What is this? A prominent Texas church rented a billboard for commuters to see, “Is the coronavirus a judgment from God?” Good question. Reactions from Christian pastors to the pandemic has really run the gamut, ranging from blaming our godlessness to a humbling call to repent to rush back in to normalcy because God has your back. Pastor Ralph Drollinger who leads a bible study for President Trump’s cabinet wrote on his blog that disease is “God’s consequential wrath on our nation”. His message is when you violate God’s precepts you will suffer consequences, aka: there is hell to pay. Pastor Tony Spell of Baton Rouge has defiantly refused to shut down his congregation, rather inviting people to gather for singing, dancing, slaying of the Spirit, and, pandemic or not, even laying on of hands for healing. He declared, “The bible tells to lay hands on the sick and they shall recover and will continue to do that without the fear of the spread of any virus”. I admit there is biblical basis for both sides, but both pastors take it to an irrational extreme. Yes, Scripture has stories of judgment when, unrighteousness has consequences, like Sodom in Genesis and Egypt in Exodus, but these are actually complex stories that cannot, or at least shouldn’t be simplified to justify your narrow view. What really surprises in those bible stories is just how merciful God is, in the midst of judgment.
What does this mean? The other extreme basically suggests that your faith is God’s insurance and armor against suffering, disease, negativity, and inconveniences. Given the experience of Job, Jesus, and all the saints, Christians are not invincible just resilient. Again, there are stories in Scripture of miraculous healings and divine protection, but to universalize that is foolish and potentially, dangerous. Historian John Meacham was asked about churches rushing to reopen in a pandemic. He simply said, “I don’t believe the Christian Church has ever taught us to be intentionally stupid.” Having said all that, I choose door number three, “Repent!” In Luke 13, Jesus is asked to explain why some unfortunates were killed by Pilate’s soldiers as they worshiped. In his answer, Jesus also includes some victims that were crushed under a tower that collapsed in a natural disaster. Jesus is covering the waterfront for human suffering, human evil and natural disasters. Whether it is the Holocaust or lynching, earthquake or hurricane, pandemic or police brutality, Jesus’ answer is “Repent or perish!” Jesus is not very pastoral, he is downright perturbed. What gives? Think of this way, we come off pretty presumptuous, “God, with suffering like this, you owe us an explanation”. Jesus is turning the tables, “Listen up, God is the Creator and Judge, so friend you owe God an explanation”.
What is the takeaway? The bible doesn’t bother to explain evil or justify suffering. God just works with that reality on the way to salvation. Remember, God make the sun to shine on the good and bad, the rain to fall on the just and unjust. We live in a world that is fallen, unfair, and random things happen. Not everything happens for a discernible reason. This doesn’t change the reality we are blessed, God gives daily bread and beauty is all around. When we are in way over our heads, like during the current pandemic, or more personally when someone we love has cancer, we are desperate to know why and what’s next. Jesus is telling us, instead of looking for an answer, someone to blame, or some super power to transcend our troubles, we are to repent. We tend to associate repent with groveling, regrets, and extreme guilt. Not so, to repent is to come to your senses, to turn around and turn to God. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying “I’m sorry” and more time looking to the future and saying “Wow!”. To repent means you are positioning yourself before God to begin anew. If this pandemic is here because of divine judgment, natural origins, or human causes, the answer is way above my pastoral pay grade. But, one thing is for sure, the pandemic has humbled us, caused us to slow down, reflect on our mortality, and shaken our daily lives. It is a good time to repent, to humbly enter the presence of Our Father in Heaven. As I mentioned earlier, I am amazed how much grace and mercy is found in biblical judgement stories. If you read Genesis 19, it is hard to believe how patient and persistent God’s angels are in saving Lot, who doesn’t look like he actually wants to be saved. In the Exodus, as the plagues escalate on Egypt, it is remarkable how God repeatedly offers Pharaoh a way out, but he’s not interested. If you work your way through Revelation, it is startling how many times it looks the world is going to finally end. Then, God says, “No, not yet. More people will repent”. This happens over and over and over, witnessing to God’s dogged determination that as many as possible will repent, so God can save them by grace.