Finding God in All Things
It’s fairly banal to mention that the past year-and-a-quarter has been a time unlike any other in most of our lifetimes. The pandemic has rearranged our lives, brought out the best and worst in humanity, created pressures that brought about various forms of strife, lowered our orientation in the hierarchy of needs, and worst of all, it has killed millions across the world and it is still killing many more.
Earlier this month, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE), which has been recognized for the accuracy of its predictions throughout the pandemic, switched from taking the official case and death estimates reported by government agencies across the world to their own estimates, as they have found continual discrepancies in underreporting and underestimating cases and deaths. They consider the United States as having a discrepancy of about 334,000 more deaths than reported, India as underestimating by 388,000, and Russia by a whopping 496,000 – with a population about 42% of the United States and 10% of India’s. That would place Russia’s actual death rate per 100,000 persons at 414.1 rather than the reported 76.3. Mexico’s death rate is estimated as actually 497.8. Azerbaijan’s is at 672.7. The IMHE estimates that 7.1 million human beings have actually died worldwide of COVID-19 rather than the reported 3.33 million.
This has not been the best of times. If the IMHE’s estimates are correct, then nearly one in a thousand persons has died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. While the light at the end of the tunnel in the United States is turning into a threshold we seem to be stepping through here, most of the rest of the world is suffering through yet another wave of the pandemic or yet another time of uncertainty.
Where is God in all this?
There is a longstanding Christian spiritual principle, going back to at least the late Medieval world, which calls us to “find God in all things.”
Finding God in the pandemic does not mean we attribute disease and even natural evil to God and God’s will, though, of course, some versions of Christian theology do. Finding God in the pandemic might, instead, mean something a lot more like finding God in the middle of unforeseen, difficult, disappointing, and even tragic experiences.
The psalmist in Psalm 139:7-12 (NIV here) keeps finding God, and not because the psalmist is good at finding God but because God is good at finding the psalmist:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
It’s hazardous to say that we mere humans know what God is up to in the world, in history, though we may occasionally have some wisdom given to us by the Spirit as a gift. We can more confidently find that God is finding us, especially in the worst places, “in my bed in the depths” or “on the far side of the sea,” so that “even the darkness will not be dark to you.”
The God who is God with us and for us must then be understood as God for us in the depths of difficult times, even as the Spirit is associated with the newness and hope.
My role here at Northwest University is to teach faith integration classes in our graduate programs outside of the College of Ministry. Most of my faith integration courses this past year – in the fields of psychology and counseling, business, and education – have included some sort of assignment in which students have told their personal stories, where they have recounted their journeys in some way in relation to faith, ethics, and their vocation. Reading their work has reminded me and furthered my understanding of the vastness and difference of human experience, along with some common elements.
One thread that I have observed is that the Spirit of God is there in the middle of human suffering and pain – and is also the Spirit of hope.
We are often in very different places, yet the Spirit is there in it all. Few things have buoyed me more in my darkest hours than trusting that the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit that creates where there is not and makes new where things seem hopeless.
Recently, as I have been vaccinated and more recently “fully vaccinated,” my life has started going back to “normal” or “a little more normal.” We had been ordering groceries pick up, but my wife and I have enjoyed choosing our own fruit at the grocery store of late. I’m even looking forward to going to one or another of our pro sports team events here in Seattle in the coming month or two now. Not that long ago, I hugged my immuno-compromised mother for the first time in over a year.
Meanwhile, I was corresponding with a theologian friend in India and he was telling me how very bad things are where he is at. There was immense sadness in his writing. I checked in with another friend from that school in India who is now here in the United States, and he shared how long the memorial for alumni who had succumbed to the pandemic was in our Assemblies of God sister school’s virtual graduation. The only responsible response is to lament with our friends.
A thousand years after the psalmist, in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, the Apostle Paul tells us “the Lord is the Spirit” (3:17a), calls us into transformation into the image of God, in Christ, through the Spirit (3:18), tells us this means that since we have received God’s mercy “we do not lose heart” (4:1), that we carry God’s loving power all around in our “jars of clay” in our physical bodies even in our suffering (4:7-11), that God’s grace might overflow in us even amid harsh and deadly circumstances (4:12-15), and thus “we do not lose heart” (4:16).
God is there in whatever circumstances we are in. We can find God in all things not because we are good at finding God but because God will always find us, be there with us in and through all life and death, into the resurrection to come. In the meantime, we might find hope – or at least “not lose heart.”