Recently I was asked the question: “What are we to make of Psalm 91 in such times?”
The question of COVID-19 and Psalm 91 must be framed within the larger lens of the problem of pain and suffering. C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book on it, The Problem of Pain. Pain is the problem! Much of our lives is devoted to minimising and removing pain. Whole industries are there for pain relief – whether physical pain (through pharmaceuticals) or emotional pain (through addiction to alcohol, gambling, gaming, pornography etc.) So why is there still pain and suffering if God is good? Christians may ask, why there is still pain when Jesus has paid for my sin?
It would be presumptuous to assume I can adequately address all of such questions. I cannot. However, Scriptures seem to indicate for us certain basic understandings that underpin the problem of pain. There are at least twelve such thoughts, regarding pain, death, sin, suffering and true life before I can adequately address our understanding of Psalm 91. In Part 1, I will consider the universal problem of pain, sin and death. Next, I will address the human problem of suffering in Part 2 and unpack the disciple’s problem of trust in Psalm 91 in Part 3.
- Pain is a necessary part of reality. If I touched a hot stove but did not have the nerve endings to inform me about the heat, I would suffer an even greater injury. Pain is therefore necessary for life. Without pain, I would not know how to avoid greater suffering. Pain, in that sense, is a necessary gift for true life.
- Pain was increased as part of judgment for sin. The word “pain” was first mentioned in the Scriptures in association with sin. Note however, it was not so much the beginning of pain as it was the multiplication of pain in Eve’s judgment. “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children…’” Gen 3:16a (ESV)
- Death is the ultimate representation of sin. Suffering, the increase of pain, is a consequence of sin. We see this from point 2 above. Physical death is the consequence of sin (Rom 6:23) and thus is the ultimate representation of the reality of sin.
- Death is not merely about physical dying. Death does involve the cessation of physical life but the picture given to us in Genesis 3 involves more than that. While eventually Adam did die physically (Gen 5:5), but what was more immediate after they sinned was both Adam and Eve being driven away from the presence of God (Gen 3:23 – 24.) Death (Gen 2:17) is the separation from the very source of life itself, God! The life we speak about as believers has to do with the restoration of that relationship with God through Jesus. Life – true life – is found in a relationship with God! “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3 (ESV)
This was a small but critical point in my discipleship. To me, eternal life to me was for the longest time more of a “thing” – perhaps like the “force” in Star Wars – rather than a relationship. I had lived with the “idea” of God rather than living life with God, as a Person. If ultimate reality is God and the God we believe in exists not as a singularity but as Trinity (i.e. in loving relationship), how then would we not expect ourselves, as creatures made in His image, to reflect that also? I must learn afresh what it means to truly relate, that true life comes through relationships.
- Sin has to do with living our lives independent of God. What did Satan mean when he told Eve that if she took of the forbidden fruit, she would “be like God, knowing good and evil?” (Gen 3:5.) Well, what does it mean to be God in the first place? Apart from the notion of God as Creator, to be God means one has the authority to determine right and wrong. God is the standard and measure of all things. When I choose to live my live apart from God, I then determine what is right and wrong for myself. In that sense, I have become my own “god.” That is what it means to “know good and evil” – I am the authority who determines right and wrong. And that is probably why the world is the way it is! There are 7.5 billion little “gods” on earth, wanting to live our lives in our own ways!
This broad, and highly inadequate, sweep of the universal problem of pain, sin and death sets us up to consider the human problem of suffering addressed in Part 2.