This post was born out of a conversation with a friend of mine. Apparently, a lot of ministers have been telling congregations they don’t need to worry about COVID-19, because God is going to protect them from it. Half jokingly, my friend asked if I was telling people that God isn’t going to protect them from COVID-19. My response was this: it would be equally foolish for me to tell people that God will protect them from COVID-19 as for me to tell people that God won’t protect them from COVID-19.
Let’s examine these positions and unpack what I think is the underlying problem with both.
God Will Protect You From COVID-19
This statement is definitive. It states unequivocally that someone or some group of people will receive guaranteed protection. It begs the question of why. Why does this person or group of people have the confidence to say that God definitely will protect them from COVID-19?
I think one temptation is for Christians to say that their faith in God is what makes them eligible for God’s protection. There are examples of this in scripture where people have walked in the protection of God in supernatural ways. While it could be argued that God’s protection in Bible stories was under specific circumstances or specific times for specific people, it does warrant some consideration. If we’re to take the stories seriously, we should consider that scripture tells us God will protect us and that God watches over the righteous. Jesus even tells us that we can ask for anything in his name, so as members of the body of Christ, we could ask God for protection.
The problem I have with this statement, however, is that it’s so definitive that it doesn’t leave room for God to decide whether God will or won’t protect a person. Some Christians have argued that because God said we’ll be protected (in general or specifically), we should have faith in that promise and take it at face value. This ignores the instances in scripture where God doesn’t protect people.
Even if we assume that Jesus’s crucifixion was necessary and voluntary, we have to give consideration to people like Steven, who was stoned by the religious leaders. We have to give consideration to the apostles, most of whom, if not all of whom, according to Christian tradition, were martyred for their faith.
There is evidence to argue that the people who walked in faith close to Jesus, particularly the apostles and the disciples who followed him during his earthly ministry, were not impacted, as far as we’re told, by the diseases with which they interacted (e.g. kinds of leprosy). Perhaps this was because they had miraculous healing gifts and when they got sick were just healed, or maybe it was because of their faith. But again, this doesn’t take into consideration all of the people who needed healing to begin with who were healed because of their faith.
There are times in the New testament where Jesus tells people that it was their faith that healed them, but they were already afflicted. They had faith and were still afflicted, so even though their faith ultimately healed them it didn’t prevent them from being sick to begin with.
One could argue that faith was still healing. In this case, the statement would still be true that God will protect us from COVID-19. We might contract COVID-19 just like any other person, but ultimately our faith will heal us. Unfortunately, the underlying implication is that people who contract COVID-19 and are not healed — that is, they die — simply didn’t have the right faith or enough faith or any faith. That’s a bold claim for anyone to make — more than bold; I think it’s conceited.
I think to make a statement with that kind of implication and stick to it is to claim a knowledge of the state of other people’s relationships with God that should be reserved only for the Spirit. I don’t think any human has the insight into another person’s faith or another person’s heart to be justified in making that kind of implication. So, for me to say that God will protect you is, at best, to overstep my knowledge of a person’s faith. At worst, it dictates what God should do.
God Won’t Protect You From COVID-19
This statement makes the same mistake but from the other direction; it’s also a definitive statement. It also begs the question of why. Why won’t God protect this person or group from COVID-19? Is it that God won’t protect anyone from COVID-19, or is it just me/us?
One might argue that everyone has equal opportunity to contract the virus and survive the virus, and it really depends on a person’s immunity, their own actions, the actions of healthcare providers, and their access to resources. If this is the case, then there’s no room for God’s involvement. Does God not care to be involved? Is God not going to give me consideration when I’m sick or give consideration to my loved ones? Is God not going to be faithful to the things said in scripture? Perhaps we’ve completely misinterpreted scripture, and God’s promises for protection are merely promises for providence. That providence may only extend as far as resources in our lives.
