The resentment, bitterness and pain that many have experienced through the pandemic have tended to drive people further away from any sense of belief in God. ‘If God is there,’ I hear people say, ‘he certainly is not kind and compassionate. He can’t be good.’
Where can we find answers to comments like these? Let me suggest we need something more than our own testimony and wisdom.
Come with me to one of the great chapters of the Bible – Isaiah chapter 40. Isaiah tells us that when we are confronted with this world’s evil and suffering, rather than deny God, we need to think again about who he is.
Turn back the clock some two and a half millennia to a scene in the Middle East. Picture a great nation of the ancient world, brought low by conquering armies. Picture those people having been taught for hundreds of years that they are God’s special people. But the unthinkable had happened; the Babylonians had devastated Jerusalem and their lives. The temple was in ruins; the economy in tatters; and their homes destroyed. Now exiles in a foreign land, the temptation for the Jewish people to reject the God who had made promises to their forefathers would have been enormous.
Yet Isaiah 40 opens with these words: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. There’s a timelessness about them that Handel’s Messiah identifies, for they speak to people suffering in every age. The language, ‘Comfort’ speaks of the tenderness of God. Indeed, the theme continues in verse 11: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom…’
Isaiah knows that in tough times only a big God can sustain us. And this is who God is. Only he can overrule our world when it is falling into chaos around us. Only he can say to us with any degree of credibility, ‘Comfort.’
Isaiah draws us into his picture of God’s awesome majesty and kindness, with questions such as, ‘What is God like?’
Can we compare him to the great ones of the world? Some try to pose as gods! Nebuchadnezzar, the great emperor of ancient Babylon, tried it for a while. So did Augustus Caesar and other Roman emperors.
Isaiah’s response is telling: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to nought and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing…
God’s throne fills the universe. He needs no capital city: the heavens are his palace. God has only to blow on the arrogant and power-hungry and they wither away.
‘Who created the heavens?’ Isaiah asks. Don’t you realize that every night God summons the stars because he controls the vast cosmic gravitational field? The universe is the arena of God’s artistry. We search the universe in vain for an adequate comparison to God’s majesty. There is nothing that men and women worship – be it science or technology, intelligence or wisdom, military might or political power, or even the sun or the stars – that can be compared with him.
Yet our world today has walked away from the very thought of God.
Which brings us to another question: Is God kind and compassionate?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Isaiah asks again. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable (40:28).
No matter how heart-breaking our situation, no matter how perplexing, it’s not out of God’s control. We are in the hands of a kind and limitless intelligence, who knows what he’s doing. Events like Covid-19 don’t mean that God’s hands have slipped from the helm. They are permitted sufferings and a wake-up call to a world that has forgotten him. We may not always understand God’s ways, but we have every reason to trust him.
Indeed, God is good and caring. In verse 29 we learn: He gives power to the faint, and gives strength to the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, and note this: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
We may wonder at the order of the words here. Why not conclude on the note of soaring higher, like the eagles? Yet concluding on the note of walking makes sense, for that is what life with God is like.
In life’s struggles, it’s not the wings of an eagle we need but the endurance of the long-distance walker. Flights of spiritual experience are no use if they are followed by plunges into the darkness of depression.
Walk and not faint. That’s what we need when life is tough and incomprehensible. That is the strength that the God of all strength, provides for his people.
In those times when resentment, bitterness and pain make it hard to believe and hard to pray, hard to sing and hard to read the Bible, turn afresh to Isaiah 40.
Let’s fill our minds with the awesome majesty and love of God. The greatness of his power is matched exactly by his love and compassion. The opening words of the chapter, ‘Comfort, comfort my people’ tell us that in the midst of disaster, God provides us with the strength we need to endure. Like God’s people in Isaiah’s day, let us hear the Word of God and believe it.