The Blessing of Pestilence
As I begin writing, it’s day six of the national “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative (catchy, no?)—or at least, I think it is, but I’ll admit, the days are starting to blend together a bit.
I’ll spare you the full list of activities our family has undertaken in these historic days, since our experiences are common to many. Suffice to say that we’ve enjoyed a bit more time together as I have worked from home, my lovely wife has tried a few new recipes, and the dumbbells in the basement are finally getting used—and yes, we’re doing fine on toilet paper.
I will confess that, like many of you, I’ve tiptoed that knife’s-edge balance between healthy precaution and sinful worry. By God’s grace, I can’t say that we’ve quite given much into the sort of worry Jesus forbids (Matt. 6:34)—the kind rooted in unbelief—but that could be owing more to the sheer surreality of it all. In a few months I’m sure it will begin to sink in: Wait, the president really told everyone to stay home for weeks? Entire industries really shut down? This wasn’t some draft script to the never-filmed 10th season of 24?
Yet for as many rebukes as there have been from our Creator amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, there have been generous helpings of grace mixed in—pressed down, shaken together, running over. It seems funny to label the current situation a “judgment” when, at least in my neck of the woods, that judgment means taking more walks outside, meeting more of our normally-reclusive suburban neighbors, and joining my wife and kids for lunch—things we’d otherwise call blessings.
So is all this COVID-19 stuff a judgment or mercy—a blessed curse or a cursed blessing?
I may lose some of my readers at this point, but when it comes to questions about judgments and nations and whatnot, I am one of those pesky Christians who turns to his Old Testament and believes what it says.
I believe we are saved by faith in Christ, not works (Eph. 2:8-9), and as a confessing Protestant following the Second London Baptist Confession, I believe that the civil laws of Israel perished along with that unbelieving nation in A.D. 70, leaving behind only their moral use or general equity. So, if after reading the previous paragraph you pigeonholed me as that kind of Old Testament guy, I encourage you to suspend judgment for just a moment.
Qualifications aside, it’s also true that once and only once in history did God infallibly inspire a set of laws governing a nation, so while we aren’t co-identical with that nation, and we are under a new and better covenant of grace (of which the Law of Moses was but a shadowy foretaste, cf. Heb. 10:1), we would also be sorely mistaken if we assumed Moses had nothing to say to us too. All things are ours in Christ and can be used for our edification (1 Cor. 3:21), and this certainly includes the Law.
Hence, two passages from Deuteronomy have been bouncing around my head this past week (a welcome interruption to the usual rattling up there). The context: God’s people have sojourned about forty years in the wilderness following their miraculous deliverance from Egypt and refusal to enter the promised land in faith. The old generation now having died off in the desert as judgment for their rebellion, Moses restates the terms of the covenant to the new congregation on their way into Canaan—the second giving (deutero) of the law (nomos). And like the original covenant of works cut with Adam in Eden, the reiterated Sinaitic covenant stipulates blessings for obedience and curses on disobedience.
The first text is this:
“The LORD will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. The LORD will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish.” (Deuteronomy 28:20-22 ESV)
If the children of Israel were disobedient and chased other gods, plagues and pestilence would follow. Does this mean that the current virus pandemic is also a judgment of this sort? We might answer with a qualified “yes.”
While we aren’t Israelites and this covenant applies to us by extension, we also have in the deuteronomic blessings and curses a striking reflection of the heart and holiness of God. Sin and rebellion are punished not just in Israel as a unique nation but in every nation, and this includes some of the same temporal curses promised to Israel (see Lev. 18:24-28, Isa. 24:1-13)-— . So it isn’t enough to dismiss the matter with a shrug and a “Well, we’re under grace, not law.” The world outside of Christ is under nothing but law, so we shouldn’t be surprised when God chastises Gentile nations in ways that resemble his rebukes of his old covenant people too.
The other plague facing us, and arguably the more deadly one, is the plague of widespread panic. This too has its basis in Moses:
“The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Deut. 28:25)
Note that this is the exact inverse of the blessing for obedience: “The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.” Obedience to the covenant would yield the grace of courage among the people. One soldier would chase an entire troop (Josh. 23:10). Disobedience would result in the curse of cowardice, and a lone enemy fighter would route a whole band of Israelites.
There is no doubt that we are under a similar curse of fear. We’ve scattered in all directions and scurried into our basements, not fleeing a mammoth Philistine giant but a minuscule pathogen. There is, of course, wisdom in following precautions, “flattening the curve,” and even submitting to rigorous quarantines (as our family has)—but all these actions ought to be taken without giving way to nail-biting anxiety. If our fear of illness eclipses our fear of God, our affections have become disordered.
Not Like Karma
One might object “Wait. If you’re willing to count the COVID-19 outbreak with all its relative statistical insignificance as divine judgment, you’d better be prepared to count all sorts of other, graver phenomena as judgments—influenza, car accidents, and cancer.” I am willing to swallow that reductioso long as a category distinction is made between general judgments and special judgments.
General judgments—and I’m sure there are theologians who have determined better shorthand for this—are those judicial decrees of God (that is what judgments are) in response not necessarily to a particular sinful act here or there but to the presence of sin in creation as a whole, starting with its failed federal representative, Adam. In this category we would include influenza, car accidents, cancer, and COVID, along with hurricanes, hernias, and house cats. The sin of our first parents ushered blood, sweat, thistles, and thorns (Gen. 3:14-19) into the whole cosmos, such that it now groans in labor pangs awaiting the eschaton (Rom. 8:22). Death itself, common to all, is really and truly a judgment, whether one dies painfully in the throes of battle or passes peacefully between neatly-tucked sheets. The wages of sin is death. (See Romans 6:23 and Psalm 90.)
