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Saturday, March 21, 2020

Thank God for the coronavirus?

After not sleeping for over two days because of a trip home from Uganda that started at midnight there (I can't sleep in airports or airplanes more than a few minutes for some reason), I woke up in the middle of the night in the midst of a fever dream (but not a literal fever, thank God) and realized that on the return trip I had let my doctor down in two ways. I had forgotten to take my malaria medicine and my Airborne.

As I got up and did that (better late than never!), an interesting thought came to me, as they often do in the early hours, which is reproduced in my first point below. But that thought expanded into several others (as they often do), so here we go...

In Uganda I had the tremendous privilege of teaching almost 40 pastors and their wives (some of the finest, I believe, from all over the country) in two three-day conferences about "the theology of marriage" (see this series on YouTube for some of what I taught). I mentioned to them one of my favorite counseling assignments, which is based on Romans 8:28: "Make a list of all the ways you think that God could possibly bring good out of this trial." Here are a few such items, which are not even close to being exhaustive but serve as appropriate examples. (And I'll comment on my title at the end.)

The coronavirus reminds us that there is such a thing as absolute truth

A man I talked to on one of the planes said he believed that "all paths lead to God" or some similar expression of subjective relativism in religion, and I wish I would have thought to use the following illustration in my discussion with him...

Imagine if someone on the airplane had a serious cough and hacked right in people's faces without even putting an arm or hand up to block their germs. Even not wearing a mask would be enough for such a person to be criticized by his fellow travelers, and they probably would think badly of him for even getting on the plane with them! Imagine if he said, "Who are you to say I'm wrong? I sincerely believe I don't have the virus" or even, "I might have it but I need to live out my truth. Don't say your opinions are better than mine."

Everyone would recognize that as nonsense, of course, because things like the coronavirus give the lie to relativism. I remember a similar dynamic after the 9-11 World Trade Center attack, when even the most "tolerant" people had to admit there was such a thing as good and evil in the world. If there is right and wrong and true and not true in disease and terrorism prevention, why would we think there are no absolute truths that reward a search for them in the spiritual realm?

This absolute truth exists even without our absolute understanding, by the way. We will never know all the truth about coronavirus or terrorism, but that truth exists, and we can know enough about it to achieve the needed goals of stopping a pandemic or preventing another 9-11. In the spiritual realm we will never know everything about God and His ways, but we can learn enough to have a saving relationship with Him and to live a life that is pleasing to Him and good for us, because He has promised to give us that knowledge by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 1:3).

The coronavirus gives us an opportunity to trust God in the face of fear

The conferences in Uganda were planned long before the coronavirus happened, of course, and I and others wondered if we should cancel the trip. (My dear mother was definitely of the opinion that I shouldn't go.) But I remembered the biggest lesson that I learned from my only other trip to a third-world country (the Philippines when I was in my twenties): "Fear is never a reason to not do something good." There can be other legitimate reasons, of course, but fear alone should never keep us from it. So I went on the trip to minister God's Word to a wonderful group of Ugandan people who were so hungry to learn and had made their own plans to give up four days of their lives and travel up to seven hours to be there.

Ironically, I was probably safer in Uganda than I would been if I stayed in America. I certainly had less chance of contracting the virus, because as of now Uganda still has no reported cases. (Some think the high temperatures keep it from thriving, and the government of the country has taken strong steps early on to keep it out.) I did, however, have to face the fear of not being able to return to America or at least being quarantined for a while upon my return. Allan and Lucy Topham, my beloved companions and sponsors on the trip, had to leave halfway through to avoid those eventualities because of some health needs. So I had to decide whether to continue by myself for the last day of the first conference and the entirety of the second.

I decided to stay, largely because my wife was okay with it and even for it, and I am so glad I did! Many of the attenders said the conferences were life-changing and begged me to come back, and God's providence was evident in so many details of the trip. For example, we arrived in Uganda one day before the country was closed to Americans, and I left one day before all flights through Europe were cancelled and all group meetings were banned (and three days later all plane travel from the country was grounded)! Another example was that the coordinator for the second conference decided at the last minute to add translation to the teaching, which meant it would take twice as long to get through the material, but because the other speaker had left we now had only half of it to cover, so it worked out perfectly. And I could go on with many other examples, but suffice to say that God showed himself trustworthy again, as He always does.

The coronavirus makes us go deep in our theology

Whenever crises and tragedies like this occur on a large scale, it causes people to think about deep theological issues, which is one of the reasons God allows them to happen. I say "allows" because all Bible-believing Christians can agree on that terminology, regardless of our particular theological understanding of the sovereignty of God and theodicy (or "the problem of evil"). I had an interesting discussion recently about whether it is accurate and/or wise to say "I'm thankful for the coronavirus" or "Thank God for the coronavirus" in light of the fact that it is so terrible and so many people are suffering because of it, and therefore we don't want to "blame God" for it or be insensitive to human suffering.

It can't be wrong to use terminology like that, because in the Scriptures God says things like, "I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things" (Isa. 45:7). Jesus himself said, in a context about people rejecting Him, "In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.'" So we shouldn't be too critical of those who thank God for even bad things that happen--in fact, I watched a video and read a post online with titles without the question mark and was blessed by them. 

But I didn't want to write it without the question mark because I question (no pun intended) whether that is the best and wisest terminology to use while the crisis and tragedy is happening. (Perhaps it would be better afterward, as we're looking back and see God's providence after the fact and the pain is not so fresh). Most people who hear it won't understand the fine lines between God causing evil directly and allowing it as a part of His plan (see R.C. Sproul's great book Chosen By God for a discussion of that distinction). But I definitely think we can and should say things like, "We are thankful in the midst of the coronavirus" and "I'm thankful for the good things God is able to bring out of this."

Whatever way you prefer to say it, I hope that the basic idea summarized in Romans 8:28-29 will be an anchor to you in the storms that are raging (and any that will be in the future): "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son." God is making you more like Christ now (especially through exposing and removing idols in your life) so that you can be with Him one day forever, when trials like the coronavirus will not even be worth remembering except for the spiritual good that came out of them.

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