If that’s the case, God’s providence doesn’t include people who have no resources. I’ve heard the argument that those with resources are the providence of God for those without resources. It’s up to those with resources to bear the burden of those without, and if that’s the case, won’t they be held accountable before God for not sharing their resources?
I think the temptation here is to simply say, “Yes.” We have examples in scripture showing us that if we have resources we should share them with those who don’t. There are even laws in the old testament about that very thing, and God took seriously people’s willingness and ability to share what they had with those who were less fortunate, particularly orphans, widows, foreigners, and the poor. But, what about God’s love for those people. There are many stories in scripture about God stepping in to help people that no one else would help. Did God just stop doing that?
I think here we run into the same problem as we did with the other statement: saying that God won’t protect you from COVID-19 is, at best, a questioning of God’s providence and, at worst, hubris. At best, it makes God out to be aloof from the world, and at worst, it dictates what God must do (i.e. not protect anyone).
Letting God Be God
We could continue to dive deeper into these two positions, but the underlying problem that both of these statements share is that neither of them lets God be God. Both of them make definitive claims about who God is and what God definitely will or won’t do. Many Christians hide behind a rationale that they’re only speaking what the scriptures are saying. They argue that it’s not their reasoning or their statement about what God will do, but it’s God’s statement about what God will do.
I fully believe that scriptures can set precedence and provide impelling examples that reveal God and the nature of God. I fully believe that we can take those revelations of God and discern wisdom in the Spirit about what God might or might not be doing in the world or in our lives or in our communities. I think that’s a big part of what wisdom is: discerning God in the Spirit. Yet, there’s another precedent in scripture that both of these statements ignore: at the end of the day God gets to decide what God will do.
There are many examples in scripture of God surprising even God’s own people by doing what they never expected. There are even examples in scripture of God blatantly going against what has been explicitly instructed. In those situations, we often find that things that were instructed were always intended to point deeper, were always intended to be bigger than the specific instruction itself.
Peter’s life is a great example of this. When Peter receives the vision of the sheet filled with unclean animals, God challenges him to allow God to make decisions about God’s kingdom and God’s mission.
When people have an understanding about how God operates and which people God will favor or condemn, God often subverts that expectation. Yes, Israel was God’s people, but no, it was never really just about Israel. Yes, God will protect the people God loves, but by the way, God loves everyone in the world. Yes, God will protect people who are faithful and have faith, but God also allows people to suffer in solidarity with one another. Yes, there are examples of people in scripture and throughout Christian history who seem to experience a supernatural protection from God, whether it’s in battle or in community or against political opposition, but yes, there are also examples of people in scripture who seem to suffer inequitably compared to everyone around them. Yes, there are examples of them suffering these things and then being healed, like Job, but yes, there are also examples of people suffering and dying, like generations of people in the wilderness as they await entry into the promised land. Yes, we could argue that those people who died were being punished for a lack of faith, but we could also argue that those people who lived were undeserving.
So what do we do?
What we do is humble ourselves. If the default mode for Christians is to dictate what God will or will not do in definitive statements, then we are attempting to place God in a box that is both too small for the divine and too flimsy for genuine reverence and worship.
When we make God small, we undercut the grand mystery of the divine. When we make God small, we stop wondering at God’s grace and mercy, and when we stop letting God be bigger than we can wrap our heads around and more mysterious than our definitive statements, our worship becomes flat. We begin to develop in ourselves a conceit, a narcissism, a hubris that makes worship more about us than it does about God.
I think the way that we respond to COVID-19 in faith is the way that Job responded to his situation: the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. It’s not up to us what God does.
I have faith that regardless of what happens, God will be present with me, both in my suffering and in my joy. I have faith that no matter what happens, God will help me to be both the recipient of grace and a participant in God’s grace manifesting to others. I have faith that God will both watch over me and protect me and that God will give me the humility to accept whatever that means.
At the end of the day, I don’t know whether we will live or die, because humility demands that I leave room for God to be God. Humility demands that we leave room for God to have the last word about what God will do.
The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
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