Are we being punished?

Is Coronavirus a punishment sent from God to bring justice to the wealthy, secular west for its rejection of him and its failure to love the poor? Is it discipline for the church, a response to the way in which we have become individualistic? If meeting together doesn’t bother us that much then should we be surprised if the ability to meet is withdrawn from us?

The question has been cautiously raised by some and less cautiously by others. It has also been suggested as a reason for withdrawing aspects of gathering, in some cases just communion, in others the whole shebang, no online sermons, no Facebook testimony sharing no Whatsapp small groups.

Then argument for seeing punishment and/or discipline

The primary argument is as follows. First of all, that whenever we are hit by circumstances, especially tragic, then we should stop and ask, “where is God in them, what is he doing, what is he saying?” Secondly, that in our rush to bring comfort and hope, we risk missing that judgement is part of the message of revelation. This is essential for a right presentation of the Gospel.

The third argument is that God, who is sovereign does bring specific punishments. In Scripture we see God bringing plagues upon his people and upon their enemies, specifically as punishment for sin. Fourthly, those plagues and punishments often seem to closely reflect the sin. A plague that causes isolation therefore reflects the sin of individualism. A plague that attacks our economic prowess challenges our materialism.

A good example of the argument can be found in Peter Saunders’  post here.

Why I disagree

I have already indicated in a previous article that I disagree with this assessment. Here in more detail is my reasoning.

First of all I want to agree with those saying that we need to stop, look and listen to see where God isin all of this. We can too easily rush to act without considering that. I also agree that our Gospel message should never lose sight of the issue of justice and judgement. This has come through clearly in our morning and evening prayer meditations on the Psalms.

We live in a world where we see the consequences of the Fall all around us.  Death, famine, plague, sickness, war are all constant reminders that human sin meant death entered the world bringing decay and struggle. Romans 8:18-23 captures this perfectly. 

“18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

I would also go so far as to say that the particularly struggles we experience in day to day life will reflect the particularly idolatry we battle with.  We become like our idols and so we can expect the marks of individualistic materialism to be seen across our society. However, that is different from saying that this is a specific punishment. Just as we might recognise the causal link between a bad habit like smoking and certain forms of cancer but also be careful not to go round telling people that their illness is a punishment from God so too, we can see the same link between consequences at societal level without seeing a specific disease as a specialised judgement.

Why do we link specific suffering to specific judgement in the Bible but not now? The answer is that God through his prophets warns about those specific examples and announcing judgement. We do not have such a word now.  There is a reason for this. The plagues against Israel were specific because Israel was a specific nation with a part to play in redemptive history. As a mark of that and a type of the future of God’s people, Israel were to enjoy blessing in the land. This blessing meant a level of physical prosperity and safety from enemies.  Given that pestilence and plague were associated with sin and curse maybe they could even expect a level of freedom from pandemics as well as protection from enemy invasion.

So when we talk about punishment, we are seeking to second guess God. In fact, I think we are adding to his word. He warns that these things will be present, suffering will continue until his return but we seek to find something special and specific about our time. Why do we need this?  Isn’t there a risk that by labelling something a special judgement, we are implying that there is something special and unique about our situation?  Might we use that to excuse our own weaknesses and failures. It is easier to declare the door closed to the Gospel, the church in rebellion and the ground too hard than to look inwardly at ourselves, those of us who are pastors, preachers and evangelists.

And that, I fear is a big part of the problem. There has certainly been a need for discipline for those in leadership. We have to ask why we have allowed bullies and abusers into prominent positions. We should be challenged by the clustering of outreach around University and Middle Class areas. WE need to reflect on the tolerance to often of racial stereotyping and the failure to listen to, protect, cherish and value women in the life of the church. But that’s on us as leaders.

Who do I see suffering the most from the effects of this virus? I see godly, humble older people who have served God faithfully experiencing bereavement in isolation. I see people who have run to Christ for spiritual food and shelter often out of misery and oppression.  I see the poor and the vulnerable. It is far to easy for those of us who are cushioned from the worst effects of the virus to announce that God is judging those who are least equipped to face and survive it.

I appreciate the point that there will be Jeremiahs in any judgement. Those are the men and women who live as righteous among the unrighteous and therefore share in the affliction of suffering because of discipline. However, this is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about an epidemic that hits hardest at the most vulnerable.

As a pastor I am concerned about the messages being sent out to those who most need compassion and care. The danger is that those who need to hear about justice and judgement are in fact protected from hearing those words, whilst those who least need to hear it are going to get bombarded with such messages

How then shall we respond?

Jesus and his disciples meet a man born blind. “What caused him to be blind?” asked the disciples. “Was it his sin or his parents?” If it was through his, or his family’s sin, they were off the hook, he had got his just deserts and there was no onus on them to stop and help. Jesus answers them that this  was not about sin in the family. Rather, it was so that God would be glorified.

In Luke 13, Jesus is asked about some tragedies that have befallen some of the people Jesus responds by insisting that those affected were in no way worse sinners and everyone else. However, those tragic events are a wakeup call for all of us. We are living in a world under God’s judgement. We need to repent.

So our response to a pandemic like this should be compassion for those in need. We should want to see the flock (God’s people) care for. We should be looking to see how God is being glorified in all this. We should not be guilt dripping people with quotes about specific sin. Rather we should be  pointing people to the reality of judgement in the world now and encourage them to seek God’s grace and favour.

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