“You have never been this way before,” God said to Joshua as the children of Israel were preparing to go into the land of Canaan (Joshua 3:4). These words came before they went in, and I am gripped by their tenderness. God knows where we have never been and where we are going. He told Joshua this so the Israelites would heed His instructions in that unprecedented event.
I believe God is lovingly saying those same words to us in these coronavirus days—“You have never been this way before”—except in our case they come not before but after the onslaught of one of the greatest and most horrible crises in world history.
Our Father knows that we have not faced anything like this before. What is He teaching us? I would suggest four things.
First, we do not need to try to figure out whether God has caused or permitted the coronavirus crisis. When Moses saw the burning bush that was not consumed, he decided to walk right up to it and see how such a thing could be. God said, “Stop. Do not come any closer. Take off your shoes. You are on holy ground” (see Exodus 3:2-5). This shows us that God will not let us figure out what He does not want us to figure out.
The difference between what God has caused and what He has permitted is holy ground. God tells us to stop trying to be theological experts regarding His infinite mind. His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). We are to take off our shoes and worship.
Second, God expects us to ask Him why bad things happen. Sometimes He explains, sometimes He doesn’t. King David asked why there was a famine of three years. God answered, telling him that the famine came because of Saul’s breaking the oath regarding the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:1). But not all things are explained; neither do all bad things have sin as a direct explanation. When some apparently wondered if certain Galileans might have been more sinful than others because of their suffering, Jesus took advantage of that premise simply to say that all people must repent or perish (Luke 13:1-3).
In John 11, both Martha and Mary blamed Jesus for not healing their brother Lazarus. But Jesus stated that Lazarus’ death was for the glory of God. Jesus not only went on to raise Lazarus from the dead but in the meantime gave what is possibly the profoundest expression of faith, namely, that God allows bad things to happen in order that we might believe (John 11:14-15).
In other words, what makes faith truly faith is the act of trusting God when we can’t figure out what He is up to. God expects us to ask Him why bad things happen—even if He doesn’t always tell us! Jesus asked why God deserted Him on the cross (Matthew 27:46).
The God of the Bible is a God of purpose. There are two polar opposite worldviews when it comes to history and existence: (1) theodicy, that there is purpose in history; and (2) existentialism, that history has no purpose. The latter view is that things happen and there is no rhyme nor reason for such and we will never understand why. Wrong! All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). God has a will of His own and there is a purpose in all He does (Ephesians 1:11).
Third, God allows bad things to happen partly because He is trying to get our attention. He is a loving and jealous God (Exodus 34:14). Rather than resent that God is a jealous God, we should fall on our knees and thank Him that He is precisely that. His jealousy is rooted in His love for us.
Has it crossed your mind that God is on your case, that He is trying to get your attention? Are you one of those who has said, “I don’t have time to pray, I don’t have time to read the Bible?” My answer is this: If you are still in quarantine, you have time now! Not only that; the coronavirus is a reminder that this life is not all there is. It is a reminder, like it or not, that we are going to die and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). God in His kindness allows unpleasant things to happen because He cares. He is a very present help in time of trouble (Psalm 46:1). He does not reject us because we cry out to Him only in adversity; it is often the only way He can get our attention. He loves us that much.
Fourth, He is testing us to see if our faith is genuine. God left Hezekiah to test him to know “all that was in his heart” (2 Chronicles 32:31, ESV). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). If we faint in the day of adversity, our strength is small (Proverbs 24:10). Satan asked God for permission to afflict Job to prove that Job only served God because he prospered (Job 1:9-11). Adversity surely challenges those who think Christianity is all about good feelings and prosperity. It will challenge those who have no theology of suffering. The Apostle Paul told the Thessalonians that they should not be upset by trials since we are destined for them (1 Thessalonians 3:3).
We are called not only to believe on Christ but also to suffer for Him (Philippians 1:29). Indeed, we are to count it all joy when we fall into various kinds of trials (James 1:2). Paul was given a painful thorn in the flesh and prayed three times that it might depart. God said “No” to Paul’s request but promised greater grace instead (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). There were faithful servants who escaped death; there were faithful servants who didn’t. The world was not worthy of either (Hebrews 11:34-38).
I see the coronavirus as a challenge to add our names to those people of faith in Hebrews 11. Not one of them got to do what had been done before. We can dignify our current trial by coping without complaining about what has never been before. ©2020 R.T. Kendall
R.T. Kendall is an author, speaker and theologian. He served as pastor at Westminster Chapel in London from 1977 to 2002.
The Scripture quotation is taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. The Scripture quotation marked ESV is taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.