Is God Responsible for COVID-19?
“I’ll see you there… Lord willing!”
Have you ever heard someone tag that phrase onto the end of their plans? It’s a practice that arises from the book of James, where the apostle writes:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16
Certainly true in our recent experience, isn’t it? Perhaps like never before, this novel coronavirus has confronted our society with the fragility and uncertainty of our lives, our plans, and our entire way of life. We’ve never been so aware that our lives are not really in our own hands.
So whose hands are they in? The Lord’s. As James puts it, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” God is in control of whether we live and what we do. We are not, as this situation has shown us. In fact, we never were.
“But,” you might wonder, “would the Lord ever ‘will’ to bring a worldwide pandemic like this terrible virus, with all the loss of life, social disruption, and economic failure? I mean, is God somehow behind all this?”
That certainly seems to be implied in James’s admonition, isn’t it? If you wanted to spend spring break in Virginia Beach, James would say you should frame those plans up like this: “If the Lord wills, we’re going to Virginia Beach for spring break!” But then if a novel coronavirus outbreak closes all the beaches and forces you to change your plans, what conclusion must you draw? The Lord did not will it. He willed something else. He willed this.
Jesus on Exhaustive Divine Sovereignty
Of course, it would improper to derive too much from James’s statements. After all, his main point is to advocate humility, not exhaustively teach divine sovereignty. For that, we would have to look to other texts. Texts like Matthew 10:28-31:
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Jesus’ point in this text is clearly the comprehensive detail and exhaustive extent of God’s will. Your Father ordains even the dying moment of every ½-cent sparrow!
Don’t brush over the subject of that last sentence: Your Father. For Christians, the Will that ordains all things belongs to an intimate Relation of yours. One whose interest in you is just as extensive as His control—keeping track of each hair on your head.
The point is pretty obvious, isn’t it? To Jesus, God’s control of all things isn’t a point of theology to be debated or a controversy to be solved. It’s a comfort for your fearful heart. “So don’t be afraid!”
Job on God’s Relationship to Evil
It’s clear from the book of Job that God in His sovereignty stands behind ALL events, even tragedies like the loss of family and fortune. The story begins with Job enjoying incredible prosperity. An angelic council gathers before God with Satan among them. God challenges Satan with Job’s righteousness, and Satan responds with a challenge:
“Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?… But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Job 1:9-11
And so the stage is set. God grants Satan full access to Job’s possessions and children, and we’re horrified to watch as Satan destroys them all in a single day. Ultimately, God grants Satan access even to Job’s body, which he inflicts with a grotesque and painful skin disease. Even Job’s wife counsels him to “curse God and die.” But instead Job responds:
You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? Job 2:10
Likewise when he lost his 10 children and all his possessions, he responded:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. Job 1:21
Was Job wrong in attributing all of his affliction to God? After all, we know that Satan is at work here, too. No, says the inspired writer, for in both places he writes:
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. Job 1:22
In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Job 2:10
In other words, it is not bad theology to say “God has taken away” when a worldwide pandemic kills 175,000 people and paralyzes the planet. As I understand what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty, it means that God is, in some way, behind everything in life, not just the good things. God’s sovereignty means that He is in ultimate control of everyone and everything, including every form of suffering and pain and deprivation and sorrow. It’s not just that He could exert His control and bring about His will; He is exercising control and bringing about His will in every circumstance of life, from beginning to end.
God, in His sovereignty, stands behind all events, but not behind each in the same way. Job’s story demonstrates that God stands in different relationship to evil events vs. good events. I’m sure you noticed that Satan is the one who attacks Job and brings the calamity into his life, not God. God is completely in control. In fact, Satan has to get permission from God before he can touch anything in Job’s life. God clearly permits the evil that befalls Job, but He puts limits on it. God and Satan have completely different relationships to these evil events in Job’s life.
Notice, as well, that they have the opposite intent. Satan intends it to destroy Job and discredit his faith:
Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Job 1:9-11
In Satan’s view, Job’s faith is mercenary. He doesn’t really love God; he just loves God’s blessings: “Take away the blessing and he’ll curse you.” He’s just in it for the benefits.
So God accepts the challenge. But Job doesn’t curse; he worships. In fact, as the story goes on, Job’s worship gets stronger and his love grows deeper:
Though he slay me, I will hope in him… Job 13:15
I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, Job 19:25-26
The disaster Satan brought into Job’s life accomplishes the exact opposite of what he intended! This is how God employs His absolute sovereignty. Our God is so good and so wise, He permits evil in the lives of His children only to the extent that it accomplishes the exact opposite of what Satan intends.
In fact, Job’s story allows us to say more: God uses the very evil Satan inflicts to defeat him. Satan’s plan was to use this suffering to discredit Job; God’s plan was to use it to refine and strengthen him. Satan brings evil to destroy Job, but God uses that same evil to destroy Satan instead.
It’s a wonderful foreshadowing of the cross, isn’t it? God used the supreme sin—the murder of the world’s only innocent Person—to conquer all sin and abolish evil forever. Satan thought he was finally defeating God, but instead he only defeated himself.
Comfort in Coronavirus
Isn’t this a marvelous hope for us during this worldwide crisis? Our God controls even our greatest trials. And we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we? If God is not ultimately in control of everything that befalls us, then who is? Fate? Satan? A random universe that one day blesses with fitness and fortune and the next destroys us with debt and death? If God is not behind our losses, how can we be sure they will ultimately end for our good as Romans 8:28 promises? Many Christians assume that God’s role in adversity is to step into a bad situation and bring out a few positives, kind of like FEMA. In fact, when you are the one suffering, God’s response can seem altogether too much like FEMA—“unprepared, incompetent, disorganized, and two weeks late” (D. Wilson, Letter from a Christian Citizen).
But that’s not God’s role at all. COVID-19 has not put God in a situation where He leaves us with second-best. God always offers all His children only good gifts. God does not intend to salvage a few positive results from this otherwise tragic situation. He is not just letting things happen and then planning to step in sometime soon to work out a rags-to-riches ending. Even Satan’s work in this tragedy is ultimately the work of God Himself! Our hope rests in this: our universe is not strange and random. Rather, an all-wise, all-powerful, all-good, all-sovereign God is behind every experience and circumstance. Even COVID-19.