Seen on Facebook this week:
Hear it again: “God allows trials to come our way to get our relationship back in tune with Him in order to keep us from eternal calamity.”
Is that what God is saying to us in these challenging days? Is a text from 2 Chronicles a word from heaven for us? This minister seems to think so.
In this Covid-19 pandemic, did God “send an epidemic on [his] people” for a purpose? Is God calling us to “repent and turn from the evil [we] have been doing”? If we dedicate ourselves to prayer and this kind of repentance, will God hear us, forgive us, and make us prosperous again?
Many of our spiritual ancestors would have thought so. There is a certain view of Providence (with a capital “P”) that emerges, in my opinion, from an unacceptably flat view of the Bible, one that makes no distinctions between various texts and how they apply. One that sees no progress or development in revelation.
We read a passage of scripture and if it sounds like what we’re going through, we take it as God’s Word™ spoken directly to us. And in a time of natural disaster, the word, culled from a multitude of available First Testament texts, is that God’s judgment is falling upon us. Or, as Pastor Robert Jeffress said in his recent sermon, “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” — “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin.”
Nor is this merely a Protestant or evangelical perspective. In an article on LifeSite News, Catholic historian and author Dr. Roberto de Mattei calls coronavirus a “scourge from God.” Mattei quotes Saint Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444), who declared: “There are three scourges with which God chastises: war, plague, and famine.” The professor concurs, saying —
The theology of history tells us that God rewards and punishes not only men but also collectivities and social groups: families, nations, civilizations. But while men have their reward or chastisement, sometimes on earth but always in heaven, nations, which do not have an eternal life, are punished or rewarded only on earth.
God is righteous and rewarding and gives to each what is his due: he not only chastises individual persons but he also sends tribulations to families, cities, and nations for the sins which they commit.
God is the author of nature with its forces and its laws, and he has the power to arrange the mechanism of the forces and laws of nature in such a way as to produce a phenomenon according to the needs of his justice or his mercy.
While this may be established theology for some, I think it’s bad Bible, failing to recognize the Christocentric nature of true Christian interpretation. At Maclean’s, Michael Coren agrees.
At a more serious or theological level, this is a reductive and banal spirituality that may satisfy the zealot but is dangerously crass and in fact profoundly ungodly. It depicts a genocidal God, sufficiently cruel to hurt indiscriminately, and too indifferent or impotent to be able to punish only those who have genuinely caused harm. It’s all the product of an ancient, fearful belief system that has nothing to do with the gentle Jewish rabbi of the 1st century who called for love and forgiveness, and so distant and different from the Gospel calls of Jesus to turn the other cheek, embrace our enemies, reach out to the most rejected and marginalized, and work for justice and peace.
If God is speaking to us, perhaps it is more a message about loving our neighbors, making sacrificial choices for the sake of others, praying for wisdom to know how to support our public officials and those ministering to the sick, and sharing the good news of Jesus who heals the sick and binds up the wounds of the brokenhearted, rather than a message of divine judgment.
Hebrews 1 tells us that Jesus is God’s final word for us. John 1 tells us that the unseen God is seen in Jesus. God is Jesus-shaped, and that means he comes to us incarnationally rather than in the kind of providential judgments and deliverances attributed to God in the First Testament.
Furthermore, the risen Jesus indwells his people through the Spirit he poured out upon us. The message of God to the world comes not through natural phenomena like coronavirus but through the good news proclaimed by and embodied in a people who bear his name. “War, plague, and famine” are not severe words from God. They are groans of a broken creation into which God sends his word of faith, hope, and love through Jesus-shaped people.