The Goodness of God, Adversity, and the Coronavirus2
Over the past two months there has been a never-ending stream of articles posted on the Internet trying to decipher God’s role in the Coronavirus. No, I’m not going to add to the list. But reading these articles took me back to something my friend Andrew Wilson wrote a while back. Andrew was asked what he thought about Bethel and Bill Johnson. His response was both biblical and fair, highlighting both some theological concerns and an expression of appreciation for certain things coming out of Bethel.
One of the issues he addressed is an assertion often heard, that goes like this:
“The goodness of God means that he never brings adversity to us, and it’s blasphemous to suggest he does.”
To which Andrew responds:
Well: bunk, and senior leaders really shouldn’t make charges like this about orthodox Christians (let alone when we/they are right). It simply isn’t true biblically, and only a heavily individualistic, rich, therapeutic and Western-influenced culture could think it was. Look at Hebrews 12:1-11 (God brings painful discipline to produce righteousness), or 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (God makes people in the church sick even dead as a result of fooling around with the Lord’s Supper, but in order that they might not be condemned), or 2 Corinthians 12:1-11 (whatever the thorn was, it hurt, but it was given to prevent pride), or Acts 5:1-10 (two Christians are killed for lying, but the church grows in the fear of God and in gospel success), and so on. If you’re prepared to go into the Old Testament, . . . there is obviously far more food for thought here.
Andrew continues (drawing from an article he wrote on 12/9/15, “Does God Ever Send Adversity?”).
A woman wrote to me recently expressing concern, and astonishment, that I could believe God sends adversity to people. It came up, ironically, because of a sermon I gave on God as our loving Father, which is usually the doctrine that people who object to God sending adversity – and there are more and more of them around these days – are eager to preserve. As I concluded my message, I encouraged the church to read Answer 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
“I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world. He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.”
That, for me, is a stunning affirmation of the fatherly care of God in the midst of trials, and God's sovereignty, even over suffering, has been an enormous comfort to me personally in the past. But this lady’s objection, quite simply, was: if you think Jesus is the exact representation of God, and if there are no examples in the Gospels of Jesus bringing adversity to people, then how can you believe God sends adversity to people?
This sort of objection is becoming increasingly prevalent in evangelical circles, in at least two quite different contexts: (1) the progressive, Red Letter, Jesus tea-strainer approach to ethics, and (2) the conservative, Pentecostal, the-problem-is-always-at-our-end view of divine healing. Logically framed, the objection is as follows:
1. God is exactly like Jesus.
2. The Jesus of the Gospels never said/did X.
3. Therefore God never says/does X.
Which looks virtually indisputable.
There are several obvious problems with this argument, though. The first is that, in being insufficiently Trinitarian, it unduly separates the Jesus of the Gospels from the God of the Old Testament, and thereby proves far too much. For instance:
1. God is exactly like Jesus.
2. The Jesus of the Gospels never prohibits idolatry.
3. Therefore God does not prohibit idolatry.
1. God is exactly like Jesus.
2. The Jesus of the Gospels never made covenant promises to Abraham.
3. Therefore God never made covenant promises to Abraham.
The second is that it needlessly rules out the New Testament words and actions of Jesus which do not appear in the Gospels. This is where Red Letter Bibles actually help. They show that Jesus is the one who refused to take the “thorn in the flesh” away from Paul (2 Cor 12:1-10), whatever that was. They show that Jesus is the one who condemns sexual immorality and idolatry, and threatens to fight against those who encourage it and throw them onto a bed of suffering (Rev 2:12-29). They show that Jesus is the one who rebukes and disciplines those he loves, even to the point of threatening to spit people out of his mouth (Rev 3:14-22).
The third is that it leads to the conclusion that the picture of Jesus in the Gospels not only differs from, but actively contradicts, the picture of the Father we find elsewhere in the New Testament, let alone the Old. Let’s imagine, for instance, that we granted the assumption that Jesus never brings adversity into the life of a believer in the Gospels (whatever Peter, James or John, not to mention John the Baptist, might have to say about that). What are we going to do with the statement that, in subjecting us to “chastening,” “discipline” and “hardship” which we find “painful”, the Father is treating us as sons and daughters (Heb 12:7-11)? What are we going to do with Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, that many in the church are “weak or sick” and “some have died” as a result of divine judgment – but that this judgment should be understood as “discipline” as opposed to “condemnation along with the world”? What do we make of the fact that these things are specifically said to be true of believers?
And the fourth, to put it no more strongly, is that it overcooks the evidence from the Gospels anyway. The Jesus of the Gospels – in fact, the Jesus of Luke 17 alone – talks about millstones being put around people’s necks and then cast into the sea, and the world being flooded and destroying everybody, and fire and sulphur raining down from heaven on people, and people being turned into pillars of salt, and some being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, and these sorts of things being examples of what will happen when the Son of Man comes. The Jesus of the Gospels specifically promises that his disciples will be troubled, hated, persecuted, flogged, betrayed, imprisoned and killed if they follow him. He allows at least two people to die when he could have healed them beforehand, so that he can raise them from death afterwards. So no, as far as we know, the Jesus of the Gospels never makes anyone sick. But he does seem to bring a fair bit of adversity with him wherever he goes.
As I say, the irony of this particular objection is that the love of the Father, which (to be fair) is what the objection is trying to preserve, is often demonstrated most emphatically to us when we are suffering. It is suffering which produces perseverance, and character, and hope, which does not disappoint because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit. It is “in all these things” – persecution, danger, nakedness, sword – that we know nothing can separate us from the love of God. It is through sufferings that our comfort abounds in Christ, and through discipline that we know we are legitimate children of God. And it is God’s ability to turn all things to good, in precisely this context of pain and difficulty, that the Heidelberg Catechism makes central to its statement about God’s loving care for us: “He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.”
Well said, Andrew. Permit me to add one final reminder.
One of the more famous NT texts, cited most often in times like these, is Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Have you ever paused to consider what Paul had in mind when he used the words, “all things”? One need only back up a few verses in Romans 8 to see that he has primarily in mind the sufferings we endure in this present age:
“and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
If that were not enough to identify what Paul meant by “all things,” one need only read a little farther into the chapter where he speaks of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword, not to mention the very real prospect of “being killed” as “sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:35-36).
But the greatest news of all is that none of this, not any of the “all things” we suffer, not even the ravages of Covid-19, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesu our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
P.S. “Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.’ But he [Job] said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil [or, disaster, calamity]?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:9-10).