What is God trying to say to us amid COVID-19?
This is my 44th piece on the coronavirus. The world certainly has changed from just a few months ago. Some of my earlier articles focused on spiritual, biblical and theological perspectives on this crisis. Then a number of articles appeared looking at social, political, legal and economic aspects of this. Here I return to a more devotional assessment of what we are all going through right now.
In those earlier pieces I looked at some basic Christian themes, such as the fact that God does indeed judge, and at the very least God is using something like COVID-19 to get our attention, to put him back into focus, and to get our priorities straightened out. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/15/dealing-with-disease-disaster-and-discipleship/
I also looked at the covenant curses and blessings that Yahweh had initiated with ancient Israel, and I asked how much of that – if any – can be directly drawn into our current situation: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/10/difficult-bible-passages-psalm-9110/
I also said that whenever there is spiritual surgery going on we must allow it to complete its course, and not try to run out of the hospital before the treatment is fully undertaken. We all prefer to get back to normal as soon as possible, and not let God properly and entirely do what he wants to do in our lives. See here: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/21/no-more-business-as-usual-2/
Here I want to tie these three themes together, along with one or two more. To do this I will in part draw upon a book I recently recommended: Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah (IVP, 2015). In just a brief paragraph description I could not say too much about it: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/04/23/essential-christian-reading-during-the-corona-lockdown/
So here I can say that I do not fully agree with all that he writes. Politically speaking, it is clear that he is a man firmly of the religious left, and I was not always keen on what he had to say when he discussed political and social matters. But when he spoke of the importance of the lament, and how so much of American Christianity is uncomfortable with it, I fully concurred.
His book is an examination of the lament in general, and the book of Lamentations in particular. The lament (or complaint or protest) psalm is the largest portion of the Psalter, and much of Scripture features it. I have written before about the importance of lament, eg.: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-lament-psalms/
In his book Rah says this by way of introducing lament psalms:
Laments are prayers of petition arising out of need. But lament is not simply the presentation of a list of complaints, nor merely the expression of sadness over difficult circumstances. Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.
As to the book of Lamentations, this was of course written as a response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians. It was an unthinkable and devastating experience for the Jews: “The destruction of Jerusalem serves as the apex of suffering for God’s people. The last stronghold for a formerly great nation fell, inaugurating the exile period for God’s people.”
The false prophets had insisted that God would never judge his people and violate his temple, and even when the exile did take place, the false prophets were saying it would just be for a very short period of time. The true prophets begged to differ of course.
Jeremiah 29 is one biblical commentary on all this. It is ‘a letter to the exiles’ and it tells them that this period of captivity would last for 70 years, and that they should “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage” (vv. 5-6).
There would be no quick fix here. They were in it for the long haul. Yes, a return to home would eventually occur. There was light at the end of the tunnel. But God had to let his work run its full course. Lessons for us today would be similar: we do not know how long this crisis will last, but we must allow God to achieve what he wants from this.
While most of us just want things to go back to normal, God may well have more important things in mind: especially that the inhabitants of planet earth will get on their knees, acknowledge their God, repent, and put him first. That would be the most crucial response we could make. As such, this whole thing can be seen as the great mercy of God, to get us to get right with him before it is too late.
A second and final thing that I want to highlight from this book is this: just as God was in control of the exile (he was fully behind it and using it for his purposes), so too he is in control of coronavirus and was not taken by surprise by its outbreak.
While the Babylonian exile was a definite judgment of God for the disobedience of Israel, we cannot say with the same assurance that corona is God’s judgment on the world. It could well be, but we do not have any sure prophetic word on this as was found in the Old Testament.
But God is still on top of things here. As horrible as it is, God will carry out his plans, just as the horrible destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews was actually part of God’s loving interaction with them. And Lamentations 2 focuses “on a proper response to God’s sovereignty”.
Says Rah, “The destruction of Jerusalem reveals YHWH’s fidelity to the covenant curses, which reflects his fidelity to the covenant itself. If God stays true to his character, he has to judge unrighteousness and injustice because he takes sin seriously.”
It is appropriate for the lamenter to experience a level of disease and discomfort with the harsh judgment imposed upon Jerusalem. However, lament also acknowledges God’s right to judge humanity. God abhors sin, therefore the prophet should also abhor sin. The prophetic role is to point out and call out sin, not just in the individual context but also in the corporate context. The faithfulness to point out sin is also an implicit faithfulness in God’s desire to restore. He has judged rightly and he will restore rightly. Are we willing, therefore, to accept God’s righteous and appropriate judgment?
And one more quote:
Lament presents an appropriate response to suffering, but lament must also correspond to the recognition that God is in control. The expression of God as the main subject of agency in Lamentations 2 reveals a God who is indeed sovereign over history and serves as the righteous judge over history. If we trust in God’s sovereignty to judge, then we can also hope in God’s sovereignty to expand his reign over human history. Lamentations 2 asserts that God is the primary actor in Jerusalem’s history. The acknowledgment of this sovereignty should free those of us who put our trust in God to not put ourselves in the place of God. An important aspect of Lamentations is the challenge to accept historical reality and to embrace God’s sovereignty over history. We are called to lament over suffering and pain, but also to recognize God’s larger work.”
That is my main concern here: to get us to see the bigger picture, to try to discern what God might be doing here, and what our appropriate response might be. Yes, God is in control – he was over the Babylonian captivity, and he is over COVID-19.
What really matters is to seek God, seek his will, and seek to get fully in alignment with his purposes. And I cannot see how any biblical Christian would deny this basic truth: whether or not this present crisis is the direct and explicit judgment of God upon a sinful and rebellious world (it certainly could be), at the very least, God is using it to get our attention, to get us to rearrange our priorities, and to get right with God in Christ while we still have the chance.