John Piper’s recent book, Coronavirus and Christ (Crossway, 2020) has quite a lot on common with John Lennox’s Where is God in a Coronavirus World?
Both are written from an evangelical perspective by men with long experience in Christian ministry, and who have experienced significant ill-health in the past. Both books are quite short, appeal to the same kinds of biblical teaching, and extend an invitation to accept the Good News of Jesus, crucified, risen and returning.
But there are differences too. I know that comparisons are odorous (sic!), but there is in Piper’s book an additional intensity which some might find a bit alarming, but which I think reflects a thorough commitment to follow Scripture wherever it leads.
What I would like to do here, accordingly, is to focus mainly on the biblical teachings on which Piper’s book is based.
I hope that this will stimulate interest not only in Piper’s book, but also (and especially) in the scriptural foundations that form the basis of his work.
Part 1 The God who reigns over the Coronavirus
Chapter 1 Come to the Rock
“God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” (1 Thess. 5:9–10)
To the believer, God says, ‘Whether you live or die, you are safe with Jesus.’
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'” (James 4:13–15)
The Christian hope is not only for the by-and-by, but also for the here and now. God is totally involved. Whether we live or die; go here or go there; do this or do that, we do so by God’s permission.
Chapter 2 A Solid Foundation
“The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:24–25).
Jesus said that God’s words in Scripture “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). What God says is “true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9).
“You have founded [your testimonies] forever” (Ps. 119:152).
Listening to God, and believing him, is like building your house on a rock, not on sand (Matt. 7:24).
God’s word is a firm foundation for life.
“He is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (Isa. 28:29).
“His understanding is beyond measure” (Ps. 147:5).
“The counsel of the LORD stands forever” (Ps. 33:11). “His way is perfect” (2 Sam. 22:31).
When God gives counsel about the coronavirus or anything else, it is firm and unshakeable.
“More to be desired are [God’s words] than gold: . . . sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10).
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
“Your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16).
God’s words are sweet, precious, and life-giving. Paul had learned the secret of being
“sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).
Satan has blinded “the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). True faith is not blind (Mt 13:13; 15:14): it is seeing.
Truly, we all ought to acknowledge God, for he is self-authenticating:
“what can be known about God is plain to them. . . . Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God” (Rom. 1:19, 21).
Of the heavens, it is said that they
“declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1).
Concerning the Son,
“we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
So we confess:
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103).
“Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8).
Scholarship can provide solid reasons for believing in the God of the Bible. But, for ordinary people, we recognise the truth of the biblical revelation of God in the same way that we recognise honey for what it is: we ‘taste and see’.
“Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
“All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16).
The apostle Peter says, the authors of Scripture “were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).
“The sum of your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160).
“Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Ps. 119:89).
“Every word of God proves true” (Prov. 30:5).
And to all these assertions and afformations, our heart says, ‘Yes!’ For we have tasted and seen.
There is consolation, as well as information, in God’s word:
“When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Ps. 94:19).
“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all” (Ps. 34:18–19).
Chapter 3 The Rock is Righteous
If God is to be our Rock, he must be a good God, a transcendently righteous God.
Moses was rebuked by God:
“You did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel” (Num. 20:12).
in Isaiah 8:12–13, God said to Isaiah,
“Do not fear what [this people] fears, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.”
God’s transcendence does not mean that he is solitary:
‘God the Father knows and loves the Son perfectly, completely, infinitely (Mark 1:11; 9:7; Col. 1:13). God the Son knows and loves the Father perfectly, completely, infinitely (John 14:31). The Holy Spirit is the perfect, complete, infinite expression of the Father’s and the Son’s knowledge and love of each other.’
God’s righteousness entails a moral uprightness which is defined by his very nature and being:
“He cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
‘[God’s] holiness overflows in goodness, and his righteousness guides its bestowal.’ He is the source and fountain of all good things:
“He is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).
‘God’s] goodness flows especially toward those who fear him and take refuge in him’:
“Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you” (Ps. 31:19).
Such faith gives glory to God (Rom 4:20).
Nothing, then, that might be said about God’s involvement in human suffering generally, or in the current pandemic in particular, can discredit his transcendent holiness or righteousness or goodness. All of us are sinners. We all have exchanged the glory of God’s worth and beauty and greatness for things we enjoy more (Rom. 1:23; 3:23). We are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Therefore, God would be holy and righteous to withhold his goodness from us.