In other words, all general judgments are judgments on sin, but are not easily attributed with this or that sin apart from infallible revelation telling us otherwise. Under this curse, fallen Adam may step on a thistle in the course of his toil and feel a good bit of discomfort for a minute, and this trivial pain is judgment—not necessarily for any proud thoughts he’d been entertaining moments prior (“What a nag, that Eve. ‘Watch your weight, eat more fruit.’ A lot of good that advice did me last time…”) but for his original sin in Eden. We are not dharmists; we do not believe there is a one-to-one correspondence between every pain or inconvenience in life and personal guilt on our account. Life under this cursed world is unpredictable that way. Sometimes construction accidents happen and innocent civilians are killed, as in the Tower of Siloam incident, and God sovereignly superintends it as a warning to every average Joe that “unless you repent, you too will perish” (Luke 13:3). But in other instances, children are born blind owing to no one’s sin at all (John 9:2-3). The covenant of works does not work like karma.
Special judgments, for lack of a better term, are different. This category refers to specific sanctions on sinful individuals or groups imposed according to a particular historical covenant. An example would be the barbarous cannibalism that happened when Jerusalem was under siege in 586 B.C. (Jer. 19:9) and again in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The War of the Jews Book 4, ch. 3.4). There is a reason Jewish history rhymes here; Yahweh had promised the Israelites in Deuteronomy 28:53 that, should they persist in rebellion and idolatry, they would fall to their enemies in such desperation that, starving to death, they would be driven even to eat their children. Judgments like these are unique, nontransferable covenant signs, though they are rife with application for any discerning Bible reader.
Charles Spurgeon, in a 1866 sermon on Amos 3:3-6 and addressing the cholera outbreak afflicting London at the time, wisely noted:
“We believe that God sends all pestilences, let them come how they may, and that he sends them with a purpose, let them be removed in whatever way they may; and we conceive that it is our business as ministers of God, to call the people’s attention to God in the disease, and teach them the lesson which God would have them learn. I am not among those, as you know, who believe that every affliction is a judgment upon the particular person to whom it occurs. We perceive that in this world the best of men often endure the most of suffering, and that the worst of men frequently escape; and therefore we do not believe in judgments to particular persons except in extraordinary cases; but we do nevertheless very firmly believe that there are national judgments, and that national sins provoke national chastisements.”
I count myself with Spurgeon. We simply do not have enough information to say for sure whether the current outbreak is a generalized judgment or a specialized one. But either way, it’s some kind of judgment—a real chastisement from a personal, holy Creator God, regardless of whether we can cite chapter and verse about which exact national sin was the tripwire. Sin always has consequences, and these consequences are always covenantal in nature; some are just further downstream from Eden than others.
But we ought not rule out the notion that this judgment is more direct and specialized. At any rate, in the case of the West, there is little mystery as to why God would take aim at us.
We have possessed more light than virtually any nation prior, having ubiquitous access to the truth of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, yet we of all the peoples of the earth have shed the blood of more than 60 million unborn infants in the U.S. alone. (Today, in my city, Planned Parenthood remains open in spite of our governor’s orders to refrain from elective medical procedures.) We have profaned the covenant of marriage, blessing sodomy, adultery, and every perversion the human heart has dreamed. We’ve squandered our common graces and perverted God’s kindness. We pioneered the microchip only to spread smut through the cloud and beam it into anyone’s pocket. We have turned from the Triune God to the idols of mammon, sex, and the State. We have hoarded wealth in a day of slaughter (Jas. 5:5). We deserve a hundred pandemics to wake us up and drive us back towards God.
Given this, the question is not whether the panic and the pandemic are judgments of God (they both are), but why these rebukes are so gentle and mixed with the mercies of home offices, FaceTime, and family walks. But God’s judgments in history are always intermingled with mercies.
From Moses to Christ
God’s law is not just meant to expose our sin and its consequences but tutor us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). And from the first human sin, when God cursed creation but promised a victorious, snake-crushing Messiah (Gen. 3:15), God has peppered promises into punishments.
The pattern continues throughout biblical history. God flooded a depraved world but saved Noah; he consumed Sodom and Gommorah but left Lot; he judged Egypt but delivered his chosen people; he decimated Jericho but rescued righteous Rahab; he sent the Assyrians and Babylonians but preserved a remnant; he ordained the fall of Jerusalem but preserved the infant Christian church.
Whether the coronavirus pandemic is a cursed blessing or a blessed curse (only history and heaven know), what matters is that we respond rightly to both providences at once. To the curse, we must respond in total, desperate repentance, and to the blessing, we must respond in thanksgiving, worship, and, you guessed it, more repentance. There is an eventual point of no return, at which point repentance is withheld, but we aren’t there yet. As long as we are alive, it seems repentance is possible. We must look through the judgment to the offer of mercy buried within every chastisement. The Lord Jesus Christ died for sinners, rose, and reigns victorious over every people, plague, and providence, judging the wicked but freely forgiving all who come to him in empty-handed faith.
The blessing intermingled with our current circumstances is this offer of the gospel. Though the hour is clouded by a dark providence, let us be awake—even in the wee hours—and heed the call to repent. Nothing is more viral than the news and rule of Christ; “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).