How God’s Sovereignty should inform our response to pandemics
To say that God’s sovereignty should inform our responses to pandemics, I am of course assuming that our understanding of God’s sovereignty is a Biblical understanding. What does the Bible say about the sovereignty of God? It says the following things.
It says, “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isa. 46:8-10). Here we are told that God knows the end from the beginning; in fact, he declares it. He tells out human history from the first to the last. The very least that these verses tell us is that God knows the future infallibly. Nothing takes God by surprise. Nothing!
Now that is something. If God knows the future, then he can prepare his people for it. But the verse actually says more than that. It says that regardless of what the future holds, Gods’ counsel will stand. He will accomplish his purpose. So it is more than that God knows the future. This verse says something much more powerful. It says that nothing in this future that God knows will undermine or deter him from his purpose and plan. In other words, the future is not some entity independent of God. Now I think that the reason for this is that God’s plan is all-encompassing. Things happen not by chance or happenstance, but because God has from eternity intended them to happen just the way they happen.
A pagan king said something very similar: “I Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34-35). What Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful monarch in his day, came to see, is that there is nothing on this earth that can thwart God’s will. Now of course people can say to God, “What have you done?” But no one can say this to God with the ability to stop him from putting his plan into execution: no one can stay his hand. As the psalmist put it, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).
Or, as the apostle put it to the Ephesians, God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). The word, “works” means “to produce, to bring into effect.” What does God bring into effect? Paul says, “all things.” I take that to mean, “all that comes to pass.” God brings all things into effect, and he does so according to the counsel of his own will, according to his plan.
What happens in our space-time universe is simply the working out of God’s perfect eternal plan, a plan that is wise, good, and holy.
Now, we must put this into Biblical perspective, lest we go astray. Though the Bible makes it clear that God is sovereign over all things, it is important that we add the caveat that he does not relate to everything in the same way. He does not relate to sin in the same way that he relates to righteousness. God does not bring about sin directly, for he is not the author of sin. He does not, as James puts it, tempt anyone to evil, or can he be tempted himself (Jam. 1:13). However, God does allow evil to happen, and he does so on purpose, not because he loves evil, but because he wills to bring greater good from certain instances of evil. For example, the crucifixion, or the persecution of Job, or the selling of Joseph into slavery.
And this also means that when the evil that God has allowed comes to pass, God hates it, and loathes it and regrets it. Thus all the passages in Scripture that talk about God regretting something. It doesn’t imply that something took God by surprise or that God is no longer immutable, but rather that even though God has planned for a particular evil to take place, even though he has purposely allowed it, that doesn’t mean he likes it, and when it does come to pass according to God’s plan, he cannot but recoil at it and detest it as it is in itself.
We must also say that God’s sovereignty doesn’t take away human freedom and responsibility. In other words, we must take a compatibilist view of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We must not draw back from a full-throttled Biblical view of God’s sovereignty over all things. But neither must we deny the fact that our choices are significant. We are not puppets on a string. God’s all-encompassing plan does not make us robots. He is able to effect his plan in such a way that our freedom is not impaired or taken away. When we read Scripture, it is very clear that our choices are significant and that we are going to be held responsible for our thoughts, words, and actions. The Final Judgment is all the proof we need for that. Though I cannot explain exactly how God is able to do this, yet it is clear that Scripture teaches both realities.
For this reason, it is right to say things like, “If Elijah hadn’t prayed, it would not have rained.” That is true. If you cannot say that, then you have probably slipped into fatalism. Fatalism says that it doesn’t matter what we do, God’s will must be done no matter what we say or do. But to be Biblical, we must affirm both that it does matter what we do, and we must affirm that God has foreordained all that comes to pass. They are both true, and being both true, we must not fall into the fallacy that it doesn’t matter what we do.
