COVID-19 distress: Can we find comfort in being known by God?

CPX Fellow Brian Rosner asks: What comfort can the Christian faith offer to those of us experiencing a range of "COVID-griefs"?

As one pundit put it: “Don’t let Delta in, she doesn’t play nice.” Daily triple-figure case numbers and ugly protests in Sydney. Melbourne recently completed its fifth lockdown. In my own household, we experienced our first fourteen-day quarantine, due to an outbreak at my son’s school; we were “locked up,” you might say. My recent “COVID-griefs” include four cancelled trips to Sydney to see children and grandchildren. Of course, many people have much more to complain about. A pandemic is a disease of despair. When the virus was labelled “COVID-19”, I suspect that few predicted it would still be going strong into the second half of 2021. And with the vaccine rollout in the slow lane, the finish line is nowhere in sight. How long will it go on?

The well-regarded Self-Determination Theory developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan posits that positive emotions are buoyed by three factors: autonomy, competence, and connection. In this light, the COVID-19 pandemic represents a triple whammy. Leaving aside the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths, lockdowns and ongoing restrictions limit our personal freedom, complicate the most basic tasks as we work from home, and leave us isolated and lonely. Many feel hopeless and lost. The irony of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions is that they make us feel strangely alienated in our own homes, that most familiar place of warmth and belonging. Alarmingly, one survey found that nearly one in ten Victorians seriously considered suicide during the height of last year’s coronavirus restrictions.

What does Christian faith offer to those in despair? Along with the hope of divine intervention through answers to prayer and the practical, loving concern of a faith community, there are two vital resources located in the Christian tradition: the opportunity to voice your complaints to God; and the notion that you are known intimately and personally by God, even in your distress. As it turns out, the two are related.

The cry of lament

The most frequent type of psalm in the Bible is that of lament, “a repeatable cry of pain, rage, sorrow, and grief that emerges in the midst of suffering and alienation.” Psalm 13:1-2 is a psalm for those experiencing pandemic fatigue. It opens with five anguished questions: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” Such cries are less a crisis of faith than a crisis of understanding. The psalmists complain to God because they expect better of him.

As it turns out, almost all the psalms of lament end in trust and praise, and many take comfort specifically from being known by God. The end of Psalm 13 is a good example: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.” According to theologian John Swinton:

“Lament provides us with a language of outrage that speaks against the way things are, but always in the hope that the way things are just now is not the way they will always be.  The psalms of lament set an example and offer the opportunity for those in genuine distress to voice their frustrations and pain in the context of their faith in God.”

“I will rejoice and be glad in your faithful love because you have seen my affliction. God knows the troubles of our lives” (Psalm 31:7). So, how does being known by God bring comfort in distress?

Known by God

One of the things we need when facing serious hardship is the encouragement that someone knows what you are going through. The psalms also testify to such expressions of faith: “I will rejoice and be glad in your faithful love because you have seen my affliction. God knows the troubles of our lives” (Psalm 31:7). With respect to the comfort of being known by God in this sense, the psychologist Maureen Miner likens God to the ideal parent who offers his children his loving attention and a secure attachment that provides “a safe haven and a secure base from which to engage the world.”

God comforts the Israelites by reassuring them that he knows them in their distress.

In the sprawling narratives of the Hebrew Bible, Israel experiences a series of distressing circumstances — slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, and exile in a foreign land. In each case God comforts the Israelites by reassuring them that he knows them in their distress. Though it would be an exaggeration for most of us to compare our pandemic plight to such experiences, sometimes examples with the volume turned up can be instructive.

Oppressed and enslaved

Early in the life of Israel, the people suffered considerable hardship when they were in bondage in Egypt. They performed “hard labour” under a maniacal Pharaoh, leading to the evocative comment: “the Israelites groaned in their slavery.”

While not exactly enslaved, repeated lockdowns can make you feel that way. For parents of children in primary school, small business owners, teenagers, singles, old people, and the unemployed, the loss of personal autonomy, the feelings of helplessness, and the sense that there is no end in sight, can make life a misery.

Exodus 2:24 confirms that Israel was not left forgotten and unnoticed by the divine. “God looked on the Israelites and knew them.” Even if the alleviation of their suffering was some way off, knowing that God had taken notice of their anguish was the first step in its relief. Their plight had not escaped his notice.

Wandering aimlessly

Following their rescue from Egypt the Israelites sojourned in difficult conditions in the wilderness for some forty years. It was like living in “the waiting room” of the doctor’s surgery. They knew of the Promised Land, but year after year they languished. Where was the promise of blessing the nation?

For some of us, pandemic life feels like we are in an interminable “holding pattern”. Plans are abandoned or postponed. One school chaplain reported to me that the boarders had not been home for eighteen months. So many of life’s simple pleasures are on hold. At a recent Zoom catchup with seven friends, there was a cancelled wedding, delayed post-surgery rehab, significant events of loved ones overseas unattended, and more holiday postponements.

Does God know you when things seem to be going nowhere? In the Hebrew Bible, God comforts the Israelites with the reassurance that he knew them even in the wilderness: “I knew you in the desert, in the land of burning heat” (Hosea 13:5).

Longing for home

Our final example is several centuries hence. In the ancient world exile was an extreme form of punishment. In 587 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had captured the city of Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and sent into exile a large number of its inhabitants. The psalmist wrote: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1; “Zion” here, of course, refers to Jerusalem).

Missing home is a powerful and unpleasant emotion and can be an aching loss. Home is where you belong. Our hearts go out to those Australians still stuck overseas. But you don’t have to be queuing for a return flight to have that gnawing sense of feeling out of place. The pandemic disruptions have left many missing the life we once had. Does God know when life seems to be missing the warmth, nurture, and love of home?

Isaiah 49 contains a famous passage promising the restoration of Israel from exile in Babylon. The passage begins with words of comfort: “This is what the Lord says: ‘In the time of my favour I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you’.” However, despair is also reported, as the nation cries out: “the Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Suffering often evokes a concern that God has forgotten us and has not seen our plight.

Being known by God meets our crucial need to be acknowledged and valued.

In Israel’s case, God had not forgotten his people in exile. Describing his relationship to them as that of a devoted parent, he insists that there is less chance of him forgetting them than of a mother forgetting her child: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).

Taking refuge in God

We find in the story of Israel surprising resources for our own present experience. Being known by God meets our crucial need to be acknowledged and valued. In times of distress, we may feel worthless and unloved, as if no one cares or even notices. Being known by God is a significant counterpoint to these destructive thoughts.

Experiencing the comfort of being known is not a passive thing. To know the comfort of being known by God enables us to complain to God, to be reassured of God’s continued care, and to take refuge in God: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nahum 1:7).

Brian Rosner is the principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the author of Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.