I love Jesus, but Christians say some dumb ish.
Especially when people are in pain. Like, when a global pandemic is changing life as we know it. There are better answers. It’s my (humble) hope to give you some.
I get it. I’ve said some dumb ish myself. Crisis prompts all of us to ask important questions:
Why does God allow suffering?
Why is this happening?
What does it all mean?
The problem with asking these questions while in the middle of a crisis is fear. It drives us to the quickest answers, even if those answers really aren’t all that helpful. In times of upheaval, we tend to believe an easy half-truth is better than digging for the full truth. And we end up settling for ish.
I use that word intentionally. First, because ish is a euphemism for another, harsher word that can also be denoted by the poop emoji. And because ish is also the king of vague generalities. When does the show start? 8-ish.
During this global pandemic, I’ve seen friends and family accepting lame, vague, general answers from politicians, medical experts, and news apps. And yes, even accepting (and sharing) ish answers from the Bible.
Wait? Can you say that? Only if it’s true. And it is.
Dumb things Christians say about COVID-19
Full disclosure: I hold the Bible in the highest regard. I read it (almost) daily. I even try to do what it says. If I can go one layer deeper without sounding like a crazy person, that ancient text is foundational to my life. And it pisses me off when people misuse it. I’m not trying to be a holier-than-thou-Bible-beater—nobody likes that guy. But I do think the words of Scripture are important enough, helpful enough, life-changing enough, to be defended.
Below are two ish “biblical” phrases and ideas I’ve seen kicked around during the coronavirus pandemic. I’ll cover two more in a separate article. Best case scenario, all of these statements began as well-intentioned summaries of Scripture that have been dented out of shape. Worst-case, they blatantly contradict what the Bible teaches and actually hurt (instead of help) others.
So before you share—on a virtual wall or to a real-life person—check the list. Don’t be the guy hurting others by saying dumb ish.
1) ALL SUFFERING IS PUNISHMENT
From megachurch pastors to that wacko on the street corner, some believers relish the idea that the coronavirus is punishment for the sins of humanity.
In a way, I can understand their rationale. The very limited slice of humanity I know is, to be honest, pretty messed up. We sin a lot. We generally thumb our nose at God. And we’re pretty brutal with each other.
I’ll be the first to say we deserve divine punishment. And there is plenty of Biblical precedent for God dealing with sin. You can find a cup full in the first half of the first book of the entire Bible. In just twenty chapters, God removes humanity from paradise because of sin. He pronounces death as the eventual end of all human life because of sin. He floods the entire earth because of sin. He scatters people all over the world and confuses their language because of sin, and he rains down sulfur and fire on an ancient city because of sin. The Divine has a pretty strong track record for not messing around with disobedience.
But before you jump right into the all-suffering-is-punishment camp, we need to talk about Job. His story stands in startling contrast to a simple cause and effect view of suffering and sin. His story is a rap song but in reverse.
He was a wealthy man, who the Bible says had “perfect integrity, feared God, and turned away from evil.” In a calamitous turn of events, he lost all his material wealth (meaning, all his livestock died). Then his seven sons and three daughters were all killed in a freak accident. Then he came down with incurable skin boils. By the second page of his story, Job is sitting in the literal ashes of his previous life, scratching himself with a piece of broken pottery while his wife tells him to just end it all. And then the Bible has the audacity to say, “Through all this, Job did not sin.”
Job didn’t earn his downfall. It wasn’t because of secret sin. The story actually shows a rare glimpse of God and Satan interacting, with Satan taking all the credit for the hero’s turn for the worse.
There’s plenty of other evidence in the big book, but Job alone suggests that not all suffering is punishment. To be honest, that’s hard to write. Because if all suffering actually was punishment, at least we would know the why behind it. Of course, I messed up, that’s why my business failed, or my car broke down, or my child got sick, or I had to declare bankruptcy. But it’s just not that simple.
Why does God allow suffering?
That’s a hard question to answer, but we can start with what we do know. The Bible does make it clear that God will use suffering. An early church leader, Paul, knew a little bit about hard knocks. In one of his early letters, he makes a list of his own: imprisonment, beatings, five times received 39 lashes, three times was beaten with rods, once stoned, three times shipwrecked, often going without food, clothing or adequate shelter—and that’s only part of it. Incredibly, that same guy could write words like, “We know all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to his purpose” and “We rejoice in our affliction, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.” (Romans 8:28 and Romans 5:3-4 respectively).
