What roles do natural disasters, tragic accidents, plagues like COVID-19, and other human sufferings play in God’s will or plan?
Scripture offers no single, simple solution to this question. Consider these oft-heard answers, open your Bible, and see how they stack up against the Word.
Human suffering demonstrates God’s wrath and punishment for sin. Scripture tells that God has sent, or permitted, disease and disaster to fall upon people because of their rebellion against Him. Cases in point: Noah’s flood, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, death of David and Bathsheba’s firstborn.
These examples do not prove that all human tragedy and suffering can be traced to God’s wrath or to specific human sins. Jesus made this clear in Luke 13:1-5. Much or most human suffering appears random and defies easy human explanations. Sin and suffering do have a generic link in Scripture, to be sure. But according to Christ, it’s not our place to say that anyone’s suffering is because of this or that particular sin.
Suffering comes to test our faith. Job’s suffering is a familiar example of this. Another is the insufferable, or unbearable, order for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Whatever pain or loss God’s people experience, they can be assured that it comes with the knowledge and consent of a loving God who is touched with our pain and who promises that all things work for good to them that love Him and are called to His purpose (Hebrews 4:15; Romans 8:28). If you believe this when the virus hits you, you pass the test — whether you live or die!
Natural disasters, pandemics, and plagues are signs of Christ’s return. We should be cautious here. On one hand, Jesus told us to watch for His coming and the end of the age. On the other hand, most “signs” He gave (famines, wars, earthquakes, pestilences, etc.) have happened in every age. “These are the beginning of sorrows,” He said in Mark 13, “but the end is not yet. . . . But of that day and hour no one knows” of Christ’s return by watching the signs (vv. 7, 8, 32, 33).
Life’s trouble and suffering are intended to refine and build character. Peter says so at the beginning and end of his first epistle (1 Peter 1:6, 7; 5:10, 11). Paul and James agree that trials and tribulations produce patience and other fruit toward perfection (Romans 5:3; James 1:2-4). It is said of Jesus that He “learned obedience” by what He suffered (Hebrews 5:8). How much more do His followers have to learn from the same school of suffering, painful though it be.
These Bible narratives and verses provide a multi-pronged answer to the question, and there is still more to learn on this topic. Let us rest confident that we’ll “know more about it [and] understand why . . . farther along,” when all things become plain in the light of God’s eternal glory in Christ.
Trust and obey, and bear up on the way of the cross — the Jesus way.
— Elder Calvin Burrell