DOCTOR: Where the hell have you been? Every time you've asked, I have been there. Where the hell were you today?
RIVER: I couldn't have prevented this.
DOCTOR: You could have tried!
These lines from British Sci-Fi series Doctor Who come at the end of an episode called, “A Good Man Goes to War.” The Doctor is an utter pacifist. In series after series, he’s refused to fight. Instead, he's conquered evil time after time with his sonic screwdriver and the power of his brain and hearts (he has two hearts, long story). But in this episode, his best friend, Amy, has been captured by his enemies and has given birth within a prison cell. The Doctor has called on all his friends to come and fight to free her and her child. At first, it seems they’ve won. But in the final analysis, they finds that Amy’s baby has been stolen after all.
And then the enigmatic River Song shows up. She, like the Doctor, has time-traveling powers. She, like the Doctor, has extraordinary smarts. Unlike the Doctor, she's ready at all times to wield a gun. But when the Doctor called on her, she didn't come.
“Where the hell have you been?” he demands.
River gives two answers to the Doctor’s question. The first is one we'll never hear from God: “I couldn't have prevented this.”
God could have prevented this
When faced with a global pandemic, some well-meaning believers seek to get God off the hook. But the God we find on the pages of the Bible is not impotent. He created and sustains all things. He could have prevented this.
The Bible invites us to cry out to Him. With the Psalms, we can lament and supplicate and even demand God’s intervention, like children screaming for their parents' help. But we cannot say He's not in charge. A global pandemic may be beyond our power to restrain. But it’s not beyond His. Yes, He is loving. Yes, He’s in control. In fact, in Paul's letter to the Romans, we find one promise among many that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:38). But that good is often not our comfort, and often we won't understand. He works through disaster. He even works through sin. Joseph in the Old Testament explained to the brothers who had sold him into slavery, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Genesis 50:20).
River’s first answer will not do for the Bible's God. The One who made the universe can surely mutate a virus in an instant to make it benign.
But River’s second answer is one that - in a sense - this God can give.
Where is God?
Confronted with the Doctor’s anger, River helps him understand the truth. The reason she had not come when he called was that she was already there. River and the Doctor are time travelers (long story, once again). She is Amy’s baby: the most vulnerable actor in the drama of the day. And part of God’s answer to where He is in suffering is a baby in a manger. God's son sent to suffer in the most horrific way: the overmastering power of God wedded to helpless infancy; the everlasting Son of God, stripped down and tortured on a Roman cross.
Where is the God of the Bible in suffering? Right at the heart of it. The King of the world forever identified with the victimized and dying. Jesus lived and died this truth. He also preached it. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus warned, “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And those whom he welcomes, Jesus explains, will be those who welcomed him, in the bodies of the sick and suffering and naked and hungry and imprisoned and diseased (Matthew 25:31-46).
God is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). He weeps with those who weep (John 11:35). And one day he will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4).
But even ask we ask, “Where is God in this time of suffering?” we must also ask the question, “Where are we?”
Where are we?
Christians are called to be Christ's body on earth. This is a profound challenge to all of us who follow Christ today. Even as we struggle to cope ourselves, are we being his embracing arms to the most vulnerable, despite all the present constraints? Are we loving the marginalized as best we can, even as we're forced to hunker down? Are we living like sheep who follow their Shepherd’s voice?
Part of the answer to where God is right now is the makeshift hospital set up by Christians in New York's Central Park. Christians first invented hospitals because of the teachings of Jesus, and today, Christian charities are the greatest provider of non-profit aid worldwide. God's actions are seen - in part - through the hands of his people. We cannot prevent all the suffering this global pandemic will cause. But, in Christ’s name, we can try.
For those would not identify as Christians, the question is yet more profound. “Where the hell were you?” demanded the Doctor, and at the heart of the Christian message is the truth that Jesus went to hell for us. That he – in his vulnerable, naked, crucified body – experienced the full wrath of God against a world of sin. If we hide ourselves in him, we will be safe, whatever happens. "I am the resurrection and the life," declared Jesus to a grieving friend, "Anyone who believes in me, even though he dies will live" (John 11:25). But if we flee this loving God, refusing the rescue He has offered us, the Bible warns that one day - when the wave of final judgment falls - we will be crushed.
River reminds the Doctor who he is: “The man that can turn an army around at the mention of his name.” And one word from the Lord Jesus would end this pandemic today. Until that word comes, Christians must be about their master’s business. But if we have not sheltered ourselves in Christ, His call today is not to heal the sick but to come to him for healing ourselves. He is the great Doctor (Mark 2:17), who went through hell to bring us life. You and I may survive this global pandemic. But as surely as night follows day, death will come for us one day. And when it comes, the only place of safety will be the wounds in Jesus's hands. Don't wait to come to this great Doctor. Come to Him today and live.
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