by Nick Youngson

The Proof is in the Providence

It is not uncommon—one might even say it is normal—that in cases of trauma, suffering, and tragedy, people re-evaluate their priorities, commitments, and convictions.

This re-evaluation typically results in either a rejection of prior held commitments or a reaffirmation of such convictions. This was true in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that hit Asia in December 2004 with ripple effects felt all around the world, and again in the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011, and in the horrific mosque shootings, also in Christchurch, in 2019. In 2020 COVID-19 arrived. This pandemic has brought with it a global restriction on travel and has affected the social, communal, economic, and environmental spheres of life. For many, COVID-19 has meant unemployment, shortage of food, grief, loss, and suffering. Few, if any, seem to be unaffected by this virus. But this is to state the well-known facts. What is also true, when tragedy strikes, is that theological responses are available. One of the first doctrines Christians should turn to for help in such troubled times as these is that of God’s providence. Two responses to COVID-19 are briefly canvassed below where each offers important but incomplete insights into how Christians might respond. In the final section, an amalgamation of both views is offered that is consistent with a more holistic understanding of God’s providence.

Sovereignty Explains it All

The first response to tragedy and trauma is one that stresses the unbridled sovereignty of God and argues that all things are actively purposed by God. As such, tragedy and trauma should be seen as so-called “acts of God” and we should silently get on with life, almost as if nothing has changed. This view rightly argues that in Holy Scripture, all things happen under the direct authority of God. Scripture is replete with verses to support his control over everything.[1] But what a list of these verses does not do is explain how God’s authority is exercised in creation. It is too one-dimensional and thus misleading to say that God wills, and it comes to be, as if he has in his hand the shovel, the gavel, the pen, or the sword.

As one example of a response of this kind John Piper connects the pandemic to God’s sovereignty but does so in a flat and philosophical way that is problematic. In Piper’s terms, “the coronavirus was sent, therefore, by God.” He continues, “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[2] What Piper means, is that if God is sovereign over anything, he is sovereign over everything. “If we try to rescue God from his sovereignty over suffering, we sacrifice his sovereignty to turn all things for good,”[3] he writes. We cannot have it both ways, is Piper’s argument. Arguments like this and Piper’s response particularly, proceed to give possible reasons for trauma and tragedy, like COVID-19, which range from discerning the end of the age to seeing such things as God’s judgement on sin. Tsunamis, earthquakes, mass-murders, and killer viruses are all said to be pictures of sin and evil that God intentionally sends us to highlight the awful consequences of living without him. In more focussed terms, God is said to send hurricanes, fire, famine, and virus as judgment for sin, as a sign to repent and turn to Christ. For those less overtly sinful, COVID-19 is said to be one of God’s ways to remind us about how good and beautiful God is, as we contemplate how awful life is when lived without him. One might paraphrase Piper’s response, and those like it, and say: “the more we choke on COVID-19, the more we are reminded how sweet the air of Christ is in our lungs.”[4] Piper is not wrong to see all things as part of God’s sovereign oversight, but he is incorrect to conclude too quickly about how God is exercising such sovereignty.

There is No Explanation

A second approach to trauma and tragedy are those responses that take the opposite position to the one above and argue that life is fragile, and the world is semi-chaotic. According to this second view, theology has little to offer in response to tragedy and trauma. So, we should not read too much into natural phenomena, and perhaps we should just get on with life, almost as if nothing has changed. N. T. Wright has provided a recent example of this response. He agrees that the first approach described above is “silly,” and is a “knee-jerk would-be-Christian reaction.”[5] He argues that the response above embraces rationalism by seeking answers to every question. Wright suggests that all we can do is lament. According to this second view, bad things happen and we have to live with it, like the rest of creation, and ask why, with no hope of an answer.[6]

All of God Does Not Mean Nothing of Me

Both views canvassed so far have good points. The first view reminds us that God is sovereign, all-powerful, and in control. This view reminds us that even when chaos seems to surround us, we can trust in God and his faithfulness. Surely, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1). The second view reminds us that we are not masters of our destiny. Instead, we are aligned with the rest of creation, as fragile pieces of carbon affected by the earth-shattering shifts of tectonic plates and the deadly work of the minutiae of atoms, and viruses. At the same time, God invites our prayers, our petitions, and our emotions. But is it the case that we have to make God the author of evil, as the first position surely does, and attribute helplessness to him, as the second position does?

