As we press on through these trying times, the voices of the faithful are starting to cry out even louder. Looking for a way to make sense of what we're going through, it seems we're ready to give God all the credit for this - for better or for worse - but should we?
On one hand, we know that nothing happens in this world without God knowing about it. We know that He coordinates and orchestrates and weaves together a lot of what we experience. But we also know, if we're paying attention, that not everything that happens in this world is "God's plan;" a lot of things happen that He would rather not, and even though He works them together for good, it doesn't mean He's behind them to begin with.
And the truth is that a lot of what we're willing to say about God in times like these raises more questions about Him than it answers about us. That's not really helpful. So let's look at a few of the things circulating, just some that I've happened to see so far, and ask whether they really are a blessing to our faith or a burden to it.
- Is Covid-19 a "plague"? Is it something God has sent upon us to punish us for something?
It doesn't look like this is true. A simple look at plagues in the Bible reveals one thing - they are targeted. The plagues of God either affect His people or His enemies, never both. Israel was protected from the plagues in Egypt; when plagues swept through Israel's camp, the rest of the world was untouched. The virus spreading through the world right now is not discriminating. It is infecting Christians and pagans and Muslims and atheists and everyone. If it's a plague from God, it would be unlike any other plague He's ever sent into the world. And it would be inconsistent with His nature as a discriminating God.
We should also say that there have been plenty of diseases throughout the history of the world, diseases for which the church has found herself on the front lines, that were never considered to be plagues. Leprosy, for example. Tuberculosis, for another. AIDS, for a third. When these illnesses broke out, we didn't consider them plagues; we saw them as opportunities for grace. We'd be well to do the same here.
- But isn't God using this as a time to help us refocus, to tear down our idols, to restore our hearts?
This is a common response of people of faith right now, talking about how God has stripped our lives in quarantine of all the things we are tempted to worship except for Him. This is true, but only if you're taking advantage of the opportunity in this way. Not everyone is. In fact, we're going to see new addictions form during this time. We're going to see an increase in the number of persons who can't stop streaming shows, who drink more than usual because no one is watching. Traffic on pornography sites is already up exponentially.
For the people of faith, this certainly is an opportunity to refocus and reconnect with sacred things, but unless your heart leans that way, that's just not the natural outcome of a time like this. A lot of persons are going to turn to darker things and get sucked into vortexes they will wrestle the rest of their lives to get out of, and the honest truth is that many of them won't. This is another one of those examples of God working things together for good - we can reap tremendous benefits out of a season of Sabbath like this, but only because we see it as restorative. Only because our faith guides us that way. It's one of those coworkings between us as a people of faith and the God in whom we believe.
- Isn't this a sign of the end times? I swear to you, I can already hear the trumpets.
Again, probably not, although it's also true to say that no one knows. Some of us are far too anxious for Jesus to come back and put us out of the misery of our flesh, and we'll take about any sign we can get to say that it's happening soon. God said it would be soon, but that was also 2,000 years ago. But if you need proof that this isn't the end times, consider this: God said that two would be working together in a field or life-ing together in town, and one would be taken and the other would be left. Right now, we're not doing anything together anywhere and most of us aren't even working. So, you know...
- Fine. Maybe you're right. But God is still speaking to us through all of this. There are things He wants us to know; we just have to figure out what they are.
This is true all the time, not just in times of pandemic. God is always speaking to us through all the things we experience. He's constantly whispering in our hearts, hoping we'll hear Him speak words of comfort, of peace, of strength, of courage, of faith, of hope, of promise. But we don't have to have some mystical knowledge or mathematical formula to figure out what He's saying. This is the old heresy of gnosticism; it's been around since basically the beginning of the church, and it's always been struck down as heresy. God isn't cryptic. He doesn't send us secret messages.
By now, you've probably seen the thing circulating on social media about 2 Corinthians. Someone saw "CO vid 19" and decided it was God declaring to turn to 2 Corinthians and look up a specific verse. But honestly, why 2 Corinthians and not 1 Corinthians? Why not Colossians? "Vid" are last three letters of David; maybe there's something in his story we're supposed to look at. It's random, grasping at straws. We know that every word in the Bible is a good word, and there are thousands of them we could apply right now. To say that God is leading us through a secret code to one word over another is simply a stretch; it's hard to defend.
- Okay. Let's say you're right and none of this is God's work, none of this is holy conspiracy. It just...is. What's the harm in finding a way to put God in the middle of it? Why does it matter if I'm wrong in speaking about God the way that I am...at least I'm getting God out there!
And this is the rub. Because we think that every time we give God power or strength or agency or glory or anything, we're doing Him a service. We think getting His name out there, however we go about it, is a good thing. But what we're doing right now raises more questions about God than it answers, and that sets Him up for failure in the hearts of those who might be so, so close to finding Him. So, so close to receiving Him.
If we say it's a plague, then we have to explain why. When we start to explain why, we run up against the non-discriminating aspect of the virus, and now, we have to explain why the grandmother who taught Sunday school for 70 years and never missed a day of church and fed the homeless in her community died alone in the ICU on a ventilator, the same way that the axe murderer who embezzled funds from the non-profit he worked for did. Tell me why God killed them both. Go ahead. I'm waiting.
If we say God is using this time to break our idols, we have to explain why. When we start to explain why, we run up against the fact that many more idols are being made in times like this. Why does God care if we watch too many sports, but He's okay with Bill streaming pornography for two weeks straight in the privacy of his own home? Why is God so concerned with our love of movies or concerts or dining out, but He's fine with Sheila drinking herself to oblivion every night? Tell me why God is so worried about one thing but not another. Go ahead. Try it.
If we say that these are the end times, we have to explain why that's more true today than the 6,412 other times that Christians have claimed the end is near only to be wrong. And we just can't do it. We've always been wrong. And when we've been wrong, we've often been unloving. So just...love one another. Stop trying to be right.
If we say that God is speaking to us through all this and that we just have to figure out what He's saying, we set up barriers of knowledge between God and His people. Only those in the know can figure Him out. Only those who take the time to do the math can know what God is saying. For a God who has spent the entire history of the world speaking plainly to His people, that's a soul-crusher. It just is.
Look, I get it. As people of faith, we want to put God in the middle of all of this. And we should. But not in the ways that we're doing it. Not in the ways that make Him harder to understand, more difficult to access, impossible to love. Not in the ways that build walls between Him and His people. Tomorrow, I'll talk about where faith really comes into all of this and what we're supposed to be doing with it. Stay tuned for that.