Of Plagues and Peoples
Each and every one of us, with this month upon us, is in a strange new world of broken routines, ruined plans, and the loss of things that we do truly love – among those the loss of public worship for a season.
These things all weigh upon us. I know very few people who are entirely carefree without any concern at the moment. Even the one in four Americans who have been ordered to stay home find themselves thinking and worrying about what is happening “out there” with loved ones, with the economy, and with their own health.
What I have been wrestling with over the past week is how to think about these things in the big picture. How do we think about plague, sickness, and potential economic devastation? What is it that the Lord could be doing?
In the Old Testament, when plagues or diseases struck there was a divine interpreter to tell the people specifically why something was happening. We don’t have that today; there is no “thus saith the Lord” to explain the details of what God is up to. Or is there?
I don’t think we can know from Scripture why this specific sickness has struck our land, from a divine perspective, but Scripture does give us a few truths about our God that can help us think well about what is happening.
First of all, we know we are responsible. As sinners, we are united to the first Adam in his sin. His sin was our sin. We face the same consequences of his sin, just as we would have gained the same benefits from his obedience. “In the day that you eat of the fruit, you shall surely die.” Sickness is ours in Adam. As long as we are in this life, sickness, illness, and death will be our lot and they will all eventually catch up to us one way or another; none of us is free from suffering, no matter what we do.
Second, we know from Old Testament history that God is entirely willing to strike his people if it will do them spiritual good. On multiple occasions God brought great physical harm upon his Old Testament church in order to awaken them from spiritual stupor.
God’s commitment to being honored by his people is so consistent and far-reaching that He even flattened his own temple multiple times. I thought about this last Sunday as I preached to an empty sanctuary: “God has taken away our public worship. He has taken this good thing from us that he commands us to have.” He commanded his Old Testament people to worship in the temple courts, and on more than one occasion he just took those good commanded things away from them the way one pulls out a rug. I don’t know if it’s judgment, but it feels like it. If it isn’t judgment, it sure is a wake-up-call, at least.
God is more than willing to introduce discomfort and pain into his peoples’ lives. He even dragged his people away from their secure home into foreign lands so as to stir them up to love him more than things. Things have a way of making us complacent, self-satisfied, self-confident, secure, and even lethargic. I feel like all of those words are an apt general description of the Western church for at least the last few decades.
Might it be that the answers to prayers for a national revival are coming, but at great physical and economic costs? There is no telling how low the Lord would be willing to drive us if it would cause us to finally wake up and cry out to him in genuine need and love. We should not pray for God to work in our lives and in our neighbors’ lives and then despise Him for the way he answers those prayers.
Third, we know that in Christ, we are secure. This knowledge should be our anchor. Psalm 91:10, on the one hand, speaks of the security of believers: “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” David does not mean that God’s people will never get sick; he means that sickness will never destroy us or ruin our souls. It will, in fact, make us stronger. In fact, we know that Romans 8:28 is a promise that whatever happens to us will be for our “good.” In God’s eyes, our “good” is not that vacation we had planned, that nice car we planned on getting, or that expensive device we can’t have anymore. In God’s eyes, “good” is childlike trust in him… leaning on Christ because we don’t have anything else… loving Him more than stuff. That is what He defines as “good.” If you don’t feel secure at the moment, it may not feel good, but that also may be exactly the point.
Fourth, we know that people will respond to suffering differently, depending on their spiritual state. It has been said, “the same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay.” This means that when a Christian suffers, it drives him to God in childlike dependence. When an unbeliever suffers, it confirms his hatred of God. But there are some for whom the current pattern of suffering will cause their heart to melt and even make them open to the things of God whereas before they felt happy and self-sufficient.
It may not be a happy time in a material sense, but believer, it is a joyful time. It isn’t joyful because of the circumstances, but it is joyful because your God is at work. He never stops working (John 5:17). Might it be that God’s words to Habakkuk are also true of our own national moment as well? “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told” (Hab. 1:5).
Adam Parker is the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA) and an adjunct Professor at Belhaven University. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, and most importantly the husband of Arryn and father of four covenant children.