Where is God in This Picture?
“How could a good, all-powerful God let bad things happen to good people?” This ancient question, which philosophers call “the problem of evil,” gets asked anew wherever trauma occurs. It presses hard on us amid the current COVID pandemic. Where is God amid this deadly scourge that has snuffed out the lives of so many good and faithful people?
Isaac promised his son Jacob great blessing, and immediately everything went wrong. Jacob had to run for his life. As a fugitive in the desert, he lay down in exhaustion after a long day of flight, and quickly drifted off to sleep. Sand was his mattress, a stone his pillow. And precisely there in his bleakest hour he discovered God’s presence. He named the place Bethel, meaning “God’s dwelling.”
The story includes one of Scripture’s most memorable lines: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16-17) God was there all along, but Jacob didn’t realize it until he came to see the gateway to heaven that is there for all of us, all the time.
Perhaps Jacob had been more aware of God’s presence when he was able to get his brother Esau to sign off the family inheritance to him. Suddenly he was a wealthy man. Jacob might be forgiven for assuming that God was surely on his side that day.
Similarly, Jacob might well have concluded that God was with him when he succeeded in his scheme to gain the patriarchal blessing that always went to the eldest son. Surely God must be with us when all is going our way!
But what if it doesn’t? Jacob was a child of wealth; he loved the good things of life. Then he suddenly had to flee all the trappings of good fortune as he ran for his life. And there, destitute, in the middle of nowhere, Jacob has his first recorded personal encounter with God.
And so it is for many of us. Only when things go all wrong are we able finally to see where God is present in our situation.
Things did not turn around quickly for Jacob. He lived in exile for many years, far removed from his home and his inheritance. But the same God who was there with him in those early days of humiliation, the God of Bethel, remained with him all the while.
As with Jacob, God is with us when we are separated from our home place. Even when we don’t know it. Perhaps especially when we don’t know it. Jacob leaves Bethel with God’s promise ringing in his ears, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob can scarcely believe it. Even after his vision of the ladder to heaven he hedges, “If God will be with me, …then the Lord shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:15-19)
“If …. then.” It’s how we order our world when we think we’re on our own. It’s all transactional. But that’s not how it is with God. Jacob worries that God might be here today, gone tomorrow. But that is not how it is with God.
Where is God in the picture when COVID’s pandemic spread is escalating at the time it was supposed to be subsiding? Where is God in the picture when we are separated from our place of gathering, of fellowship, of worship? Where is God in the picture when our families are still fearful to hug each other lest they spread the virus?
Some of our congregations that had begun gathering for worship, or were on the cusp of doing so, have felt compelled by an abundance of caution to put gathering plans on hold. Rising hopes have been displaced by frustrating delays.
Has God abandoned us?
Psalm 139 testifies that God is everywhere, inescapable, always ready to corral us, to lead us, to shelter us, to set us on the right path, whether we are aware of it or not.[i] God’s presence is as inescapable in times of calamity – of COVID, of systemic racial injustice, of vast economic inequality, of governmental failure to provide trustworthy leadership – as in times of blessing and bounty. God may be with us in lament, judgment, or blessing. But whatever the case, God is still with us.
Confessing God’s presence amid all circumstances does not solve “the problem of evil.” But it does lift our hearts in worship. As he concludes his meditation on God’s ways that cannot be understood by mortal reason, Paul, breaks into worship: “How unsearchable are God’s judgments, how inscrutable God’s ways… For from him and through him and to him are all things. To God be the glory forever. Amen!” (Romans 11:33-36)
Yours in God’s presence,
[i] Genesis 28 and Psalm 139 are included in the texts for this Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary.