COVID-19 – Sovereignty, Lament and Hope during a Global Pandemic

With the world in what seems like an unprecedented level of turmoil thanks to a threat that in and of itself knows no cultural or geographical limits, I’ve found myself asking, as many of us probably have, where do I fit in this situation, what do I think about it, what can I do about it, and how should I interpret these events in light of my beliefs and convictions? It raises existential questions about living vs existing, about mistakes made by the human race, and about the nature of God and how He relates to us as creatures living in His world… and by extension how we should relate to Him, especially in times of trouble. Through all the negative news reports, the empty supermarket shelves, the toilet paper shortages (Australians are crazy for toilet paper now, and it makes little sense as to why), the heightened societal anxiety, the media hype, the talk of ‘herd immunity’ and vaccines and lengthy time frames, the talk of ‘flattening the curve’ with good hygiene and social distancing – what has stuck out to me most prominently is that we as humans do not like one thing in particular… there is one thing we will do our absolute best to avoid before collectively freaking out when we realise our best isn’t good enough and it’s unavoidable: the reality that you and I are not in control of our lives, at least not in an ultimate sense.

Before moving forward, I want to make two points of clarification:

  1. I support the measures the Australian Government has put in place to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 in order to ease the pressure on our nation’s medical system and to hopefully enable us to therefore better care for those suffering as a direct result of infection and I am trying to do my part by #stayingathome. At the same time, I mourn the loss of face-to-face interactions with those outside of my household, and of attending church. Church online is not the way church is supposed to happen. I’m thankful for the tech that makes it possible, but I think we should all be praying for the restoration of face-to-face corporate gatherings of believers to occur as soon as possible, and looking for ways to care for one another effectively in a time when social (physical) distancing is so important.
  2. While it is certainly possible that the global spread of the coronavirus is a form of God’s judgment of a world marred by sin, I think it can be dangerous and unhelpful to say God is definitely using X to judge humanity for Y. We don’t know exactly what God’s purposes are in relation to COVID-19, but the Bible makes it abundantly clear that God’s purposes always prevail (Psalm 135:6), Daniel 4:35),and even in the worst of circumstances, God is working for good (Acts 4:26-28). He is not the author of evil (for further explanation see The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 3 Paragraph 1). He is the author of life, He gives and he takes away, He is holy, and He is a God of both wrath and grace. Many seem to fall into thinking that God has some form of split personality, that prior to Jesus’s earthly life, ministry, death and resurrection He was a God of wrath but now he only acts in grace and mercy. Absolutely the message of the cross is good news for sinners, and he does show abundant love, grace and mercy to all who repent and believe, but for those who continue unrepentant in sin, and for whole nations who collectively turn their backs on Him, judgment will come. It will occur in the life to come, unless they turn to Him in the here and now, but it may also occur on this side of eternity. As John Piper pointed out in a recent Ask Pastor John podcast episode, natural disasters and the like can occur as a form of ‘mercy in judgment’. Such circumstances are a call to people everywhere to repent and turn from their self reliance and idolatry and come to God for forgiveness, peace that surpasses understanding, and a hope that is never put to shame. In this way, it seems maybe our society should treat COVID-19 as a wake-up call, a reminder to run to the One who does have all the answers, is never backed into a corner by the circumstances of the world, and who is always the same, even when society seems to be barely holding together around us.

Our lack of control should lead to resting in the One who is in control

The feeling of not being in control of our lives anymore, which I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, seems to me to be perhaps the biggest source of fear for people in relation to this pandemic. People are looking to governments for answers and finding the answers aren’t all that reassuring, then trying to stock their pantry shelves to at least be in control of their food supplies for an extra week or two. They are locking down with a constant eye on social media and the news, hoping for a cure but seeking updates on how many cases, where are they, why is or isn’t this or that type of business closing, and so on. Having things shut down and lock down around us is a stark reminder that we are all used to a certain kind of ‘normal’, a feeling that we are generally in control of our day-to-day lives, the government is (at least in some sense, although never perfectly!) in control of our nation, the world leaders are in control of major world events… and yet much of that control is on such shaky ground. In fact, it is on such shaky ground that something we can’t see (tiny virus molecules) can destabilise it within a matter of weeks. Considering the idea of a wake-up call, have we pondered the possibility that the God to whom so many in once Christianised nations have turned their backs and said, ‘we know better, we’ll do it our way, we will be in control of our lives and our legacies’ over the last 50 years as they’ve collectively believed the lie of the fast-growing ‘religion’ of secular humanism might have something to say to us through events like COVID-19? Do we need to be reminded that for all of our cleverness, our modernity (and post modernity) and our advances in technology, science and medicine, our lives are actually a vapour that is here for a little while and then gone, and whatever plans we make for our lives during that short time are ultimately in His hand (James 4:13-15)? Might we need to be humbled by the fact that our lives are sustained every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every year by God who gives us life and breath and everything (Acts 17:25)?

I’m sure some readers of this blog who have read my posts, particularly since the birth of my son Josiah in 2018 with several medical complications, are probably sick of me harping on about God’s sovereignty. The fact is though, it’s not just a handy trump card, it actually makes sense of the world when nothing else seems to make sense, but more than that, it answers the bad and difficult and sad situations in life with a real hope grounded in the God who created the universe and everything in it. It seems to me that as we look at this situation there are three broad positions/categories many of us might fall into:

Position 1. Some people believe in God, but don’t believe He is sovereign over all things, just the good things that happen, or they believe he is picking up the pieces of human decisions and making from it the best that he can. If you believe in this God, then questions about why crises like COVID-19 don’t come to a quicker end become very hard to think about. You start doubting God’s power, or his goodness, or both, which can lead to scenario 2. The Bible is pretty clear that God does not lack in power or goodness, so there must be another explanation. Lamentations 3:31-33 says,

For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men. (ESV)

Yes, God is saddened events in the world and he doesn’t take pleasure in human suffering, but as a man named Steve Estes once said to Christian author and quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves” (read more from Joni here). This means he can and does work through even terribly sad situations to bring about a greater good, so biblically and theologically it seems position 1 falls short.

Position 2. Some people don’t believe in God at all, and when God is mentioned in relation to world events they seem to want to shake their fist at the God they don’t believe exists and say “How dare he?!” If you don’t believe in God and instead believe everything that happens is just part of a big unguided evolutionary process, then you might not like COVID-19, you might prefer to live through it than have your life threatened or cut short by it and therefore take some precautions, but ultimately whatever comes from it is something that you should technically be indifferent towards. The unbelieving worldview leaves very little room for meaningful mourning over death and destruction, since these are supposedly just the results of ‘nature doing its thing’. I’d suggest, though, that the vast majority of unbelievers don’t live consistently with this. Instead, they get upset about death and disease and destruction, but they have no moral foundation for this because their belief system does not allow it. The only answer to our problems in this scenario is the knowledge and experience of humanity, and when that falls short, one is naturally left wondering where to look next.

Position 3. Other people believe in God and believe He is sovereign over all things, even the difficult things (Job 9:6-12) and yet He is always good (Psalm 145), He loves all He has made and is ‘near to all who call on Him in truth’ (Psalm 145:18). Whether we understand how or why, He is working all of the circumstances of this world together for the good of His people. Now that is a God worth following through the fire, and the storm, and the coronavirus. This is the God whose love for His people means He is with us always (Romans 8:38-39) including in times of distress (Deuteronomy 31:6), and whose goodness, power and control over His world mean He can be trusted and is able to deliver us from these times while also bringing good out of them (Psalm 34).

In short, our lack of control is a problem for us, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. Rather than causing us to be anxious and to worry or stress (Matthew 6:31-33), it should lead us to rest in the One who is in control – the One who is the source of true peace (Philippians 4:4-9).

Lament is part of the journey, it’s not a destination

I know N.T. Wright is popular in evangelical circles, but his (TIME Magazine article ‘Christianity offers no answers about the Coronavirus. It’s not supposed to.’) is potentially the biggest wasted opportunity for a Christian to say something good from a secular platform that I’ve seen. Yes, we don’t always understand how God is working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and therefore all the reasons why things happen the way they do, but the Bible is absolutely clear that God is sovereign, and that is a true comfort! If one doesn’t have a category in one’s thinking wherein God is sovereign and works bad situations for good, even when we don’t understand how exactly it is all happening, then not only does that person seem to ignore (at worst) or downplay (at best) a key component of God’s self-revelation as omnipotent and omniscient, as Wright seems to have done, they also lack the ability to offer hope to a hurting world. Yes, lament is important, and there is much to learn about it in scripture, and we should get better at lamenting biblically, but lament without hope is not biblical or helpful.

The whole of the Bible must be allowed to speak. Rather than cherry picking bits of psalms (and of course, the 88th psalm specifically) to support the idea that we should hang in a state of lament indefinitely and ‘get comfortable with a lack of answers’, etc., it’s important to realise that the Bible and its human authors (inspired by the Holy Spirit) don’t remain in lament, they move from lament to hope. God doesn’t leave his people languishing in exile forever, He rescues them. God doesn’t leave David in fear for his life, He delivers him from his enemies. God doesn’t leave Israel without a Messiah, he sends Jesus. Jesus doesn’t stay in the grave after his death on the cross… we lament on Friday, but we know Sunday is coming because God is sovereign – he is in charge and in control – and nothing can thwart his purposes, Jesus’ followers don’t get lost in their lament when Jesus returns to the Father because He has promised to send the Holy Spirit to be with them – and He keeps His promises. The final book in the Bible puts a big full stop on this point in that it doesn’t end with judgement and therefore lament (thought that is certainly in there and should not be forgotten or dismissed), rather it ends with the hope of the new heavens and the new earth because God is in control; He has defeated sin and death, He is faithful in keeping His promises and He always has the final word… and it is a good word because He is good, all the time, even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Somehow, some way, in His time, this too will not be wasted. It will be a step along the way (albeit one in which we groan with the pain of a broken world marred by sin and its effects) to the new heavens and new earth, a home of peace and health and joy for all who relinquish control of their own lives and put their trust in Jesus, finding their hope in His promises.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble. –
Psalm 46:1 (ESV)

But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. – Romans 8:25-27 (ESV)

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)

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