Near the end of Job’s story, Elihu urges Job to pray, “Teach me what I do not see” (Job 34:32). Elihu is not encouraging the request to “teach me why this suffering is happening” or “teach me what you want me to learn from this,” but rather something more costly: “show me what I don’t yet see.” Perhaps even, “show me what I do not want to see.”
Within the Christian spiritual tradition, this is understood as the refining, purgative, or testing nature of suffering. Of course, the book of James has the classic statement:
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (MSG James 1:2–4)
And yet, it can be difficult to not “try to get out of anything prematurely” in order to let tests and challenges do their maturing work. Indeed, it can be easy to quickly jump back to normal, eager to move on from times of pain. At times, we need a few Elihus to come alongside and help us ask the Lord, “Teach us what we do not see.”
COVID-19 has ravaged human lives around the world, with the current worldwide death toll nearing 3 million persons.John Hopkins University and Medicine, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (accessed April 15, 2021). In efforts to control the spread of the virus, governments have instituted quarantines, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and other regulations that have brought their own economic, educational, social, emotional, and spiritual losses. In a myriad of tragic ways, COVID-19 has been an unprecedented crisis for the modern world and, thereby, an unprecedented trial for the global church. Of course, to categorize COVID-19 as a trial is not to say it was caused or even allowed by God in order to serve as a trial and it is certainly not to categorize it as somehow good. The historical Christian view is that natural evils of various sorts, including the evil of a deadly virus, are privations of good that occur in human life due to the consequences of humanity’s fall into sin, the negative consequences of which are often aggravated by foolish human choices.This view accords with what has been termed an Augustinian theodicy. See Saint Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). For a historical overview, see John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). To acknowledge that these kinds of evils can help bring insight does nothing to diminish their horrific nature. The coronavirus of 2019 should be eliminated if possible and in the meantime its devastating consequences must be mitigated no matter how much collateral beauty emerges in its wake.
When it comes to a Christian response to COVID-19, the church’s first move is, as always, to love our neighbor as ourselves, in this case reaching out to those who are especially vulnerable, sick, grieving, and in need. As followers of Gethsemane Jesus, we are also called to grieve and honestly lament that which has been lost. As we care and grieve, there is the further discipline of asking what we as individuals and as a people might be learning to see under these conditions.
In her Wandering in Darkness, the Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump draws attention to a poem found on a wall in Auschwitz written by an anonymous Jewish inmate: “There is grace, though, and wonder, on the way. Only they are hard to see, hard to embrace, for those compelled to wander in darkness.”Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). While the losses of COVID-19 cannot be compared to those suffered at Auschwitz, what might be the graces and wonders that are hard to see, hard to embrace in this season of darkness? In particular, what might COVID-19 teach the church to see when it comes to spiritual formation and soul care? In a New York Times article, one New Yorker emerging from the devastation of COVID said this, “There’s some pieces of normalcy that I don’t really want back….Our normal wasn’t always ideal.”Michael Wilson, “This Is How New Yorkers Will Remember a Year They Can’t Wait to Forget,” New York Times, December 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/31/nyregion/nyc-new-years-coronavirus.html?auth=login-google1tap&campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20210101&instance_id=25561&login=google1tap&nl=todaysheadlines®i_id=66352477&segment_id=48153&user_id=3f47660e90e9c02c07356ae99c48a49f (accessed April 15, 2021). No doubt for the Christian church as well, our normal wasn’t always ideal. As vaccines and treatments of COVID-19 increasingly relieve some of the distress, it would be a missed opportunity for Christians to hit play without engaging the graces and wonders on the way that are hard to see, hard to embrace.
In an attempt to practice the discipline of attending to trial, what follows are five reflections on the question: what did COVID-19 teach us, expose in us, or purge out of us when it comes to spiritual formation in Christ? Each response was written independently of the others by a different author. These authors were assembled from the editorial board of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care where a full-length presentation of this and other material can be found.Steven L. Porter, Ruth Haley Barton, et al., “Teach Me What I Do Not See: Lessons for the Church From a Global Pandemic,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care (2021). https://doi.org/10.1177/1939790921992604 While these five responses most certainly do not exhaust all there is for Christians to learn from COVID, we present them in the spirit of “O Lord, teach us what we do not see” and in hope that they will inspire your own reflections.