By Christopher Wright
It would be all too easy, at a time like this in the midst of a global pandemic, to reach for Bible verses of comfort and assurance. There are plenty of those being shared these days on social media. And we’ll get to some of them in a moment.
But first of all, we need to face some stark biblical reality. In the Bible, God gives us multiple warnings about the consequences of our human sin and folly. In a Wisdom book like Proverbs, it’s the warning of a father’s arm around the shoulder, or sometimes the father’s kick up the backside.
But what happens when we ignore God’s warnings? Ah, then, says Proverbs, we will eat the fruit of our own folly. Listen to these words from Proverbs 1. Lady Wisdom is calling out to people in the public square. Lady Wisdom is a kind of personification for God himself. She speaks for him. I’m reading from Proverbs 1:24.
But since you refuse to listen when I call
and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand,
since you disregard all my advice
and do not accept my rebuke,
I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you;
I will mock when calamity overtakes you—
when calamity overtakes you like a storm,
when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind,
when distress and trouble overwhelm you (Prov. 1:24-27, NIV).
That’s pretty accurate right now, isn’t it? “Calamity, disaster, distress, trouble,” overwhelming whole countries. And this time it’s not just somewhere out there far away — it’s the whole world, brought to a halt by one of the tiniest organisms in all creation.
But did you recoil at those words, “I will laugh … I will mock”? I mean, really? Is God laughing at us? No, no. We have to hear that as poetic, rhetorical — it’s like the sad “I told you so” laugh of a father whose son, after repeated warnings never to cycle or skateboard fast down a hill, has just crash-landed at speed doing exactly what he was warned not to do. “What were you thinking of? Are you crazy? Didn’t I tell you that would happen?”
No, no, God is not laughing at those who are suffering and dying in his world. He weeps for them.
Isaiah tells us that God suffers with those who suffer. Speaking of the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, he says,
In all their affliction he was afflicted (Isa. 63:9. ESV).
Jeremiah sheds the tears of God when he cries out,
Oh, that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears!
I would weep day and night
for the slain of my people. (Jer. 9:1, NIV).
Through Ezekiel God says,
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezek. 33:11, NIV).
And Jesus tells us that God’s eyes are on every little sparrow, for, as he says,
Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. (Matt. 10:29-31, NRSV).
That is the measure of the love of God for all his creatures. How much more, then, for human suffering in all its breadth and depth, including those now dying of Coronavirus, often in isolation from family and friends?
The Father heart of God feels the pain of the whole world on a scale that we cannot imagine. And the same Father heart of God feels your pain, if you are among those who have lost dearly loved family or friends to this terrible scourge. Please be assured that God knows, sees, and cares.
But Lady Wisdom also tells us that part of that pain for God is seeing our stubborn refusal to listen to him, and the consequences of that. We learn the hard way the terrible results of ignoring God’s laws, and guidance for how we should live in his world, and how we should treat his creation. Here’s how Wisdom’s words continue:
since they hated knowledge
and did not choose to fear the LORD.
Since they would not accept my advice
and spurned my rebuke,
they will eat the fruit of their ways
and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,
and the complacency of fools will destroy them. (Prov. 1:29-32, NIV).
That last line is chilling, isn’t it? “The complacency of fools will destroy them.” How much complacency we have seen in recent months. How many world leaders in several countries have made fools of themselves in ignoring the warnings with lethal bravado.
But it goes back much further. Creation itself has been groaning under human folly. Here’s a quote from an article I read the other day:
As hard as it is to hear, the outbreak of coronavirus is not a “natural disaster.” It is a disaster of our own making. Viruses jump species and get into humans, and environmental destruction makes this more likely to happen as people are brought into closer contact with virus-carrying animals. Deforestation, wildlife trafficking ,and unsustainable farming practices, are all likely factors at play. (Tear Fund).
And God has given us multiple warnings over recent years as creation itself fights back. But, as Proverbs says, “you refuse to listen when I call, and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand” (v. 24). How tragically true. We have carried on with our destructive greed and wasteful folly, and God says in the end,
they will eat the fruit of their ways
and be filled with the fruit of their schemes (v. 31).
So is there a word of hope and comfort for us to cling to?
Well, yes, there certainly is, though, like the gospel itself, it begins with a sobering command.
Repent at my rebuke!
Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings (v. 23)
Repent! This virus has been a humbling experience for humanity. We boast of our incredible technological skills and the wonders of artificial intelligence, but we are brought to our knees by a minute spec of a virus with no intelligence at all.
Perhaps on our knees would be the best place to start our response. For as Peter urged us,
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Pet. 5:6-7, NIV)
“Because he cares for you.” Of course he does! The whole Bible makes that abundantly clear. But the Bible also calls for us to put our trust in him and repent of our arrogant self-sufficiency. And that is actually where our text in Proverbs goes very soon after chapter 1. Here are more familiar but no less important words from chapter 3.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
Honor the LORD with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Prov. 3:5-9, NIV)
“Lean not on your own understanding. … Do not be wise in your own eyes.”
Well, that’s a hard lesson to learn — for humanity, for governments especially, and for each of us as individual believers. Of course it does not mean that we despise the knowledge and understanding that God gives to medics and scientists — how we need that expertise and thank God for it and pray for all their efforts to find a vaccine.
But our ultimate hope doesn’t lie in human science or medicine. God calls us to trust in him, not in our resources, wealth, or cleverness. Or as the Psalmist puts it:
We wait in hope for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, LORD,
even as we put our hope in you. (Ps. 33:20-22)
And then, trusting in God’s unfailing love to us, we are set free to go on being generous, honoring the Lord with whatever measure of wealth he entrusts to us. Set free, that is, from the fear that would paralyse our faith and snuff out our generosity.
“Fear him, ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear,” as from Nahum Tate’s hymn “Through all the changing scenes of life” puts it.
And the fear of the Lord, Proverbs would assure us, is the beginning of wisdom.
The Rev. Christopher Wright is International Director of the Langham Partnership International and chairman of the Lausanne Theology Working Group.