It’s difficult as a scientist to hear information that is fascinating, but which also involves so much suffering for other people. In one lab where I worked for a time as a student, scientists were finding out a great deal about how normal cells work by studying leukaemia – but any gains in knowledge often involved a person’s disease getting worse. We had to let the pain drive our research without it constantly affecting our emotions, otherwise we couldn’t have kept going as researchers.
These days I find myself avoiding looking into the science of COVID-19 because it’s just too heart-breaking. The reminders of the human impact of the disease are always present – especially when the doctor who rents one of my spare rooms comes home from her shifts at the Accident and Emergency department of our local hospital.
My household copes with the news of suffering caused by this pandemic, and with our own lockdown experience, because we believe in a God who can handle both sides of the story. He knows what is happening and why. He has already responded, and continues to respond every day. One of the ways I am managing my own worries, fears and grief in this situation is by digging deeper into what God has revealed to us about his character, letting that fuel my faith, my prayers, and my actions.
For more academic types like myself, study can be one of the primary ways we connect with God and hear from him. It’s not wrong to be comforted by books, so long as the contents are worthwhile and they turn our eyes upwards and outwards, to God and others around us. Study – particularly of the Bible – can also provide some answers to the questions people might ask us about where God is when people suffer.
So what can the Bible tell us about God’s response to suffering, and does science have anything to add to the conversation?
First of all, God hears: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:24), and “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted’ (Psalm 34:18a). I am greatly reassured that, although this pandemic has brought a huge emotional toll for many people, God is quick to listen to anyone who cries out to him. Many studies (some more scientific than others) have shown that prayer increases wellbeing in a number of important ways, including reducing anxiety, increasing pain tolerance, and giving a greater sense of purpose. Of course prayer is often hard work, and can be a tempestuous process – as the Psalms reveal. But we seem to do much better when we are in touch with God, and I believe that is largely because he listens and responds. In the current crisis I don’t need to bear the burden of people’s suffering or grief by myself, because I can pray that God will be present with them.
Roger Abbott, a researcher in Practical Theology at the Faraday Institute, has written recently about the healing power of tears. The Psalms and many other biblical books – not least Lamentations – are full of examples of people pouring their hearts and their troubles out to God. “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13: 2a); “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6:6).
We can be reassured that God grieves with us. In Jesus God took on human form, and showed us his heart for the world. When his friend Lazarus died, he wept (John 11). He experienced suffering himself, and asked on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15: 34). As I have scanned the news and prayed for the effects of the pandemic, I have felt tears rise in a new way as I pray. I may not be feeling emotional as I read the news, but I believe that as I turn to God I am sometimes experiencing a small part of his broken heart for the world.
If anyone is still in any doubt of God’s feelings for a suffering world, they can search a Bible concordance or online Bible for the words ‘comfort’ and ‘compassion’, and see how many times they are mentioned in relation to God’s feelings for people. “He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14b); “our God is full of compassion” (Psalm 116:5b), “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 149:5). God is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3); and there is “comfort from his love” (Philippians 2:1).
God does not promise to take away all suffering in the present world. The question of why terrible things happen to both people and other aspects of the natural world is not easy to address, although a number of people have attempted a response. What we do know for certain is that God promises to help us trust, persevere, and love. The New Testament is full of promises that following Jesus will bring trouble, but that God will give us what we need to keep going and to keep reaching out to those around us.
God cares for the vulnerable
What about those in the majority world who were already suffering deeply – before lockdown and the threat of yet another serious illness swept through their countries? It’s worth looking at some of the Old Testament prophets, or the book of Luke, where it is made clear that the poor and vulnerable are the VIPS in God’s kingdom – the ones that are closest to his heart and most honoured in his sight – and that he will administer justice on their behalf in the end.
God’s good creation
Despite the horrendous things that happen, God’s creation remains good in many ways. Human sin has affected the whole of creation, and I believe this is largely the direct impact of our mismanagement of creation and mistreatment of each other. Something is deeply wrong, and COVID-19 may well be another animals’ friendly virus that has been nudged – by broken systems around the globe – out of its usual territory and into places where it is causing great harm. But creation is still praising God and bringing him honour in many ways. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”; “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Isaiah 6:3). We can see great beauty, even in pictures of a virus that is causing so much havoc just now. We can also see God’s abundant provision for all living things (when we manage to share things around and not damage them too much ourselves).
God gives us hope
These good things are a hint of the promised “new heavens and new earth” which are mentioned in the New Testament. One day “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8: 21), and for everyone who follows God, “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.” (Revelation 21: 4). Health professionals are well aware that a sense of hope and purpose are vital to human wellbeing, and for Christians our faith in what will come is our ultimate source of hope.
A more immediate source of hope is the work we do, with God’s help, to heal and help today. Anything we can do to understand the world and benefit from it in wise ways, helping to heal the broken parts, points to the new creation that will eventually come.
The debates about why God lets suffering happen are important, but behind these is sometimes the assumption that God doesn’t care. My experience and knowledge of the Bible shows that God does care deeply, and invites his church to care for those around them – especially the most vulnerable. He is with us, he hears us and grieves with us, he helps us and promises a better future.
 Readers of Sorted magazine should look at the latest issue.
 Sharon Dirckx, “Why” (IVP, 2013); Robert White, “Who is to Blame?” (Monarch, 2014).