“Is this virus Gods consequence for people who don’t love Him?” My five year old’s beady little eyes gazed at me with genuine interest.
The virus hasn’t taken as much from our family as it has from many many others. My husband is still employed. My kids were already homeschooled. And we live in a small apartment complex where the three families with kids all agreed to the risk of letting them continue to play together in the gated courtyard. We really can’t complain.
But it has affected my children in small ways. No more play dates, no more going to church and Sunday School, no more visiting with their Great-Grandma. And three times, a scare of being sick with COVID kept our family inside isolated by ourselves for a few days in fear of coming down with the sickness, and the fear of spreading it to others. Most recently, our month-long trip to visit family in another state was threatened to be postponed or cancelled due to one of these scares. So it’s been enough of an effect for my five year old to wonder why this invisible germ keeps dragging on and interfering with her life in these ways.
Her question had me reeling in its brute honesty. There have been times my heart has asked the same. Is this hurricane, this earthquake, these wild fires – are they judgment from God? How do I answer her question? So much is loaded into it: how do we understand God and current events? Is God just watching from above but not interfering? Or is He madly throwing hailstones down on us like He did with Egypt so long ago during the 10 Plagues? We don’t have a prophet interpreting the times for us. Or do we?
In all the stories of Scripture, we see a theme of God bringing about earthly hardship for the purpose of drawing people back to Himself.
In Deuteronomy 28-29, when God is outlining His covenant with His people, He provides the sequence of events they can expect if they continue to disregard their part of the covenant. From droughts and famines, to being overtaken by enemy nations, ending with a 70 year exile, God warns them ahead of time of the judgements that may come if they disobey His rules for them.
In the book of Judges, we see that promise begin to be fulfilled: the people disregarded God, judgement came through another nation overtaking them, and then repentance occurred – they cried out to God to save them. God answered by sending a deliverer.
The judgement cycle continued on the charted course when Israel continued to disregard their promise to God to do what He says. True to His Word, eventually they are hauled off into exile as the “ultimate” punishment. But 70 year later, just as He promised, God raised up a Persian king who returned them to their land. The punishment of exile had been completed.
In this way, we see how God gave a warning of judgment, how all that was required of Gods people to receive deliverance was to confess their need of Him, and how He faithfully and consistently gave them chance after chance to remain steadfast in living out their need and love for Him.
So it seems clear that at least for Gods people, judgment came in a concrete form, and only with warnings and ample opportunity to repent before and after the fact.
But what about the other nations? This is where we see the role of the prophets. In Scripture, the minor prophets (such as Joel, Obadiah, Amos) tell the story of times where God is warning His people AND other nations of judgement to come. The familiar story of Jonah is a perfect example of this: God wanted to warn Nineveh of His coming judgment for their refusal to repent and follow Him, so He sends the reluctant prophet Jonah. In this story, Jonah’s reluctance is juxtaposed beautifully with Gods eagerness towards Nineveh. It’s Jonah that is hesitant to want to offer them a chance — Jonah who wants to see them suffer Gods judgment for all those years of disregarding Him. But God is so bent on being just, fair and compassionate, that He pursues Jonah to the depths of the sea, to make sure that both Jonah and Nineveh know His willingness to withhold suffering if only Nineveh confesses her need of Him. And once Jonah finally gets it, and does what God asked of him, Nineveh repents and God relents from sending His judgment.
This story and others in the Minor Prophet books of Scripture reveal Gods heart toward the world. He is truly slow to anger and compassionate towards people in their sin. He wants them to turn back to Him as their deliverer, and He is not silent in inviting them to this.
How does all this answer my little five year olds question? It addresses her concern this way:
1) God never sends judgment and punishment for sin without giving ample warnings and opportunities for people to repent. God is slow to anger. And His warnings come to us in the voices of Scripture that warn of a coming day of judgment, a final day of judgment, where there will be ultimate exile of those who refuse His offer of love and relationship.
2) The only repentance required is for people to confess their need of Him. God is not expecting people to fix their lives up, to pretty themselves first so that He will hear their prayer. He is so ready to forgive, all we have to do is ask.
3) Since we don’t have a prophet announcing Gods judgment, we can never be certain that any kind of natural disaster or world event is God punishing the world. But we can be certain that it is an opportunity for any who are not relying on God, to turn to Him and ask for His loving protection.
But what about when bad things happen to people who love God already?
The answer of course is Jesus. This was the word I gave my daughter:
Because Jesus has already received the full punishment from God for our sins, there is no punishment left. That means, no matter what bad things happen in our lives, we can be certain beyond a shadow of doubt that God is not punishing us. Because He has already poured out that punishment on His innocent Son in our place. That is why Paul can say in Romans 8:38-39, that nothing can separate us from His love. No physical, circumstantial hardship, neither death nor life, nor angels or demons, not the present or the future nor any power under all creation… there simply is no hardship we face that can indicate God is punishing and judging us. And so we need not fear, no matter what comes our way. For those who put their trust in Jesus, God is on our side.