The prophet Habakkuk, writing during the desolation of his people and homeland, asked two questions that haunt every believer in crisis: “How long, Lord, must I call for help … Why do you make me look at injustice?” Habbakuk 1:2-3
How long will this global pandemic spread, robbing us of health, freedom, resources and even life? Why does God allow catastrophes to visit towns and nations—or in this case, the entire world? Like the ancient prophets, we may not be able to respond to these questions. The wisest among us admit that they simply do not have all the answers.
But another question rises to the surface during hardship: where is Jesus in the midst of this crisis? And this question is one that many people seem to have answers for—some more helpful than others.
People are very different from each other, a feature of God’s manifold wisdom in creation. So different people will connect with Jesus in different ways. Whether in crisis or not, millions of people engage with God through prayer, musical worship, journaling, Scripture, silent meditation and countless other spiritual practices. In doing so, people seek and find the living Savior.
The particular challenge of this season, though, is that for many people, these spiritual connections are more difficult in the face of a pandemic and its attendant fear, isolation, disheartening news, illness and death. This, I think, is what we must closely examine: the relationship between spirituality and suffering. It is possible that we are getting this very wrong.
The strategy of many Christians right now—if social media is any indication—is to focus on God instead of the suffering that afflicts us or millions of others. The spiritual disciplines mentioned above are good, and it is nourishing and healthy to practice them. But are they a retreat from this world and its outbreaks, or a sustaining source of life that energizes and empowers us to see and respond to our own brokenness and the world’s hurts?
To those who are currently suffering physically or financially, it can be easy to look to Jesus as an escape from reality. I have done this myself, and I understand the appeal of this approach. It can mean praying about any and every topic other than our suffering and how we feel about it. But what if Jesus, the crucified and resurrected one, seeks to meet us in our pain rather than pretend it’s not there?
To those who are not actively suffering, the call of Jesus is clear: to see and respond to people’s needs. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite saw the wounded man, but since they did not want to tangibly help, they pretended not to see! It is so easy for us to do the same. To preserve ourselves and our dwindling resources during this pandemic, we do not want to think about helping others, so we choose not to see.
But to flee from the data, interviews, calls for supplies and stories of suffering—even if we turn to our trusted spiritual disciplines—is to turn away from the place where Jesus is.
When Jesus declared that His ministry, prophesied long ago in the voice of Isaiah’s Servant, was to preach to the poor, free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and aid the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21), it was a strong hint to Jesus’ location in our society. He can be found at work among the needy, the incarcerated, people with disabilities and victims of injustice. And, no doubt, among those suffering from COVID-19 or unexpected unemployment.
Once we have seen these pains and needs, it is time to respond. For many, this means giving financially to people who desperately need help or to causes meeting urgent needs. Some of us are not able to donate, but there are still many ways to move toward, not away from, the suffering. Many people really need encouragement in the form of a phone call, video chat, text message or email. We can also pray—not only for the sick and lonely, but for our own opportunities to show them love.
As we look at those in pain and move in compassion, we will no doubt find Jesus. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these…”