Wednesday, August 05, 2020

COVID-19 and the Will of God

“It was God’s will.”

Ah, the magic phrase. You hear it said by devout people at funerals, usually with palpable resignation. “He was taken before we were ready, and we’re all hurting, but somehow we know — though we can’t quite see how it might be since he was such a great guy and will be so profoundly missed — that his untimely and painful death was God’s will.”

So that’s all right then. Even if it isn’t, really.

Used in this fatalistic sense, “God’s will” basically means we must either accept what has happened while grinding our teeth and holding a bit of a grudge against Heaven, or else try desperately to convince ourselves that the grief we are feeling is somehow illegitimate. Because, after all, God willed this thing, right?

Is that how God’s will works? Is that what it means?

Different Senses of the Same Expression

Sure, there is a sense in which everything that happens is God’s will, but not everything that happens is God’s will in exactly the same sense.

Let me try to explain that.

If God is indeed all-powerful, then nothing in all creation can ever occur which he doesn’t either approve of or at very least permit. Since God created this world, and since he upholds the universe by the word of his power, then it follows logically that no person or force may operate in this universe without drawing on the very life-power of the Almighty to do so. In this sense every catastrophe, every war, every plague, every famine and every act of every agent in history may be said to be “acts of God”. This is the only sense in which we can say — and some Christians love harping on it — that “everything is God’s will”.

But those who think of God’s will in only this way are not exercising faith, they are merely practicing a subconscious form of stoicism. If you read Marcus Aurelius, which I did just this year, you will find him rationalizing away the big-picture horrors of life just like many of those devout old high-church ladies. In the Stoic way of thinking, any act at all, however appalling, may be in harmony with the will of the gods, because if they do not actively prevent it from occurring, it can only be because they see utility in evil.

Moreover, if this is the only way we ever think of God’s will, it is idle to speak of searching for his will and finding it in our lives. One choice we make is as good as any other, including choosing to drop dead right now. If it turns out we are able to make choices at all, anything we do is — at least in this feeble, etiolated sense — “God’s will”.

The Will of God in Scripture

There is little value in going on about “God’s will” when we have defined it so broadly as to be nothing more than an abstraction. It provides precisely zero consolation to the grieving man or woman. Moreover, it is not the entire biblical story.

Like the gods of the Stoics, the God of the Bible allows bad things to occur with alarming regularity. But the fact that they occur on his watch neither demonstrates that he approves of them nor assures us that he has initiated them. The vast majority of the time he has not. Most of these acts not only fail to meet his perfect standards but fail in a way that must ultimately incur his judgment. They are appalling, offensive and entirely opposed to his desires. He does not “will” them at all. To the extent that he allows them to occur, he does so with the caveat that at one point he will bring them into judgment and reveal them to the universe for exactly what they are, declaring that he has no part whatsoever with those who do them: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Note what the Lord is saying there. It is essentially a disclaimer. He is telling the pretend-believer, “You never acted on my authority. You never spoke for me. I had nothing to do with the things you have done in my name.” This despite the fact that those acts of lawlessness could only have been committed while breathing the air God provides and using the minds and bodies God created and maintains.

Death and the Will of God

Death is perhaps the most obvious and final of these bad things that happen to us all. God allowed death to enter into the world because something far worse than death would have happened if he had not. But he has no love of death for death’s sake. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says Ezekiel. He is not willing, Peter says, “that any should perish”. God’s expressed will is that “all should reach repentance”, though we are told in no uncertain terms that all will not. In fact, death itself has an unbreakable appointment with the lake of fire which has been booked for millennia. There is a sense in which human death is not at all God’s will, though he allows it to occur. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He was not faking it for the onlookers.

So then, there is a biblical sense in which, despite his absolute sovereignty and incalculable power, God frequently does not get his will, in matters small and large. Our Lord’s own word says so. We should not be afraid to say the same. God could, if he chose to, be the only effective will in the universe. He is that powerful. But I think a careful reading of his word shows us that the God of the Bible simply has not made that choice. Other wills are at work out there in the world, and God will one day hold every one of them to account.

“Acts of God” and Other Misnomers

Recently, a fellow believer of some years expressed the thought to my mother that the worldwide coronavirus outbreak is an act of God. He’s not the first person I’ve heard voice this thought or a similar opinion about another catastrophe. He probably won’t be the last.

I have to confess I find his theory highly unlikely. In the abstract, Stoic sense I explained earlier, he may indeed be right that COVID-19 is “God’s will”, but not at all in the sense the expression is used the majority of the time in our Bibles.

Sure, God has the power and knowledge to create a pandemic; I don’t doubt that for a second. Viruses operate according to the ordinary rules of nature, of which God is the great Designer. My mother’s friend is not wrong to consider that God may be the author of the events of the last few months. That is one of a number of possibilities.

But it is far from the only possibility. Satan is very much capable of producing pandemics. In a fallen world, nature of its own accord regularly produces them. Even human beings are perfectly capable of going into a lab and cooking up the sort of day-to-day experience we are currently enjoying in the West. It hardly matters whether we are crediting or blaming God for such events; the fact is that we ought not to do so without a shred of hard evidence.

The God of the Arbitrary?

To all appearances, COVID-19 attacks everyone — Christian or Muslim, saved or unsaved, rich or poor, men or women — more or less at random. There is strong statistical evidence that it kills the elderly, the obese, the poor and those with existing medical complications at higher rates than the general population, but none whatsoever that it targets those groups disproportionately. It is truly arbitrary.

That’s important. Because arbitrary suffering is a feature of our fallen world. Nature is indiscriminate, and suffering happens naturally, and therefore more or less at random. Tsunamis happen in Japan because it is a little island in the middle of a humongous body of water, not because nature hates the Japanese. It ain’t personal. Satan too loves to inflict pain and sorrow, but those who do his will make out no better in the end than his enemies, most often worse. Ask Judas or Balaam how their service was rewarded. Above all, mankind has made a science out of inflicting widespread, indiscriminate suffering. We do it not just intentionally but accidentally as well. From the atomic bomb to errant drone strikes and unnecessary starvation, our species has a near-diabolic streak that cannot be overlooked when considering the possible sources of meaningless, random suffering in our world.

But you will look long and hard in the scripture to find God causing arbitrary suffering. When God chastises, there is always both a target and, in time, a discernible purpose. Suffering may be punitive. It may be corrective. It may be cleansing. It may be a warning. It may be a test. It may be family discipline. It may even be a combination of one or more of these things. But I cannot think of a single demonstrable instance in which the word of God teaches that our God intervenes in human history to inflict random suffering. It simply doesn’t happen.

Rationalizing the Pandemic

Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe there are biblically-compatible ways of rationalizing the current pandemic as God’s will; explanations to which we can respond with something more useful than mere stoicism. There may be a clear call to repentance in all this apparent randomness which I am simply unable to discern. Wiser Christian minds may be able to ferret it out. If and when they do, I would absolutely love to hear it.

In the meantime, unless you’re one of them, I’d sure appreciate hearing less about “God’s will” from Christians discussing the subject. We make enough mistakes explaining things we understand reasonably well; imagine the mess we could make trying to explain things we don’t.

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