Pandemic and Providence: God’s Gracious Warning
By Travis Rymer, elder and associate pastor
These are unusual times. As far as I know, these are times not seen in over 100 years in the United States. And yet, they are not unprecedented times in the history of the world, even recent history. For us, we have been spared some severe outbreaks in the recent past like Ebola while others have not. Mostly, our lives have gone on as usual.
But this is different. This is extremely jarring to us all. That’s true in terms of the disruption we are experiencing and the many unknowns that push us toward fear. Life as we normally live it, is being interrupted.
In our own country, the last episode like this was the Spanish Flu of 1918. Across the nation cities placed bans on public gatherings and encouraged people to stay home. Churches in the Portland, OR area were banned from gathering for four weeks from October 13th until November 17th. On the other side of the continent, Washington DC did the same thing from October 4th until October 31st.
Biblically, these things are also not unprecedented. Pandemics and local pestilences have been with mankind since the Garden as we have lived “East of Eden.” When we look to the Biblical record, we see that not only are they part of the fallen world in which we live, but they are part of the Creator’s communicative purposes. God is sovereign in such times with His purposeful Providence.
Here is a bold assertion many struggle to embrace: God takes ultimate credit for these shaping forces. Consider Isaiah 45:5-7, “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well being and create calamity, I am the Lord who does all these things.” Consider also Deuteronomy 32:22-24 where God specifically warns that He will send disasters in His anger.
When the affairs of the earth are disrupted, God is involved. This current season of Providence beckons us to consider the meaning of times like these. We should consider at least three things: Why these things happen, What purpose do they have, and How should we respond.
Why Do These Things Happen?
What we today call an “outbreak” or “pandemic” falls under the Biblical category of plague or pestilence. These in turn belong to the larger category of “destruction/calamity” that includes things like various sickness, natural disasters, famine and the like – even war. They are all things that threaten our lives and livelihood from within and without – things humans have little to no control over. Sadly, these are things that sometimes take many lives.
Pestilence is a subcategory of death. Sickness in general, is a piece of the death that ensued after Adam ate from the tree. In that day, he began to die (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:17-19; 5:1-5). Mankind’s death is connected to the ground and the work for which he was created. “In pain” he would eat of it just as “in pain” Eve would give birth to more life. Part of Adam’s own death was to include the difficulty of life where the ground he was to till would also fight against him. Pain, is sickness, and struggle are all part of the daily march toward death each person experiences as inherent to life outside the garden. Disasters amplify daily death in that the size and scope extends the pain of dying to whole cities and peoples with acute intensity.
While the pre-flood history does not include a narrative of pestilence, it must have been present in that civilization because death was present. Following the flood, Job (who was a righteous man according to the first verse of the book), experienced a series of plagues allowed by God through Satan to test him. He experienced natural disaster, the death of his children, and war before his own body was stricken with “loathesome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head (Job 2:7).”
Abraham was somewhat of a contemporary of Job in the generations after Noah. During his lifetime we read of a famine that drove him to Egypt (Gen. 12:10f). Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed when the Lord caused fire and sulfur to fall from the sky destroying their cities and valleys “and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Gen. 19:24). From the earliest times God has used the forces of nature to disrupt the affairs of men. While this is felt as pain, it is done as grace for His people.
When God came to rescue Israel from Egypt He unleashed a series of plagues that targeted the specific gods of that nation, demonstrating that He is the Lord. They included the sky and waters, animals and bugs, light and darkness, and terrible skin boils. All these were sent both to judge the nation that opposed the Lord and to rescue His people in the process. God had multiple purposes working at once. “Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them (Exodus 7:4-5).”
These are just a few early Biblical examples where we learn how God uses such things for His purposes throughout the world. When it came to Israel, these were threats to them as well. However, in the Covenant made at Sinai, God promised to protect them from such things as they obeyed His word. After having promised the opposite for obedience, He then warned against disobedience. “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear His glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, then the LORD will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting (Deut. 28:58-59).” The text goes on to expand the category in verse 61 to “every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law.”
That’s why we later find places where God’s people are confidently asserting that if they repent, God will turn back such plagues and pestilences. Solomon added this to his prayer in the temple dedication (1 Kings 8:33-40). The much beloved national prayer verse of 2 Chronicles 7:14 where God promised to heal the people and their land in such times of trouble is connected to the Covenant promises of Deuteronomy 28.
It is out of the commitment and promises of the Lord to Israel that the Psalmist writes such confident words as the ones we find in Psalm 91:3. “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.” Pestilence is part of death in a fallen world and a tool of the Lord to speak to His creation. Here is another bold assertion: God has good purposes for these terrible things.