Chapter 4 Sovereign Over All
The current pandemic may be described as a ‘bitter providence’. We share the experience of Ruth:
‘The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. . . . The Almighty has brought calamity upon me.’ (Ruth 1:20–21)
The sweetness of God’s word for us is not diminished if we can say with Paul that we have learned the secret of being
“sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10)
For, ‘the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it.’
It is not as if God were bound by his own will. In his wrath, he remembers mercy:
Though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men. (Lam 3:32f)
Yet we confess that his sovereignty is all-pervasive:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isa. 46:9–10)
The Lord declares:
“I am watching over my word to perform it” (Jer. 1:12).
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
Nebuchadnezzar in his humiliation learned:
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?” (Dan. 4:35)
The Psalmist says:
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Ps. 135:6)
Paul sums up:
“[He] works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (Eph. 1:11)
Not some things. All things. ‘In other words, the sovereignty of God is all-encompassing and all-pervasive. He holds absolute sway over this world. He governs wind (Luke 8:25), lightning (Job 36:32), snow (Ps. 147:16), frogs (Ex. 8:1–15), gnats (Ex. 8:16–19), flies (Ex. 8:20–32), locusts (Ex. 10:1–20), quail (Ex. 16:6–8), worms (Jonah 4:7), fish (Jonah 2:10), sparrows (Matt. 10:29), grass (Ps. 147:8), plants (Jonah 4:6), famine (Ps. 105:16), the sun (Josh. 10:12–13), prison doors (Acts 5:19), blindness (Ex. 4:11; Luke 18:42), deafness (Ex. 4:11; Mark 7:37), paralysis (Luke 5:24–25), fever (Matt. 8:15), every disease (Matt. 4:23), travel plans (James 4:13–15), the hearts of kings (Prov. 21:1; Dan. 2:21), nations (Ps. 33:10), murderers (Acts 4:27–28), and spiritual deadness (Eph. 2:4–5)—and all of them do his sovereign will.’
This is no time for sentimental views about God. Rather,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21)
God has the right to give life, and to take it:
“See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deut. 32:39)
How then should we think, speak and act?
“You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:15)
Chapter 5 The Sweetness of his Reign
It would not be good news to think ‘that Satan, sickness, sabotage, fate, or chance has the last say in my life.’ It is good news to acknowledge that our God, who is holy, righteous and good is sovereign.
“With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13).
“His understanding is beyond measure” (Ps. 147:5).
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33).
His great aim is that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).
‘What are these “all things”? They are the things we need to do his will, glorify his name, and make it safely into his joyful presence.’ And they include bringing us safely through death itself:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword [or the coronavirus]? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
I am sure that neither death nor life . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:35–38)
Even Satan himself cannot hurt us without divine permission and limitation (Job 1:12; Luke 22:31; 2 Cor. 12:7).
We may say to Satan what Joseph said to his brothers:
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:29–31).
Not one sparrow falls, not one virus moves, but by the plan of God. Your very hairs are numbered. Fear not.
Part 2 What is God doing through the Coronavirus?
If everything, including this pandemic, lies within God’s sovereign will and righteous purpose, how do we make sense of it?
Stop trusting human wisdom, for
“whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” (Prov. 28:26).
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).
“Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isa. 2:22).
God, however, is not silent about what he is doing in the world:
“[God] lavished [his grace] upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will” (Eph. 1:8–9).
We cannot, indeed compute the number of ways in which God is working:
“You have multiplied, O LORD my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
yet they are more than can be told.” (Ps. 40:5)
His ways are not only countless; they are inscrutable:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).
But this doesn’t mean that God and his ways are beyond all knowledge. If they were, how could Paul have written:
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 5:3–5)
We should not, then, be like the hypocrites of Jesus’ day, to whom he said:
“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:56–57)
Here are six things that we may suggest God is doing the present pandemic.
1. God Is Picturing Moral Horror
We inhabit a good world (Gen 1:31) that has been devastated by sin (Gen 3:1-19).
“Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Rom 5:12)
The Bible sees this brokenness as divine judgement on a world permeated with sin:
“The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation.” (Rom 5:16)
“The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Rom. 8:20–22)
To be sure, this passage is full of hope. But, for now, we are all under judgement. Even God’s own children are subject to the physical effects of the fall. We get infected with the Coronavirus too.
