty, our weakness, our powerlessness and our mortality.  These reminders are all around us, in our bodies, in the ‘natural’ world, in the lives of others.

Jesus said (Luke 13) that when we see people suffer we must not conclude that they were especially wicked, but we must conclude that we too will face a similar fate if we do not repent, that is turn away from our sin and put our trust in him.

Perhaps you have seen sickness or suffering or bereavement do that – bring someone up short so that, wonderfully, they finally stop running away from the Lord and entrust themselves to him.  Perhaps that has happened to you.

These are obviously not academic questions.  A member of our Holme congregation who works in healthcare, asks that we particularly pray for those who are newly diagnosed with cancer and who may, because of current restrictions, find that treatment is delayed.  Let’s pray too for the healthcare professionals who are heart-broken that they cannot provide the usual prompt care and treatment for their seriously ill patients.  Heavenly Father, please give strength to healthcare staff under great pressure and help them to not to blame themselves when they do the best that they can.  Please show your kindness to patients who are waiting for treatments, and above all bring them and their families to trust in Jesus, the doctor of souls who gives peace that the world cannot give.  Amen.

Can suffering be good?    26th April 2020

But what about suffering in the life of the Christian?  That’s a very different thing.  We know that if we are trusting in Christ, our future is secure, that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).  So, for us, death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).  Everything that comes into our lives, including sickness, comes to us from the hands of our loving Father who allows only what will bring us good.  We “rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope”  (Romans 5:3-4).

In the late 19th Century, JC Ryle wrote a little booklet about sickness which is wonderfully helpful and just as applicable to those whose suffering is the loneliness and frustration of isolation as it is to other trials.  “God allows pain, sickness, and disease, not because he loves to trouble us, but because he desires to benefit our heart, and mind and conscience, and soul, to all eternity.”

He advises “sick believers to remember that they may honour God as much by patient suffering as they can by active work.  It often shows more grace to sit still than it does to go to and fro and perform great exploits.  I urge them to remember that Christ cares for them as much when they are sick as he does when they are well, and that the very discipline they feel so acutely is sent in love, and not in anger.”

“Above all, I beg them to recollect the sympathy of Jesus for all his weak members.  They are always tenderly cared for by him, but never so much as in their time of need.  Christ has had great experience of sickness.  He knows the heart of a sick man.  He used to see ‘every disease and every affliction’ when he was upon earth.  He felt specially for the sick in his days on earth.  He feels for them specially still.”  (JC Ryle  “Sickness”  Matthias Media)

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