Hard questions in hard times
Is the coronavirus turning our attention toward God?
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Earlier this week in an interview with Fox News about the coronavirus, Franklin Graham said, “I don’t think God planned for this to happen. It’s because of the sin that’s in the world, Judge. Man has turned his back on God. We have sinned against Him, and we need to ask for God’s forgiveness. And that’s what Easter is all about.”
Several outlets reported on Graham’s remarks. The Washington Post specifically noted another of Graham’s comments: “We have worshipped other gods in this country, and those gods are sports or entertainment. … The people we’ve idolized are on the shelf. I think God is trying to get our attention.”
Some media outlets seemed puzzled about Graham connecting the coronavirus to sin if he wasn’t calling the pandemic a punishment from God.
For The World and Everything in It, we spoke with John Piper—author, theologian, and founder of the ministry Desiring God. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.
The world is asking questions about judgment or punishment in really urgent ways. The basic question is: Is God punishing us? What connection do you find in the Bible between physical afflictions and God’s methods for getting our attention, as Franklin Graham put it?
What comes to my mind are two passages. One is general—maybe more abstract—and the other is really, really, really specific. And it’s the way Jesus thought.
The first one is Romans 8:19-23, and it relates especially to the connection between sin—or the moral condition of our heart—and the physical state of the world. It talks about the creation being subjected to futility, not of its own will, but the will of Him who subjected it in hope, and that’s God. Satan didn’t subject it in hope. Adam and Eve didn’t subject it in hope. God—we call it “the fall,” we call it “the curse”—subjected the world to futility and to corruption. Now, that involves every manner of misery for thousands of years. And death. Everybody dies because of that moment. It’s a horrific judgment from God and it’s in everybody’s life.
And my question: “Oh my goodness. Why did God take out the moral issue on the physical world?” I mean, Adam and Eve made a moral, crazy, sinful mistake when they said, “I prefer me over God, and I prefer Satan’s advice over God’s advice.”
So how do you answer that question?
God knows that sinful people are blind to the moral outrage of belittling God through their indifference or their sin. Nobody loses any sleep in this world over the fact that we pay more attention to the style of our hair than we do our creator. But you let God touch their body, touch their body with cancer, or you get a horrible sore throat right now. Touch that and, man, are we awake? We are wide awake and we’re saying, “Where are you God?”
That’s God’s way of saying, “OK, if you are blind to the moral outrage of sin, because of your own fallenness, how will I confront people? How will I give them a thunderclap of awakening so that they can see the outrage of their failed relationship with God?”
So it’s not just the coronavirus. When I get sick, I think it’s God’s wake up call: “Get serious, Piper. You’re going to die and your relationship with me is not all it should be.”
So, I don’t go around looking for people to say, “Well, this is punishment for you and this is not for you.” I think it’s punishment on those who are unrepentant, and God transforms punishment into purification for those who are in Christ Jesus.
What’s the second passage you thought of?
The people came to Jesus in Luke 13. Pilate had murdered some people in the temple, and the Tower of Siloam had fallen on 18 people—evidently just bystanders—and the people wanted to know: “OK, Jesus, tell me what’s up with this. What about all these people dying? What have they done?”
Talk about moving from abstract to concrete: Jesus looked them right in the eye and said, “You’re astonished that 18 people died or that 10,000 people have died of coronavirus? You’re astonished at that? Here’s what you ought to be astonished at, that you haven’t died yet.”
That’s exactly what He said: “Unless you repent, you”—he didn’t say they. “You will perish if you don’t repent.”
We can draw a straight line from those two passages to the coronavirus. God is saying to the world: The moral outrage of the sin that pervades this world is as great as the horror you see in this coronavirus.
The second thing He’s saying is, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” So when Franklin Graham turned from his first statement about “God didn’t plan this” to his other statement, namely, “God’s doing something to get our attention,” he was on the right track the second time.
What would you say to Christians who may be feeling tossed by some pretty wild swings of emotion right now?
That’s almost a paraphrase of Ephesians 4. Christ doesn’t want His people to be like leaves blowing around or waves tossed by the sea. So the fact that He would even go there with that kind of imagery says He knows what you’re talking about, and so does everybody else. Our affections, the emotional dimensions of us, are quite responsive to a sick wife or a sick husband and a frustrated house lockup.
