A Punishment from God?

Is COVID-19 a punishment?

The question comes around as often as a new disease or tragedy makes its way into the headlines. “Is this a judgment from God?” No surprise, then, that I am hearing it again from folks worried that COVID-19 is a plague sent by God to judge an unbelieving world. 

Answering the question is not so simple since the biblical witness is itself not simple. Some passages in both testaments of the Bible reveal that God has used disaster—wrought by natural events and human agents—to judge individuals and nations. Yet, other passages, especially the Gospels, reveal God as the One who heals the sick, raises the dead, and turns the other cheek against enemies. This doesn’t give us a clear, once for all, way for understanding God’s responsibility or role in the spread of disease.

What are we to do? Hundreds of books have been written about this. All I want to do in this post is provide a short, Christ-centered reflection on the question. 

TL;DR

In Deuteronomy 28, God promises to curse those who are unfaithful, revealing that God is free to use diseases as judgment. But, in Galatians 3, Christ takes those curses upon himself. This seems to lead us to assume that, whenever disaster strikes, God is with us and for us, rather than apart from us and against us.

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Christ is killed every day by the injuries we cannot bear

These are the opening words of Rowan Williams’ new book, Holy Living, and they are meant to unveil our regular, entirely reasonable (so it seems) un-involvement in the pains around us. We say, rightly, “Christ alone can carry our sufferings.” Yes indeed, surely this is right. Christ alone, Rowan_Williams_2007according to his grace, can carry our sufferings. We are thus realists about our limited capacities. Indeed we’re theologically astute realists, as least as it concerns the sufficiency of grace. But though we grasp the sufficiency of Christ’s grace for us we fail to follow the trajectory of grace into the pain around us.

As realists we easily and painlessly stand at a distance from pain. However, Williams reminds, the pain of another person “does not stop being ours when it becomes his.” In fact, the nature of God’s peculiar way of redeeming me compels me to be a particular kind of un-realist: “The complete involvement of Jesus in human torment draws us after, draws us to imitation, stirs us to be Christ for our neighbor, to expose ourselves as he did” (9, 11).

There is more I want to say about this in a later post. There is perspective here on my vocation as a Christian professor in a Christian institution of higher education, though I’m still mulling over quite how I want to put it. For now I want to post a slightly longer section of this chapter around which my attention keeps coming back. You might ask yourself, “In whatever kind of community I find myself, how does this challenge me?”

Well, we are all realists to a greater or lesser degree, and there is therefore no avoiding the fact of our complicity in the death of Jesus. Like the apostles we evade and refuse and deny and escape when the cross becomes a serious possibility.

Ouch! And he doesn’t let up:

Terror of involvement, fear of failure—of hurting as well as being hurt—the dread of having of powerlessness nakedly spelled out for us: all of this is the common coin of most of our lives. For beneath the humility of the person who believes he or she knows their limitations is the fear of those who have never found or felt their limitations. Only when we have traveled to those stony places of the spirit where we are forced to confront our helplessness and our failure can we be said to know our limitations, and then the knowledge is too late to be useful. We do not know what we can or cannot bear until we have risked the impossible and intolerable in our own lives. Christ bears what is unbearable, but we must first find it and know it to be unbearable. And it does not stop being ours when it becomes his. Only thus can we translate our complicity in the death of Christ into a communion in the death of Christ, a baptism in the death of Christ: by not refusing, by not escaping, by forgetting our realism and our reasonableness, by letting the heart speak freely, by exposing ourselves, by making ourselves vulnerable (9).

“We are here to love” (Von Balthasar)

I stumbled onto these remarks by Von Balthasar while reading Edward Oakes this evening. Ponder this:

The calling to love is an absolute one, admitting of no exception, and so ineluctable that failure to observe it is tantamount to total corruption. Let there

be no doubt. We are here to love—to love God and love our neighbor. Whoever will unravel the meaning of existence must accept this fundamental principle from whose center light is shed on all the dark recesses of our loves. For this love to which we are called is no a circumscribed or limited love, not a love defined, as it were, by the measure of our human weaknesses. It does not allow us to submit just one part of our lives to its demands and leave the rest free for other pursuits; it does not allow us to dedicate just one period of our lives to it and the rest, if we will, to our own interests. The command to love is universal and unequivocal. It makes no allowances. It encompasses and makes demands upon everything in our nature: “with thy whole heart, with all they soul, and with all thy mind.” (Christian State of Mind, p. 27. Quoted in E. Oakes, A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies [Eerdmans, 2016], p. 45).

Oakes brings Balthasar into his treatment of grace to emphasis that grace is about love, but not in the romantic sense. And I must say, this just seems incredibly important to me at the moment. Continue reading