Pestilence Has Purpose
The frustrations of life leading to death are a message from the Creator. “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity (Ecc. 3:18-19ff).” What is true generally of the difficulty of life, is true intensely in large scale disasters. What we experience as the trials of nature are intended to speak to the world.
This is part of what Romans 8:20-21 calls the “subjection to futility” and “bondage to corruption” God placed the creation under. Yet, even this was not done without purpose, but it was done in the hope of final freedom. The subjection of the creation is part of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ. It too will be set free from the bondage of corruption at the last Day. Until then, its corruption serves its purposes of hope produced through difficulty. Hope is created through the suffering that produces sure hope in Christ for those being saved (cf. Romans 5:1-5).
So then, plague has its purposes under the Providential plans of God. This is true in the grand arc of history and also in each temporal expression of it. At times, God spoke through the prophets to explain what He was about to do. Today we don’t have such an explanation. However, we do have plenty of Biblical examples to look at in order to frame our understanding of how and why something like this might take place.
What Purposes Do They Have?
Whenever God communicates about His plans in a calamity its first purpose is repentance. Personal and corporate sin is the reason for death. Repentance toward God is the only path to life. All threats of death, not just in times of acute death, are a call to repent in order to escape judgement. Jeremiah 18 lays out this idea throughout the whole chapter, but it is most clear in verses 7 and 8. “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.”
Yet even when God has not communicated about a disaster there is still the same message to be heard. This is the application Jesus made about a local tower in Siloam that fell in His day. Luke 13:3-5 reports Jesus’ deduction from that event as, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” When the tower fell, it killed 18 people. When we see something like that happen, we should consider the fact that we too are subject to God and in need of repentance.
In fact, the delay we are experiencing in the final revelation of the sons of God when Jesus will appear in His glory is a delay for repentance. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:10).”
Since repentance is the goal for those who have not yet succumbed to destruction, calamities of all sorts serve as warnings of greater calamities. This is the motivation for repentance. Before Israel ever got into a position of needing to repent, God warned that when they did, He would send ever increasing calamities before a final climactic one of Exile (cf. Deut. 28).
In the days of Amos God gave many such warnings (Amos 4). When Israel did not listen to the scarcity of bread, He made it so that some cities had to go to other cities to get water and food. When they didn’t listen to that, the food they did have began to spoil. Pestilence was an elevated warning that came after these other warnings were not heard. Even some cities were destroyed while others went on thinking they were exempt.
The tribulation of the earth from the time of Jesus’ ascension until His second coming is a mixture of judgment and warnings. This was the case before the fall of Jerusalem when Jesus warned of wars and rumors of wars, followed by earthquakes and famines that would precede His coming. He told the disciples, “See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet…these are but the beginning of the birth pangs (Mt. 24:6-8).”
There are many examples of this in the Bible and it obviously overlaps with repentance and warning. Yet sometimes, God goes through with His plans of destruction as a judgment. Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed in judgement. This is not to say that these are final judgments though. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are and have become a world- wide known example to all nations coming after them of further judgment.
Lesser, partial judgments are intended to serve as partial justice until the final Day of the Lord when Jesus will judge the nations completely. Even when Egypt was judged by the plagues of the Exodus they came with the revelatory purpose of announcing that Yahweh is the LORD. Egypt went on for many more centuries.
When David arrogantly numbered the warriors of Israel in order to establish confidence in his own might, God judged him/Israel through a deadly pestilence (2 Samuel 24). This killed tens of thousands at that time, but stopped short of hitting Jerusalem. David repented. The Lord stopped the plague. He even provided the property where the temple would be built to offer up sin offerings. Interestingly, the temple sacrifices are themselves judgments allowing for repentance and restoration. The sacrifices themselves are a reminder that without the shedding of blood (judgment) there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).
Even previous judgments that the living did not experience, serve as warnings of future ones. 2 Peter 3:5-6 points back to the flooding of the earth that people forget about. Verse 7 promises of the final coming judgment in like fashion albeit with different methods. “But by the same word the heavens and the earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.”
When God acts in a dramatic way (as opposed to the slower course of history whereby God always directs the affairs of men) things change rapidly. When God reveals His purposes, He usually explains that He is acting to change the current circumstances. When He acted in Egypt He did so to challenge the control and (false) power of Pharaoh while setting Israel free from slavery.
In Amos’ day the nation of Israel was so corrupted that without such an upheaval the oppression of the poor would have continued unchecked. The city was full of gross sin and evil (Amos 2), but in the streets it looked like merry making. The rich oppressors lay in ivory beds while feasting with music and abundance of wine (Amos 6:4-6). Festivals went on and celebrations of new moons. On the ground, you’d never know God was displeased.