In the face of both responses, many ask, is there a third answer? There is, and it is a retrieval of the ancient doctrine of God’s providence. Often pushed to the side in our technocratic, developed, and industrialised culture, the doctrine of Divine providence offers us the resources we need to respond to earthquakes, murders, and pandemics. A Christian doctrine of providence tells us that God is sovereign and good, he is almighty and all-loving; but it also tells us that we are free, intelligent, and moral agents, fully responsive to the works of God. However, providence is a specially Christian doctrine because only those who have personal narratives of God’s goodness, love, care, and control can work from that personal level to the more general and cosmic level and know that God is in control of the universe. Without this relational knowledge of God and his ways, all we would have is lament. Wright is correct in saying lament is an appropriate reaction to COVID-19, but historic Christianity would say more than that.

A traditional Christian doctrine of providence has three significant movements, much like those of a concerto or musical score.[7] First, we speak of God’s conservation of creation. We have to say that God is in complete control of everything that happens. God’s rule is total, and we are not to reduce that unless we want to turn God into a myth.[8] God is continually involved in the world and the course of life.[9] In the life of Jesus, we repeatedly see Christ battling anti-Christ forces to bring life and healing to people, to give them hope. God’s conservation is not passive, mechanistic, or automatic; it comes at a cost and is dynamic and active. As Christ worked for the conservation of the world, so do his followers. When people are sick, the natural Christian response is not to sit back and say que sera sera— “whatever will be, will be.” Instead, we mount a faith-instigated resistance through acts of service and sacrifice. We see this around the world as churches seek opportunities to serve as essential workers, front-line caregivers, and community service workers. An essential part of biblical teaching is that God’s conservation does not spare believers from danger or trial, but we are conserved in our faith within it. We are not promised the absence of trauma or tragedy, but that it will not prevail over us.

The second feature of providence is God’s cooperation. This is part of the mystery of providence that Piper’s earlier view seems to pass over. The Bible speaks of God’s cooperation with and compassion for his creation. God’s cooperation with us affects our actions and our sufferings. Cooperation is the doctrine that affirms God is present in all things and that he creates the conditions that enable us to act. Without God’s involvement, we would not be able to do anything. Where salvation is concerned, for example, we read that God “is at work in you, both to will and to work” (Phil 2:13). However, if framed purely in philosophical ways, that can sound like God and humanity are equals, sharing 50/50 the work that needs to be done. That would be a mistake. To avoid some of these misunderstandings, we have to affirm that divine and human agency do not operate on the same level or the same plane. They are not equal opposites. We affirm the fact that God is the first cause (causa prima), and humans are the second causes (causa secundae). But the second is not merely an extension of the first.

Here we have to keep in mind two basic rules, both of which emerge from the biblical witness. First, “God equips people and gives them space to act independently and effectively.”[10] Second, “people are and remain absolutely dependent on God’s all-encompassing and decisive action.”[11] Two texts clearly bear this out. One is Colossians 1:29 where Paul describes how “to this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (NIV). On the one hand, God is at work within Paul, transforming him, so that from that vantage point he is the object of God’s activity. On the other hand, we clearly see Paul’s own activity, so that Paul’s free agency and that of God coincide. More miraculously, when Paul works with God, he is more in control of himself than he was before his conversion (compare his behaviour in Acts 9:5). Another clear example is found in Philippians 2:12–13 (mentioned above). Here the exhortation to act is bound to the fact that it is God who is acting. The one does not negate the other. In “working out their own salvation with fear and trembling,” the Philippians are told that in that very work, “it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure.”

Christianity has always had a maxim: God is not the author of evil. Any doctrine that makes God the author of evil is thus incorrect. If we stay with metaphysical/philosophical speculation, the fact of double agency and sin is hard to resolve, and we find ourselves with a theology that says God does evil deeds. So, let us abandon that approach and be more biblical and more Trinitarian. In Jesus, we see how and where God is actively at work (John 5:17-19), and after his departure, the Spirit continues his work on earth. This leaves us with affirming something like the following: God is sovereign over everything but that does not mean he creates evil, he does not, but he does permit it in the sense that he creates the conditions that enable sin, such as free moral agents, loving relationships, or wilful disobedience. But God is maximally present in bringing about the good, the holy, and the beautiful. We see this most clearly in the cross of Christ. As Colin Gunton once asserted:

If you want to understand how God works in our world, then you must go through the route God himself has given us—the incarnation of the eternal Son and the life-giving action of the Spirit.[12]

Finally, there is a third feature of providence, God’s governance. Governance speaks of God’s dynamic rule of the cosmos, and it does so in eschatological or end-time terms.[13] That God rules the world means he guides it toward its telos or final goals. This is largely a mysterious enterprise that we apprehend but can never comprehend. But we praise the Lord that he is working all things together for good for those that love him (Rom 8:28).