Let me give you a Biblical illustration of how these things interact. Do you remember the story of Paul and the shipwreck in Acts 27? Do you remember the promise that God made to Paul that no one would be lost? And Paul believed God; this was a promise from God, something he could take to the bank: “So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:25). However, later in the story, after they had finally discovered land and had dropped anchor to wait for the day, the sailors made an excuse to leave the boat and escape for their lives. This would have endangered everyone else, for the sailors were the experts at sea; the others weren’t. When Paul saw what was happening, he told the centurion, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (31). Now someone might say that Paul was contradicting himself. How could he say that their safety depended on the sailors, when he had earlier said that God had already guaranteed their safety? Because Paul wasn’t an Arminian or Hyper-Calvinist! He understood that God’s sovereignty didn’t take away the responsibility of the sailors. At the same time he had complete confidence that God’s will was going to be done. That is the balance we have to learn to strike in our lives.
So all that to say the following things. 1. God is in control over the course of human history. Nothing in human history can undo God’s good plan, including pandemics. 2. God’s sovereignty extends over all that he has created. That includes viruses. 3. God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that we become fatalists, with a que será, será attitude, but that we exercise our responsibility in reliance upon God’s sovereign hand. So when faced with a pandemic, we don’t do nothing; we do what we can in reliance upon the God who is sovereign over all things.
One of the best texts that shows us how this should look in our lives is found in James 4:13-17, which I will quote in full: “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. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
This text very clearly teaches the believer to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” There is not a more comprehensive statement than that. It implies very strongly that nothing happens apart from the will of God and we are to live in light of that reality. Note again that James is not a fatalist. See the last verse! God’s comprehensive sovereignty is not something to make you lazy and careless. It is a truth to live by. It is to recognize that God is in control, and do to what I can do knowing that God is working in me and around me, infallibly accomplishing his good purpose.
Now then, how do we apply this to the matter at hand, to the fact that the Coronavirus is now considered a global pandemic?
It means that we do not give in to anxiety, but trust in the Lord who is in ultimate control.
The main point of the preceding discussion is that God’s sovereignty is the reason why we should not worry. As R. C. Sproul once put it, there isn’t a maverick molecule in the universe. If there was, we would have a reason to worry. But if God is in control, then there is no need to worry, because God is wise and good and holy – indeed, he is perfectly so.
In the introduction, I quoted Ps. 115:3, which reminds us that God does whatever he pleases. What is the application of that reality? It is this: “O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield” (9-11). Knowing God is in control is the reason we can hope and trust in the Lord and be confident that he will be our help when we are weak and our shield when we are exposed to danger. The cure for anxiety is not to look to yourself and your own resources, it is to look to the Lord.
This is why the apostle Paul instructs us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests . . . known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Why is it that we need not be anxious about anything? Is it not because God is over everything?
On the other hand, when we give in to anxiety, what are we doing? We have convinced ourselves that something can happen to me which will be so bad that it will not be worth it to endure it. It means that we don’t think God can or will protect us. But this is wrong on both counts: God can and he will protect his people. This is why Paul will say to the Romans that God works all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). Of course that doesn’t mean we will be shielded from every woe, but it does mean that whatever we endure, God will bring good from it. It does mean that when we go through the fire and flood, God will be with us. We are more than conquerors through him who loves us.
I know that some people will come back and say that the best antidote to worry and anxiety is preparedness. To some extent that is true. I often tell my students that the number one reason behind test anxiety is simply a lack of preparedness for the exam. But the fact of the matter is that no matter what we are facing, and especially something as elusive and dangerous as a virus, we can never truly prepare enough. The fact of the matter is that no matter how well you prepare, you are still at risk of getting sick. Or, no matter how much you stock up, there is always the chance that you missed something, or that you didn’t stockpile enough of something for the length of time this will go on. You cannot control the future. So for that reason, there isn’t any logical reason to stop worrying because there will always be uncertainty related to our preparations for unforeseen outcomes. But here’s the deal: God knows the future and God controls the future. If our trust is in God, then there is no real need to worry at all. Trusting in the sovereign God is the only real way to effectually combat worry and anxiety.
So when people tell you that the death rate is 10 times greater than the seasonal flu, we don’t fret because a virus, as bad as it is, is no worse than Satan and can no more harm us than Satan could Job without God’s permission. Let the worse come on, for God is over all.