But God’s intervention put an end to all the “noise” of happiness (Amos 5:23). He made the sacrifices stop and caused the streets to empty. Fear was spread throughout even the most fearless (Amos 3:13-16). All this was so that “justice [would] roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).”
Regardless of how you understand Revelation 18, the fall of Babylon fits this category as well. God disrupts the activities of Babylon to the dismay of the world. The economic, social, material, sexual, “party” of the world in its refusal to worship the Creator and confess Jesus as Lord is laid waste by the plagues of the bowls, trumpets, and seals. God is the original disruptor.
At such times that God is calling for repentance, warning of further troubles, judging people, and disrupting “normal” life, He is also creating opportunities for the church. When a famine hit the world during the reign of Claudius, the church received prophecies ahead of time (Acts 11:27-30). This produced an extraordinary outpouring of benevolence. “So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.”
We know this experientially as well. Traumatic events have the helpful benefit of waking us up. Sometimes the church is lulled to sleep in times of comfort just as our lost neighbors are tricked into thinking the world will always go on as it has from the beginning (2 Peter 3:4). Disruptive forces create awareness we otherwise lack. This is a tremendous opportunity to speak the truth in love and warn of the coming final judgement.
Paul urged the Galatians to do good to everyone “as we have opportunity” (Gal. 6:10). He looked for and prayed for God to open doors to speak of the hope of the Gospel to the many who still need to hear it (Col. 4:3-4). God does this in countless ways on a daily basis, but when He acts in generation-defining ways these provide significant opportunities to do good and share the Word. Some will be brought to faith through times like this.
This is what we should expect. Revelation 7 shows us a view into heaven where the gathering of Jesus’ bride is assembled – a multitude from every tribe tongue and nation. When asked who they are clothed in white robes and from where have they come, the answer is given. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14).”
How Should We Respond?
There are many ways we should pray. We should pray for God to have mercy on us and our neighbors. It is right to ask God to turn whatever plague, war, or pestilence we are facing away. Part of what He wants is for us to look to Him.
We should pray for wisdom in how to make the best use of the time. We should pray for opportunities to do good and for an open door to share the Gospel. We should pray for the sick to be made well. We should pray that we will be faithful and ever watchful.
Given the fact that God has many reasons why He might send things like these we should examine ourselves, our church, our nation, and the world. We know that God is calling all people to repent and worship the living God. Yet we also know that God purifies His people through trials. These kinds of things show us our own sins, disrupt our unhealthy patterns, and also call the people of God to repent. What is God showing you, us, the nation, the world that we should turn away from?
If God is revealing personal sins, this is the time to confess them and turn away. When God exposes us, He does so as a warning of future judgment in the hopes of repentance toward life. Anyone not already trusting in Jesus should hear the warning and turn to Jesus. God is graciously giving you time to repent in this current crisis. This is certainly true of those who do not yet follow Jesus, but it is no less so for Christians who do and yet continue in sin.
In this light, we find that a time of fasting connected to prayer is appropriate. The prophet Joel called for it saying, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your garments.(Joel 2:12-13).’” This is especially the case if we are longing for God to set us or our nation free from sin (Isaiah 58).
One thing this has clearly exposed is how untested we in the West are for such serious times. It remains to be seen if this current situation is going to be severe or small. Twice in the post first century, pre-Constantine era church severe epidemics ravaged the Roman Empire. The church in that place and time endured that test with incredible stamina. They took care of the sick and risked their lives to do so. Some lost their lives helping others. (see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, chapter 4 “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion.”)
We are terribly unprepared to serve our communities in ways like this. The kind of fear some are exhibiting is not encouraging. Should we be called to risk our very lives to do good to others? Are we ready? We must begin to prepare ourselves to lay personal safety and financial security aside for the opportunities that might come. Obeying Jesus, will likely involve risk, but it will not be risk unrequited.
I am deeply challenged to remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:34-35. After Jesus described the troubles coming on the earth before His return, He told two parables promoting readiness. Then he said this, “Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
In every way we have opportunities let us share. Let us share the food, resources, and money we have to help our brothers and sisters. Some are already struggling and others will later. But let’s also not forget about those outside the church who need help.
Most importantly, let’s share the good news of Jesus Christ. The sad terrible truth is that some will not repent even in severe testings (Rev. 9:20-21). Yet, praise God, some will (Rev. 7:14). With hearts full of hope and prayer, let us boldly point people to the One who saves from death – Jesus!
This life is short. We will all die either soon or just little later after we’ve grown old. This life is not the only one we will live. If we are in Christ, to pass from this life is to pass into real life. Let the words of Jesus to Martha ring loud in times of crisis. “I am the resurrection and the life.Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:25-26).”