By Greg Stover
On March 24th the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church urged United Methodists to join in Pope Francis’ call for a Day of Prayer to take place March 25th. Bishop Ken Carter, President of the Council, wrote, “We invite all to pray to God to rid the world of the coronavirus pandemic.”
All Christians, regardless of our church affiliation, will do well to take time for prayer for God’s intervention, not just on special days, but every day until the COVID-19 pandemic passes.
Turning to an Ancient Biblical Promise to Guide Our Prayers
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic my mind has returned time and again to the ancient, often-repeated insight and promise found in Second Chronicles 7:14: “…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
This Scripture, understood in the full context of God’s word, provides not only a promise of healing but guidance for our prayer. The occasion of this Scripture was the completion and dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon’s magnificent Temple became God’s dwelling amid the people of Israel, a place of worship and prayer.
The promise in Second Chronicles 7:14 records God’s direct response to Solomon’s specific requests as he prayed at the dedication of the Temple. Solomon, the wise King, knew the hearts of the people (which were so attuned to the Lord in that moment) would from time to time stray from God. He knew they would face wars, pandemics, and would have to grapple with their own individual sins. Solomon identified these times of calamity and the need for spiritual renewal in his prayer (Second Chronicles 6:22, 24, 26, 34, 36).
Solomon pled with God, asking that even in crisis when the hearts of the people turned to God, that God would “…then hear from heaven.… Forgive and deal with each person according to what they do… (for you alone know their hearts), so that they will fear you and walk in your ways…” (6:28-30).
Following the days of celebration for the new Temple, the Lord appeared to Solomon at night and gave his response and promise:
I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself…. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (7:13-14).
A Word of Caution
In the Old Testament sometimes we read that God “sent” a plague or disease. This language was used because in the Hebrew mind God was viewed as the all-powerful deity who was the source of all that happens: health and illness, tragedy and triumph, life and death. Yet, if we view these statements from the full context and teaching of Scripture, we need not believe that hardship in our individual lives or pandemic in the world is the direct action of God or that God is capricious or vindictive.
The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:4) includes this declaration about the character of God: “… he is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” Repeatedly, in the Old Testament, people extol the love and mercy of God.
In John 9 Jesus clearly declares that a man’s congenital blindness is not the result of some specific sin. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind,” Jesus’ disciples ask. “Neither!” Jesus responds unequivocally. Jesus did point out that the man’s blindness was an occasion when God’s work could be witnessed in the blind man’s life. Today, we might point to a complex set of genetic factors passed through DNA, an accident of nature, or a disease experienced during pregnancy. Yet, even in the face of these unfortunate circumstances we should expect to see God’s work of love and power.
We need not imagine that God decided a few months ago to send the coronavirus to judge us for our sin. Coronavirus reveals to us again our human vulnerability, the preciousness of life and that we are designed to trust in God. It opens the door for God, in love and care, to call us to our spiritual center once again. As C. S. Lewis so aptly wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Going Deeper Biblically and Theologically
There are deeper biblical and theological truths which will help us faithfully grapple with the current pandemic, as well as the plethora of hardships and tragedies, and the ever-present reality of death in our world.
First, COVID-19 represents yet another symptom and consequence in a world wounded and broken by human sin. The Scripture clearly portrays humanity as separated from God by sin. Sin results in disease, dysfunction, and death across all creation. Death proceeded from human sin (Romans 5:12). All creation exists under the curse of sin and is groaning under the consequences wrought in all creation by human sin (Romans 8:22). God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7-8). Disease and death remain a part of our world until the day of full redemption comes and the Lord brings a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1).
God honors our human freedom of choice. In fact, the Scripture says that sometimes God simply allows us our own choices even when God knows the consequences will bring harm to us and others. Psalm 81 speaks of this. The Psalmist describes the miraculous things God did for Israel in delivering them from the slavery of Egypt. He remembers God’s promise of provision, but then considers that at times Israel would not listen to God. He presents God’s lament: “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So, I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (81:11-12; see also Romans 1:18 ff). Respecting the choice of others is vastly different than directing harm to them.
Many years ago, when our sons were preschoolers, our family returned home late one night from a trip. Our sons, in their pajamas, without shoes, were asleep in the car. The temperature was near zero and a blanket of snow covered the ground. I carried two of our sons into the house to bed. When I returned to carry the third son, he threw a fit. No way did he want to be carried! Despite reminders about how cold the freezing concrete drive would be on his feet, he still insisted he would walk. So, I let him. I “gave him up” to his own desires. Before he could take two steps on the drive, the tears began. His uplifted arms were a sign of his repentance and my arms lifting him were a sign of a Father’s love.
Even today, the strain of COVID-19 is increasing as some make decisions to continue their interactions as usual, thus advancing the spread of the virus, further endangering the most vulnerable and adding further stress to our economy and nation. This is not God’s doing, but the result of human decisions.
God is still the omnipotent Father; Jesus is still the lord of all; and the Holy Spirit is not quarantined. God is still at work in the world. So, as Jesus suggests, the presence of this pandemic among us provides an opportunity to see God’s mighty work. It offers a moment of soul-searching examination. Today is a day of salvation when we can return to the Lord, or perhaps come to a new relationship with God for the first time.
Pray Today and Tomorrow and Everyday
Begin with confession of our own sin and repentance for it. None of us is without sin in our lives. Neither is our society or nation without sin. Isaiah confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5).” Just because an attitude, an action or a custom reflects a majority opinion does not mean it aligns with God’s will or the coming Kingdom of God. Confession and repentance must begin in God’s community. Where might your attitudes, actions, opinions stand in contrast to God’s way? Where have your own priorities crowded out God’s priorities?
Pray for a renewal of faith and commitment to Jesus Christ in your own life, across our nation and around the world.
Pray for God to intervene and rid the world of coronavirus. The Lord is able! Pray for the families of those who have already been lost; for healing for those who are ill; for medical personnel, medical researchers, first line responders, national, state and local leaders to find God’s priorities and wisdom; for pastors and those providing spiritual support and guidance; for Christians and others to have generous hearts in caring for those around them; and for those who face this pandemic without the hope of Jesus Christ.
None of us can fully see what God waits to do as we humble ourselves and pray!
The Rev. Gregory Stover is a retired clergy member in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Stover has also served as a district superintendent and represented his annual conference as a General Conference delegate. He is a member of the Confessing Movement’s Board of Directors.