inform - inspire - unite
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
. . . this pandemic is helping us to appreciate each other more. . . . I’m praying more fervently for my family and friends now than before.
Is the pandemic God's Will?
Is it God’s will that a novel coronavirus should wreak havoc in Wuhan, then Bergamo and Madrid, then New York City? Is it God’s will that the thousands of deaths—not to mention the untold grief and economic dislocation—in these cities be multiplied in the poorer nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Can any good emerge from this Covid-19 pandemic?
I ponder these questions even as I (along with hundreds of millions of others globally) comply with stay-at-home orders during this pandemic. One set of answers emerge from Leslie Weatherhead’s little book, The Will of God (Abingdon, 1999; first published 1944). Weatherhead was a Methodist preacher in London during World War II. He suggests that we use the term “God’s will” in three ways. The first is God’s intentional will—what God desires from the beginning, his intentional or purposive will. The second is God’s circumstantial or permissive will—what God allows to happen on earth given that humans have freedom to make choices. The third is God’s ultimate will—what God will finally bring about because of his sovereign power.
While some may question whether all of Weatherhead's theology is orthodox, it seems that his threefold description of God’s will is supported by Scripture. After all, the creation story in Genesis 1–3 shows that sin, suffering, and death weren’t part of God’s original intent (God’s intentional will). However, God gave Adam and Eve free will, permitting them to disobey him if they so choose (God’s permissive will). It’s through their disobedience that sin gained a foothold on earth, bringing with it punishment, suffering, and death. Yet, God is sovereign and Revelation 20–21 foretells the final act in the human drama when he will restore his creation in a new world where sin and death are vanquished (God’s ultimate will). Viewed in this way, our pandemic doesn’t count as God’s intentional will, but it’s part of his permissive will, and it’ll ultimately be abolished in his sovereign will.
Meanwhile, is there any good that can come out of the pandemic? I think so. Let me offer three potentially positive outcomes. The first is that this pandemic is spurring people to turn to God. C.S. Lewis once observed: ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures…but shouts in our pain: [pain] is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’1 One young lady who’s been visiting our congregation for many months was baptised recently in April, in the midst of this pandemic. Is it too far-fetched to credit this public health crisis as helping spur her decision to commit her life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour?
The second good is that this pandemic is helping us to appreciate each other more. The truth is that I’m praying more fervently for my family and friends now than before. Sure, being cooped up at home can make family members testy, but it also offers more opportunities to chat, share meals, watch movies, and play games. Participating in Zoom Sunday services online reveal how much I miss my brothers and sisters who comprise the local congregation; I now realise that I value the church more than I thought. The old saying is that absence makes the heart grow fonder. How true!
The third good is that this pandemic reminds us that life is fragile. A tiny invisible microbe infects millions, from paupers to prime ministers. It immobilises powerful military forces. It flips financial markets in a flash. Stanley Hauerwas, the American theologian, once made the wry observation that humans often are ‘possessed by the desire to get out of life alive’.2 In our clearer moments, we realise, of course, that’s an odd desire. The truth is quite the opposite: none of us will get out of this life alive. Unless Jesus returns before we die, we all have to pass through the valley of death. But the Christian faith delivers assurance of life on the other side. So this pandemic reminds me of the value of faith in Christ in the midst of a fragile life.
In sum, this pandemic teaches me an important characteristic of God: he’s a master of making good out of bad. God’s permissive will in allowing a horrible pandemic to occur—a form of discipline, as it were—can yield in the Christian the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). Granted, Covid-19 isn’t part of God’s original intention for us. Yet, as we watch grim news reports with regularity, we shouldn’t despair. God will ensure that whatever grief and suffering he permits us to endure will ultimately bring about good—to his enduring glory and our everlasting joy. Meanwhile, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all (2 Corinthians 13:14).
1 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Harper, 2001) 91.
2 ‘Finite Care in a World of Infinite Need: A Sermon’, in Stanley Hauerwas, Learning to Speak Christian (SCM Press, 2011) 161.
Benny Tabalujan is an elder with the Belmore Road Church of Christ in suburban Melbourne,
and editor of InterSections. email@example.com