In the middle of a crisis or suffering, God’s goodness remains but why does he so frequently choose to use pain to unveil it?
Emily Dickinson is credited with saying, “Beauty is not caused. It is.”
Working in quarantine, I’ve had time to glance out the windows regularly and observe clouds shifting and moving over the mountaintops. Not insulated in a cubicle anymore, I’m suddenly more aware of wind, rain and snow as it beats against my living room walls. Oddly enough, I’m becoming more aware of the beauty of the world outside my work by being isolated.
The other day, I video-called a friend who lives in Los Angeles. She said, “Hold on. I want you to see this.” She turned the computer so the camera was facing a window. “Can you see the sky?”
Vivid blue filled in the spaces between puffy cotton clouds.
“I’ve never seen the sky like that,” she said. “Not in all the years I’ve lived here. It’s always grayish with pollution, but the air has been incredibly clear the last couple days. Hardly anyone’s driving anywhere. There’s no smog. You know, I woke up the other night and, for a minute, couldn’t figure out what was bothering me.
“Then I realized it was the silence. No road-noise from cars driving by or people honking their horns. It was so quiet.”
Despite the pain, frustration and panic of the COVID-19 pandemic, little realizations like this one makes me wonder what other things of wonder and loveliness I’ve lost sight of until now.
On the Other Side of the Scale
A strange and interesting verse can be found in the Old Testament law: “Then at last the land will enjoy its neglected Sabbath years as it lies desolate while you are in exile in the land of your enemies. Then the land will finally rest and enjoy the Sabbaths it missed” (Leviticus 24:35, NLT).
This verse is part of God’s command to the Israelites to take a year-long Sabbath every seventh year. They were not supposed to force their servants or animals to work. They didn’t plant crops or harvest anything; they allowed the earth to lay fallow and recover.
Now, it’s even more interesting to note that there’s no biblical or historical evidence to prove that the Israelites actually ever observed this year-long Sabbath. More than one Old Testament prophet received word from God that the land would finally receive its Sabbaths while the Israelites were in exile. Even in Israel’s most difficult times, God was doing something beautiful and good.
Now, please hear me, I’m not going to claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is divine retribution. If that is the case, the Holy Spirit’s said nothing about it to me.
The quarantine and closures have caused a lot of hardship for people who have lost jobs, are facing scarcity and unpaid bills or are simply lonely. Nothing I’ve read in the Bible would indicate that such suffering pleases God or that he’s ignoring those caught in the middle of a crisis.
That said, the Bible does talk a lot about how God uses difficult times to reveal himself in unique ways to his people, and this coronavirus quarantine does present us all with an important opportunity to observe a type of seventh year Sabbath.
Even the most die-hard industrialist will acknowledge that the exponential climb of modern technology and spread of cities has had some detrimental effects on our world. Certainly, our unceasing hustle and connection to technology is having a noticable effect on our health that’s already becoming well documented in the medical field.
If we take this time as a chance to seek God and rest, what beauty might we uncover? After all, it’s always there because it points to the God who is always there.
The Divine Megaphone of Pain
In a sermon, Gary Wilkerson reflected on the incredible promises of restoration God makes to Ezekiel when he shows the prophet a valley of dry bones. “When God created humankind, we were never meant to experience the sinful things that befall us. Yet, even being witnesses to tragedy, we rest in God’s hand as Ezekiel did; and the Bible says no power can pluck us from it.
“This truth has to be established in our hearts. If we are to do battle with the dark forces that come against our families, our young people and our communities, we have to know we are constantly protected and watched over.”
In order to really experience this power, he explains, there’s something important we have to grasp.
“We can’t just speak to man about the things of God. We also have to speak to God about man, with a burden for man, to beseech God to act. God calls for men and women of faith to cry out for him to enter their situation and change things. Only a move of God’s Holy Spirit can bring life. Our eyes can’t see, our ears can’t hear, our mouths can’t speak anything of him unless he first animates us.”
Every moment of our lives is an invitation to connect with God, to talk to God, to listen to him and express our gratitude to him. When our lives are going well, these divine calls are quieter; but, as C.S. Lewis points out, these biddings can become much louder when cracks start to show up in our lives.
“Pain insists upon being attended to,” he wrote in The Problem of Pain. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Perhaps faster than anything, pain can make us stop and start actively searching for God, paying close attention to every evidence of him around us.
Beauty From the Ruins and Wreckage
Suffering always brings up questions of why God permits it or if we’ve done something to deserve punishment or when we will find relief.
Sometimes God doesn’t offer us answers to those questions. That’s terribly hard to accept, but within it is an invitation to trust in the facts that God is in control and that he cares for us far more than we could even really care for ourselves. Not only that, but he cares for the people around us with the same intense, unyielding love.
Gary Wilkerson notes, “Out of chaos, Jesus produces life. Out of ashes, he produces beauty. And into a horrific situation that the enemy means only for destruction, Jesus breathes new life.”
Regardless of how or why our hard times have struck, we have a very clearly defined choice. We can become bound by fear, or we can offer the situation up to God.
We cry out to him and then attentively wait for him to blow away the ashes and reveal all around us the beauty of his creation and purposes.