So while I’m not ready to declare COVID-19 as a direct punishment from God for the sins of mankind, I can say that He won’t waste it. He can even use quarantine, stay-at-home-orders, and a global pandemic for the benefit of his name, his people, and growing our character.
Perhaps what we’re experiencing right now is best summed up in a short interaction Jesus had with his followers. After seeing a man born blind, they asked their teacher if he was being punished for his own sin or his parents’ sin. Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. This came about so that God’s works might be displayed.”
That’s good news. God’s works aren’t stopped by COVID-19. And that’s worth celebrating. But before you get all footloose and fancy free…
2) NO SUFFERING IS PUNISHMENT
If All suffering is punishment is a gross mischaracterization, then no suffering is punishment is an overcorrection. Both of them end up with you, in a car, upside down in a ditch.
If you’re not following, it’s worth saying explicitly: God does punish and discipline people—that includes believers and nonbelievers alike.
Again, the Biblical precedent is strong. God punished the Egyptians with ten plagues while protecting his own people (and Charlton Heston). But after escaping Egypt, numerous plagues befall the rescued Israelites due to their disobedience and grumbling, including being overrun with poisonous snakes and one plague that killed 14,000 people in a matter of minutes.
Even heroes of the faith weren’t immune. King David brought a three-day plague upon the whole city of Jerusalem because of his disobedience. Jonah spent three days in a whale. Jesus’ own uncle, Zechariah, went mute for 9 months. The list could go on, but you get the point. And all these guys were considered part of “God’s team.”
Before we get all fire-and-brimstone, an important nuance is worth calling out. As I read Scripture, God’s corrective actions aren’t one-size-fits-all. They’re always based upon His character.
God does punish wrongdoing. That’s because God is a just king. As such, injustice can’t be ignored. In the Bible, we find God punishing offenders for the sake of the offended.
God also disciplines his children. That’s because He is a good father. As such, He can’t allow his children to walk in errors that hurt themselves and others. God disciplines for the sake of the offender, to change their trajectory.
God is not an either/or. He is a both/and. Too many Christians either lean completely into the justice-seeking king (see: All Suffering Is Punishment above) or completely into the loving father (see: No Suffering Is Punishment, also above). But He is both. He punishes wrongdoing. And He loves us too much to allow us to continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
The writer of the book of Hebrews said it this way, quoting the ancient wisdom of the Proverbs: “My son, do not take the LORD’s discipline lightly, or faint when you are reproved by Him; for the LORD disciplines the one He loves, and punishes every son whom He receives.”
At this point, someone’s probably accusing me of talking out of both sides of my mouth. So which one is it? Is COVID-19 God’s divine punishment against all of humanity for injustice and sin? Is it a disciplinary action to get the attention of God’s own people? Or is it just the consequences of life on a planet that isn’t perfect?
Drum roll….I don’t know. God hasn’t told me. And, honestly, I haven’t really asked. Mostly because, no matter what His answer would be, my action should be the same. I should be taking this time, this enforced slower pace of life at home, to examine myself.
Do I have persistent sin that is abhorrent to God? Do I have repeated patterns of brokenness that need to be submitted to his discipline? Am I missing new opportunities to advance his work in my neighborhoods and networks of friends?
Those aren’t rhetorical questions. As I go through this crisis, I’m noticing a lot. I’m too impatient with my kids. I think about myself too much. I put too much identity into my work, and I need to make a stronger effort to know the people living all around me. So, yeah, I got a few things to work on.
If you need a “why” on suffering, there’s only one place to get it. Ask your just king, and let your good father bring correction for your benefit. No matter how old or independent we become, we never grow out of needing them both.
The question of suffering is just too important to settle with an ish answer. Your hurt matters to God. And if you need to know if it’s punishment or just bad luck, you’re going to have to talk to Him about it. It sounds daunting. But take it from someone who’s done this himself. It’s the best—and really the only—thing worth doing with your questions.
For more dumb things Christians say about COVID-19, and snarky comments about it, jump to Part 2.
What strikes you most about this article? Why?
Have you ever felt hurt or confused by the idea that all suffering is punishment or that none of it is from God? What was it like?
How does it feel to know that we don’t really know why something is happening, but our response is the same either way? Clarifying? Frustrating? Write or share with a friend as much as comes to mind.
Take a few minutes to examine your life with God. If you’re meeting as a group, take 5 minutes alone and write down anything that comes to mind before you share out loud. If you’re processing these questions on your own, reflect on different aspects of your life in a journal. Ask God, where do you have more for me? Where do I need to turn to you instead of something else I normally rely on? Write down whatever comes to mind even if you’re not sure it’s God
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