When I have to deal with my emotions going up and down and sideways, I have to fly to the Word of God. I have to fly to promises. And the illustration that I used in the book that I just finished was when I walked into my urologist office 12 years ago. I was feeling great, and he does his usual exam, and then he looks me in the eye and says, “I want to do a biopsy.” And at that moment, you talk about an emotional swing.
I said, “Why?”
He said, “Just feels a little unusual.”
I said, “When?”
He said, “Now.” So he goes to get the machine, and I’m left alone for about 10 minutes. I’m alone with my emotions doing what your emotions do, right
And God—because I’ve spent 65 years reading my Bible and had some things stored up here—brought to my mind something from—I can’t remember if it was the same morning or just recently—and it was as though God said to me, “You are not appointed for wrath, but you are appointed for salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ who died for you, so that whether you wake or sleep, you might live with Him.”
I’ll tell you, that was so perfect at that moment. He did not say to me, “You’re not going to die of cancer, Piper.” He did not say that. He said, “Whether you live or die, I’m with you. You’re mine. You’re going to be with me.” That’s all I needed.
So we trust God’s sovereignty, no matter what.
My answer is we fly to the Word, and we lay hold on promises—promises about frustration and anxiety. Promises about the sicknesses of our loved ones. When we talk about the sovereignty of God in this, nobody spoke more sweetly and firmly about the sovereignty of God than Jesus. He said, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from your Father.” Now, that’s first-century language for, “There are no rogue viruses.” None. There are no maverick molecules, to quote R.C. Sproul.
The next thing out of His mouth is: “The hairs of your head are all numbered. You are of more value than many sparrows.” Now, that’s what makes Jesus so unparalleled in His way of talking. Where should we go? You have the words of eternal life.
And so on the one hand, Jesus is saying to you in your emotional swings and me in mine: “I’ve got this world in my hands, and not one sparrow is going to fall out of a tree apart from my design, my purpose, my plan. And, by the way, even though Piper doesn’t have as many hairs on his head as he used to, I know exactly how many there are.”
So God’s not aloof. He knows us and our trials.
I remember the way my wife used to braid the hair of our African-American daughter. And hair matters. So you take hours doing this hair, and I used to watch her and I used to think: That’s a beautiful picture of how God counts my hairs. He’s taking every one. He’s folding it just right. So He’s attentive and He’s sovereign and then He says, “You’re of more value than many sparrows.”
So I think when you get words like that in your head and heart and then you pray down the Holy Spirit, He applies the words to our lives and there is a peace. I think what Paul says when he says, “peace that passes understanding” is peace that is produced in a way that goes beyond what reason can produce.
Along with stories of suffering from illness, we’re reading about GDP loss and massive unemployment. We’re hearing stories of people, often people the least able to afford it, suddenly being out of work. Those of us in the so-called knowledge economy can work from home. We keep earning paychecks. But what about those who can’t?
And I should preface, we don’t want to worship mammon. But I think we’re in danger of ignoring the economists, or, worse, looking down our noses at them as indifferent to life.
Well, I certainly don’t know the answer to when more harm is going to be done by pulling workers off the job than keeping them on the job. What surprises me in our day is how quick people are to judge our leaders for the decisions they are making, as though they were God. I don’t have a clue how to weigh the horrific costs in life for job loss or house loss over against the possible health loss of getting out and going to work. I mean, who knows? Who can know what this virus is going to do?
I mean, if we sent everybody back to work and then 5 million people died in the next three weeks, we’d probably say, “Well, that wasn’t the right idea.”
And so health and economic well-being are not easily distinguished.
The economic costs are more difficult to immediately assess than getting sick and dying. That’s easy to assess. And so I’m praying earnestly for our leaders—many of whom I don’t like and think their attitudes stink—help the rest of us know how to make these calls because I surely don’t.
You know, we used to say as an eldership, when we don’t know what to do, we know what to do when we don’t know what to do. We pray. And God was so merciful to us many times when we had absolutely no idea what the solution to an issue facing us was. And we’d call these extra prayer and fasting mornings and say, “God, we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what the solution to this is.” And I never failed to see Him answer when we did that. And so I think that ambiguity and inscrutability is another summons to the people of God: Get on your faces and repent and pray.
Let me say thanks on behalf of WORLD for offering your book Coronavirus and Christ, which you just wrote—and for making it available free to our readers and listeners. It’s a thoughtful and brief, 100-page, book aimed at exactly this time in history.
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