It is in times like this that the Christian is given a unique opportunity to witness. What often opens the door to life-changing gospel conversations are trials the believer goes through with faith and courage. The fact of the matter is that on an intellectual level, the unbeliever will always be able to come up with reasons not to believe in Christ. The difference is most often seen in the way our faith affects our lives. This is what I think our Lord was getting at when he told his disciples in Luke 21:13, as he was preparing them for the fires of future persecution, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” He wasn’t saying that they were to only bear witness during times of persecution, but that persecution provided them with a unique opportunity to show the world just how powerful the gospel is. And I think that is true of trials in general. Let us show the world that our faith in God is not just lip-service, but that he is worthy of their faith and trust.
It means that we do not give in to despair, but act in faith upon the God who is sovereign.
A wrong response is to say, “Well, God is sovereign so it doesn’t matter what I do. It doesn’t matter whether I expose myself or others to the virus. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do. God’s will is going to be done, no matter what I do.” What we’ve said above is that this is not a Biblical view of God’s sovereignty. We must never say, “It doesn’t matter what I do,” because in fact it does matter. I remember a story of an old circuit rider in the West, who was known to believe that God has predestined all that comes to pass. Another person, when he saw that the preacher carried a revolver, accosted him with the question, “But if you believe that God predestines all things, then why do you carry a gun?” To which the preacher responded something to this effect, “Because it might just be that God foreordained that I shoot a villain!”
So what that means is that we prepare the best we can when confronted with circumstances like this virus. Doing nothing in the name of God’s sovereignty is like running out in front of a moving vehicle and then saying that if God doesn’t want you to die, the car will miss you. When a virus is coming toward our community at full throttle, you don’t run out in front of it. You try to avoid it. And that means limiting your exposure to it through hygiene, and if necessary, through social distancing.
But it also means that we don’t act out of panic. Lots of people are responding to the pandemic, and doing things to minimize their risk of exposure, and stocking up on things. But they are doing it in a way that shows that they are in a panic, and that they have no real faith in anyone or anything beyond their own resources. Or some look to the government for help as if the government were God. This is not the right response, for it is antithetical to faith in our good and powerful Father.
Do you remember good King Asa? He is a breath of fresh air in a time of great apostacy. He was a righteous king, who at times showed remarkable trust in the Lord. When an army of a million men came to attack him, Asa trusted in the Lord and God delivered him. He showed less faith towards the end of his life, however. At the very end of his life, we are told that he was diseased in his feet. Here is how he reacted to that: “In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but sought help from the physicians” (2 Chron. 16:12). Now the point of this perspective is not to say that it was wrong for Asa to seek help from doctors. The point is that in seeking help from doctors, Asa neglected to seek the LORD for healing. He didn’t act in faith upon God. He acted as if he were an atheist, as if the only help he could get was from physicians. This is a warning. It shows us how we are not to respond to things like this virus. Is it wrong to abide by the directions of doctors and the CDC or the WHO? No, of course not. But it is wrong to do so as if their word was the only word. God also has something to say, and that is to trust in him. It is wrong to do so as if there was no God. Even in obeying the instructions of physicians, we need to do so in a way that is consistent with faith in a loving God.
A way to sum up our response is to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can do this because we can trust in God to protect us as we serve others. Now it is true that sometimes in this context that might mean avoiding your neighbor! But it might also sometimes mean being willing to expose yourself to help those who are in need. This requires wisdom, of course, so that we don’t needlessly or foolishly expose ourselves and our families to this virus. But love sometimes means that we forgo our own safety for the benefit of others.
A quote from Martin Luther that’s been making the rounds is helpful here. In his treatise, “On whether one may flee from a deadly plague,” he wrote, “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent [a pestilence] . . . I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall . . . administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others . . . If people in a city were to show themselves bold in faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as to not take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.” This is the kind of balance that we need to strike here. We need to be both bold in faith when need demands and cautious when no emergency exists.
So my friends, trust in the Lord. Don’t let panic rule you. Show the world that our God can be trusted. Act, but act in faith upon the sovereign God who works all things for the good of those who trust in him. This just might be your opportunity for witness.