But God’s purpose for his people is purifying, not punitive.
“God has not destined us for wrath” (1 Thess. 5:9)
For those who are in Christ, the “sting” of death has been removed (1 Cor. 15:55).
“To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
To depart is to “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).
Satan is real (Luke 13:16; John 8:44; 12:31; Acts 10:38; Eph. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:4), but restricted (Job 1:12; 2:6; Luke 22:31; 2 Cor. 12:7).
But why did God bring a physical judgement on the earth for a moral evil? ‘God put the physical world under a curse so that the physical horrors we see around us in diseases and calamities would become a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. In other words, physical evil is a parable, a drama, a signpost pointing to the moral outrage of rebellion against God…Disease and deformity are God’s pictures in the physical realm of what sin is like in the spiritual realm.’
Let the appalling effects of sin in the physical realm awaken us, then, to the horror of sin as the God-demeaning, morally repulsive, thing that it is.
2. God Is Sending Specific Divine Judgements
It is a general truth that sin leads to suffering. It is not always true that specific sin leads to specific judgement. Believers, then, share in the general effects of judgement:
“It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?'” (1 Pet. 4:17–18)
But sometimes specific judgements arise from specific sins. So it was with Herod (Acts 12:23). So it is also with those who engage in unnatural same-sex relations (Rom 1:27).
Let us prayerfully consider whether our own suffering might be God’s judgement on the way we live. And let us flee to Christ, who delivers us from final condemnation (Jn 5:24).
“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
For those who are in Christ, God’s judgement is for discipline, not destruction:
“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6).
3. God is awakening us for the Second Coming
Jesus Christ is coming back:
“Men of Galilee,” the angel said at Jesus’s departure, “why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
He will come to judge the world:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matt. 25:31–32)
The various miseries of the present age should be seen as birth-pangs of his coming:
“The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:21–23; see also Mt 24:7f)
We must take care that we are ready:
“Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” (Luke 21:34)
“You . . . must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44).
“Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. . . . Stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come. . . . And what I say to you, I say to all: Stay awake” (Mark 13:33–37).
Let us, then, make sure that we are among those who
are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light. . . . So then . . . let us keep awake. . . . For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thess. 5:4–10)
4. God is realigning us with the infinite worth of Christ
Like all natural disasters, the coronavirus pandemic should be seen as God’s merciful summons to repent.
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Lk 13:15)
Here we have two disasters: one with a moral cause, and the other with an (apparently) natural cause. But Jesus redirects his questioners’ attention from the sin of others to their own sin, and their own need for repentance.
We have not simply broken a few arbitrary rules. We have all exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom 1:22f). The repentance that Jesus calls us to leads to a deep and lasting regard for God and Jesus:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matt. 22:37)
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10:37)
In order to achieve this in us, God sometimes brings us to the point of desperation:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8–9)
This reliance on God is not merely passivity, for Paul could say:
“I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Consider Paul’s painful experience:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor. 12:7–9)
Paul is able to accept his pain gladly because his goal in life was to glorify Christ, whether in life or in death (Phil 1:20).
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Phil. 3:8)
Whatever the effects on us of the coronavirus – whether slight inconvenience or loss of life itself – we can, with Paul, know the loss as gain.
5. God is creating good works in danger
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.” (Mt 5:11f)
But he then immediately goes on to say:
“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:13-15)
People will give glory to God when they see God’s people doing good deeds in danger (whether that danger is persecution, as here in Mt 5, or disease).
Such deeds are given a special quality, because they are sustained by hope in God:
When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:13–14)
Peter had learned this lesson well, and passed it on:
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:12)
For this Jesus died:
“[Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24).
“[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
Such deeds extend from fellow-believers to everyone:
“As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thess. 5:15).
Our goal is to magnify Christ in all things:
“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
“It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20)
6. God is loosening roots to reach the nations
It is true that, in the short term, global movement is severely restricted. But, taking the longer view, it is clear that throughout history God has used suffering and upheaval to spread his gospel.
Christ’s word is secure:
“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
“This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14).
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Then Stephen was martyred, and
“there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:1–4)
Christ’s reward is assured:
“You were killed,
and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation.” (Rev 5:9)