Thursday, March 19, 2020

Why is this happening?

A friend asked at the weekend whether people had been looking to me for a spiritual explanation for this pandemic.  Simple answer is no.  I'm aware that in past generations, and still perhaps today in some fringe sectors of the church, attempting to read providence to quite a detailed level has been commonplace.  It has been normal, for example, to draw a straight line between sin in society and 'punishments' through natural disaster or illness.

As I said to my friend, I don't see much of that.  People in the church are primarily asking not, why did this happen, but, how should we respond.  I see positives and negatives in that shift.  The particular positive is that it takes seriously the interaction between Jesus and a blind man in John 9.  The disciples want to know whether the man was born blind because of his own sin (presumably foreseen, rather than actually committed in utero) or because of the sin of his parents.  In other words, they want a causal chain to explain, in terms of divine providence, why this has happened.  Jesus doesn't offer them that sort of explanation.  They want to peer back into the man's family past to find the cause; Jesus directs them to the present.  Here and now, this man can be healed, in a demonstration of God's grace and kindness shown through Jesus.  So Jesus seems to cause the whole conversation to pivot from 'why has this happened' to 'how should we respond', and in so far as we're attempting to follow him this can only be good.

One negative that I'm aware of is that our spiritual forebears had a very lively sense of God being actually involved in directing the course of history.  For us, that has become largely a theological truth that has little bearing on our lives.  I think contemporary conservative evangelicalism has deistic tendencies; of course God has intervened in history, particularly in the incarnation, but now everything is (in practice, not in theory) just wound up and left to play out.  Under pressure from a philosophical concept of free will which is alien to Christian theology, and belatedly inheriting the themes of 18th century rationalism, we have tended to minimise the idea of God's direction of all things.

A particularly unfortunate consequence of that tendency at the moment is that we are reluctant to say things about providence which Scripture gives us clear warrant to say, and therefore we are hampered in hearing the message which I am convinced God wants to give us through these events.  Consider these verses from Psalm 90, for example:
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
Well, who does consider it?  Who considers that we live in a creation that is not merely broken but cursed?  Who considers that God's wrath against sin is manifested daily?

I don't think we ought to try to trace this pandemic back in God's providence to particular sins, as if we could read God's mind.  But I do think we ought to think of this pandemic in line with God's revelation, as if we could read God's word.  Pain, as C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world.  If we are being jolted awake right now, the right response is not to try to read an inscrutable providence to find out precisely why, but to pay attention to God's word, to examine ourselves and our society in the light of that word, and to repent of any and all sin that we find.

Ultimately, the reality of God's wrath should and must drive us to Jesus.


  1. Helpful post thanks Dan. Hope you're all keeping well.

    1. Cheers - all well here so far! Just settling in for the long haul...