As we muddle through our Coronacrisis together, the Christian has a level of hopefulness that the unbeliever does not have. This is true on a great many levels:
- We know that if we die, we have a place prepared for us with Christ (Phil 1:23; John 14:1ff).
- We know that if we suffer physically or endure loss, we have in Christ an advocate who was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” and helps us in the midst of them (Heb 4:15; Rom 8:26).
- We know how Church history ends, and we know assuredly that the last chapter does not feature mass extinction by pandemic; further, the details reveal a world economy that remains strong well into the eschaton. We will collectively recover from this.
- We know that the atonement of Christ accomplishes, however remotely, everything necessary to “take away our infirmities and heal our diseases” (Isa 53:4; Matt 8:17).
All this to say that we have tremendous hope in Christ and in the Christian Gospel. God’s special grace is the ultimate solution for the Coronavirus.
But as I’ve spent time paging through several older hymnals and psalters during this difficult chapter of history, a fascinating takeaway has emerged, viz., that the preponderance of hope expressed in these two sources fixates on God’s common rather than his special grace, and most visibly on divine providence. In making this observation I am not suggesting that there is no hope to be found in the Gospel (surely there is!); rather, I’m suggesting that in the crucible of faithful suffering, a more immanent and proximate source of comfort and confidence may be discovered in what the Father is and has always been doing—working all things out for the good of God’s people and for the glory of God.
It comes as a surprise to most unbelievers that God has ordained the Coronavirus, together with every other historical disaster, as part of a fixed decree that he established in eternity past (Prov 16:4; Lam 3:37–38; Amos 3:6; Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28; etc.). He is not the immediate cause of all these calamities, but he is most definitely their decretal cause, as these texts plainly teach. He ordains them, controls them, and directs them in the very best interests of his whole universe, which he alone is able to comprehend. Most unbelievers think that the Christian deity is an imaginary, invisible helper who is obliged to assist in the cosmic struggle against all that is not good. When he does not stop something bad from happening, they crow triumphantly that he could not prevent it, and therefore must either be inept or non-existent.
Sometimes, the faithful answer, somewhat glibly, that evil is triumphing for the moment because of the sinful excesses of free humanity, but that God will eventually have his day. And so we hunker down to weather the storm with a firm but somewhat remote confidence that Christ did something supernaturally and wonderfully profound in the distant past that will suddenly and miraculously bring us relief in the distant future.
There is much to commend in a hope of this sort. It is, however weakly I may have expressed it, a summary of the hope of the Gospel, and it is a grand hope indeed. But if this is the totality of our hope, there may be something wanting, I think, that the psalmists and classic hymnists captured well, viz., that there is sustaining hope to be found in the pedestrian outworking of divine providence. And so, rather than celebrating merely what Christ has done and will do as a panacea for every trial, they also found hope in the midst of ceaseless grief and angst and frustration and illness and emptiness and depression and despair and loss and suffering and death, that though these things will never end in this life (indeed, several Psalms of lament close without resolution to emphasize this point), God is perfectly effecting his eternal and ineffable plan today, for our benefit and his glory. Not only may I have confidence that I will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” but that as I “walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil—for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me.” Not only will he “land me safe on Canaan’s side,” but he will also “bear me through the swelling current” and “guide me through this barren land.” When we read these words in times of deep trial, the tears flow, and relief floods the soul. Not just because we will someday triumph over those trials (and we will), but because we can flourish in them today, knowing that he planned them for our distinct benefit. As C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain.”
These are days in which celebration is muted. The buoyant and sprightly do not match the misery in which we find ourselves. We know people who are financially distressed, frightfully ill, and even some who have died. We are in the house of mourning rather than the house of feasting. But rather than craning our necks to see when we can finally leave our houses of mourning, perhaps we would do better to find out why, in fact, “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting” (Eccl 7:2). And to that end, in addition to completing that marvelous chapter of Ecclesiastes, I’d recommend some of the psalms and hymns that slowly unpack the dark and deeply satisfying “frowning providence” of God rather than trying to escape it.