Why would God allow this to happen? Perhaps you are familiar with this phrase. Or maybe you have tried to keep it at bay. Whatever your own relationship with this question, it is one that many people ask. But is this the right question? Or should we be asking something else?
The impact of Covid on our society has been widely reported. But it is only recently that we can see the true impact of the virus on our prisons. A report compiled by prisoner-led charity, User Voice, found that 85% of people in prison experienced being kept in their cells for at least 23 hours a day. This confinement resulted in devastating consequences with many reporting experiences of despair, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Depression and anxiety levels among people in prison were almost five times higher than those of the general population during lockdown.
Being in prison is often already an incredibly traumatic and painful experience. The measures put in place in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid and prevent loss of life can be continually debated. But what cannot be argued with is the devastating effect Covid had on not just the life and mental wellbeing of people in prison, but on wider society as a whole.
Experiences like a global pandemic bring questions such as ‘why would God allow this to happen?’ to the fore. But instead, perhaps we could ask, ‘what can God do now?’
We know that our God is an all-loving God and yet we live in a world of suffering. Through the ages, many people have tried to explain this tension. St Augustine talks about this beautifully, saying, ‘God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist.’
More recently, Tim Keller took this even further: ‘When bad things do happen, you say “wait a minute, I thought that God loved me”…don’t you see that the ultimate triumph of good over evil is that now when evil happens, God uses it for good.’ And we are witnessing this in our prisons, too: James has been a Prison Fellowship volunteer for six years. He has found that, because of the Covid lockdown, his role in prison has changed. To prevent the spread of Covid, group meetings were suspended and increasingly he was able to talk one-to-one with people in prison and grow those relationships. Without the pressure and performance of a group situation, James found that he was having more vulnerable and genuine conversations about life and faith.
This is a story that will be echoed in the experience of many of our volunteers across England and Wales over the last two years. As prisons open their doors again and begin allowing meetings in a group setting, we need to think about how we can continue to foster these valuable one-to-one conversations that are helping people in prison explore their faith on a deeper level.
The Covid pandemic was an incredibly challenging and painful time for many of us. But instead of spending time wondering why God would allow something like that to happen, let us meditate on the good that God was able to bring from such a bad situation.
As we move on, we will certainly face further challenges. Perhaps now more than ever, we need spirit-filled individuals and communities who do not try to explain away the pain, but get down to God’s work: bringing light in dark places and hope to the hopeless.
This article was first published in our quarterly magazine in:sight. You can sign up to receive our free magazine by post or via email by visiting prisonfellowship.org.uk/subscribe