What is God Teaching Us Through Coronavirus?
Is the global coronavirus pandemic a judgement from God on the world? Or is God doing something different through this crisis?
I have just finished reading Michael Winship’s recent book Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. I have been reminded that the Puritans often regarded every setback, difficulty, and trouble in life - whether personal, ecclesiological, or national – as a punishment from God for their sin.
When they experienced affliction, they would search themselves, fast, and pray for repentance, whether individually or corporately.
It is very easy for Christians today to think similarly about the affiliations we suffer - though ironically, of course, this would be just the inverse of the rightly critiqued ‘prosperity gospel’.
As we face the coronavirus crisis, many might wonder if we are experiencing the direct judgement of God as a result of our sin, whether individually or collectively.
Whether we think this is the case or not will determine how we approach our afflictions in this crisis, and how we come to God in prayer.
God Disciplines His Children
Hebrews 12:4-13 is a passage that could easily be read as suggesting that our afflictions and sufferings are the result of God’s direct punishment. Quoting and applying Proverbs 3:11-12, the author says that God disciplines us because we are his children.
In the context of Proverbs, the language of discipline certainly seems to assume corrective punishment for wrong-doing. However, discipline also includes the idea of training which is not a direct punishment for sin.
This certainly seems to true of the readers of Hebrews. They were Christians from a Jewish background and experienced severe hardships at the hands of their former community because of their faith in the Lord Jesus. Some were in prison, others had lost their property, and many were in danger of abandoning their faith in Christ to return to Judaism.
There is no indication in the letter that they have suffered these afflictions because they have sinned in some way. Rather, these are a manifestation of the persecution that Jesus promised his disciples would suffer. To be a disciple is to be a ‘learner’ who follows in the footsteps of his teacher. Just as Jesus was persecuted, so his disciples can expect to be persecuted.
This is important in understanding Hebrews 12 because it makes clear that the author does not think that his readers are being disciplined by way of punishment for their sin. Rather, the hardships they are experiencing, which are part and parcel of the ordinary Christian life, are training them and maturing their faith.
Far from being an indication that God has failed them, their experienced hardships are tangible evidence of his love towards them.
Is Coronavirus God’s Judgement?
I think this is a helpful perspective as we face the relative hardships of the coronavirus crisis.
It is possible that the virus is a specific judgement from the Lord but, in the absence of any revelation to this effect, it seems unlikely. The impact of the virus is global, and it is hard to point to any specific sin that has prompted God to act in this way at this time. There are plenty of reasons why God might justifiably punish but none to suggest that this is a particular moment of his judgement.
It is much more plausible to see the coronavirus as a manifestation of the curse of God’s good world as a result of sin. Disease and death is a fact of life in a fallen world that has been subjected to frustration and decay whilst it awaits redemption and the revelation of the children of God (Romans 8).
Every affliction of this kind is anticipating and warning of the final eschatological judgement to come - but it is not a specific judgement for a specific sin.
Hebrews assures us that the hardships we experience are part of God’s plan to train us. His training discipline is for our good to enable us to grow in holiness. It may feel painful and unwelcome but “it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10-11).
What is God Teaching Us?
Rather than asking what sin has caused God to treat us in this way, a much better question is to ask what God might be teaching us through this crisis. This is a general principle for the Christian life but it might be especially helpful during this particular time of hardship and affliction.
Although we may not appreciate fully what God is seeking to teach his people during this time for years to come, it is already possible to suggest some lessons we are learning:
- As we are unable to gather physically as churches, God is perhaps training us to appreciate the vital importance of the church community and making meeting together a priority;
- As we feel our individual weakness and vulnerability, God is perhaps training us to repent of our self-dependence and to learn to live by faith and prayer;
- As the vulnerable are in self-isolation for a long period, God is perhaps training us to care for others and put their needs ahead of our own;
- As we find ourselves restricted in our homes and communities, God is perhaps training us to gain a renewed evangelistic heart for our neighbours;
- As we find ourselves confined at home with spouses and children, parents, or other relatives, God is perhaps training us to deepen our relationships and put right any unresolved tensions or distance that may have damaged them;
- As we find ourselves unable to do many of the things we have taken for granted, God is perhaps training us to value what really matters in life and forcing us to give up our consumerism and idolatry;
- As we find ourselves threatened by something that is affecting the whole of society, God is perhaps training us to value the government he has placed over us to ensure order and protect us;
- As we find ourselves with time on our hands, God is perhaps training us to regain a habit of daily prayer and bible reading;
- As we find ourselves in awe of the dedication and sacrifice of healthcare workers and those who are performing essential jobs that sustain life, God is perhaps training us to re-evaluate who we regard as heroic and freeing us from our adulation of over-paid celebrities and sports stars;
- As we feel the fear of death and frailty of life, God is perhaps training us to appreciate the assurance of the gospel hope of resurrection and liberating us from the unconscious fear that prevents us from living life for him to the full with joyful confidence in the future that awaits us;
- As we sense that the lock-down is going to last longer than we first imagined, God is perhaps training us in the virtues of patience and long-suffering;
- As we begin to understand the devastating impact that the virus will have in less developed countries of the world, God is perhaps training us to regain our passion for world mission and to care for our poorer brothers and sisters around the world.
No doubt there are many other things that God is teaching us and our church. We need to have faith that God is acting for our good, and that he is confirming his love to us through these affiliations. If we understand this it will change the way that we respond to this crisis.
We will be those who are willing to “submit to the Father of spirits and live!” (Hebrews 12:9), welcoming his discipline for what it can accomplish in us.
We will surely want to pray, not just that God would be merciful and restrain this virus and its impact, but also that it might produce a harvest of righteousness amongst us.
Photo by Allan Leonard on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).