In the service I took on the first Sunday in Lent, I talked about ill-health not being God’s punishment. Little did I realise then that the idea that the coronavirus has been sent by God to punish us for our sins would gain traction, as a quick Google search will reveal. (Other search engines are available!)
People point to the Old Testament and the examples there of God punishing his people. Indeed there are many such examples, but firstly I would say that is how the writers of the Old Testament were interpreting what was happening around them. They did not have the knowledge we have today to explain things, ergo it was from God. Of course, the counter-argument to this is that it was the prophets who said these were God’s punishments, and the prophets were the mouthpieces of God. If this view is accepted, has God changed how God deals with human beings? I think God has because the world has changed.
In Old Testament times, the people knew God and knew what was required of them, although they didn’t always do what was required. Today, most people do not know God nor what God requires. Would a reasonable parent punish children for doing something they hadn’t been told was wrong? Sticking with the parent analogy, don’t parents try different tactics in dealing with their children, knowing their children as they do? I think that through Jesus God chose a more empathetic approach to reach out to humankind.
An early Christian heretic was Marcion, who declared that the God of the Old Testament wasn’t the God of the New Testament. I think Marcion was also possibly trying to explain the changing approaches of God over time. Unfortunately, his line of argument was that that was a different God, an argument which was to cost Marcion his life.
As I also said on that first Lenten Sunday, I don’t believe that God is behind the affliction caused by natural, economic or political forces, but is present in the suffering and aftermath of such forces: when communities come together to grieve and comfort one another, and when strangers provide tangible care for those in need; just the kinds of behaviours we’re seeing in the response to the coronavirus.
It is limiting to say what God is, what God is about or to focus on just one aspect of the Divine nature. Last week I invited you to ponder on images of God. One of my images is that of a diamond, multi-faceted, but its brilliance is such that we can only cope with seeing different facets in different generations. This view was reflected in part of my prayer at the last service I took at St John’s on 15th March:
“Your splendour is more magnificent than the greatest diamond, which is mere granite in comparison. Such brilliance is too much for us, so you reveal only facets of yourself, calling us to trust in what is unseen until we see face to face.”