Given the immense pastoral implications of the doctrine of providence, it is little wonder this doctrine can provide us with solace and hope in these difficult days. John Webster tells us “providence is gospel consolation, ignorance of which is, Calvin tells us, ‘the ultimate of miseries.’”[14] The good news in this approach is that nothing is beyond the reach of God. God is sovereign and in control of all things. God is even sovereign over COVID-19. Here I agree with Piper. Providence tells us that nothing is beyond the reach of God and his loving care. But providence also tells us that God’s ways are ultimately inscrutable (Rom 11:33) and so we don’t jump to conclusions about pandemics being God’s judgment upon sin and so forth. Here I disagree with Piper.

The doctrine of providence also tells us that we have a part to play in working out God’s loving plans: we count. And so, while lament, as Wright suggests, is a valid reaction to trauma and tragedy, it is not the final response. Here I disagree with Wright; there is more to say and more to do. Providence reminds us that God works in us to will and to act, that empowered by the Spirit, ministering with the Son, and working for the Father, we each have a part to play in how we work out our own salvation. For some that will be on the front line offering medical care to COVID-19 patients, for others it will mean staying at home and resisting the urge to break out of their bubbles. Sadly, still for others it will mean working out their salvation while they have contracted COVID-19. But whatever our response, we know that God loves us, God is in control, and God is working with us to achieve his purposes.

In each of the situations we find ourselves in we can take our cues from Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5–18:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Like Christ, we too empty ourselves through humble service for others, even to the point of suffering and sometimes death.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Like Christ, God the Father has promised to exalt his children, in the Son, by raising them to life and glorifying them. Our works are not for nothing, even if they do not merit God’s good pleasure; they are a response to his grace.

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

God is at work within us, and in response we too do good works borne out of faith. God does not coerce us, and we do not take the initiative away from God. Rather, under the sovereign providence of God, we work and serve and work out the full implications of our salvation.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.

In every circumstance, we are able to rejoice in the Lord and in each other as we work with God to achieve his purposes in creation. Regardless of whether we are being poured out like an offering (cf. Phil 2:17), we are able to do all things without grumbling, fear, anxiety, or terror. Tragedy and trauma are not the last word for us in these COVID-19 times, God’s love, goodness, and providence are.

Myk Habets is the Head of Theology at Laidlaw College. He is also a Senior Research Fellow with the Australian College of Theology. Myk is the co-editor of Pacific Journal of Theological Research (Archer Press), Co-editor of Journal of Theological Interpretation (Penn State University Press), Associate Editor of Participatio: The Journal of the Thomas Torrance Theological Fellowship, Chair of the New Zealand Association of Theological Schools (NZATS), and Vice-President of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools (ANZATS). He has published articles on constructive systematic theology in international journals and has published over twenty books.

[1] See Isa 46:9-10; Job 42:2; Eph 1:11; Jas 4:15.

[2] John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 42.

[3] Piper, Coronavirus and Christ, 45.

[4] One of the six reasons Piper gives for God actively creating COVID-19 is that it is “God’s thunderclap call for all of us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ,” Piper, Coronavirus and Christ, 77.

[5] N. T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To,” Time (March 29, 2020) online: Other work by Wright might suggest he really thinks Christianity has a lot to offer, but in this essay, that is not the case.

[6] “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer,” writes Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers.”

[7] For an overview of providence from a Reformed perspective see Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 233–44.

[8] This is exactly what Thomas J. Oord does in his blog post, “We can lament and explain COVID-19,” Oord’s response to the pandemic is to suggest that “God is not in control. In fact, God can’t control.” Oord’s so-called “openness theology” is merely another mythology.

[9] See Ps 8; 19; 29; 104; 147–148; 2 Cor 1:20.

[10] van der Kooi and van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 242.

[11] van der Kooi and van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 242.

[12] Colin Gunton, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 11.

[13] See Dan 4:24–25; Isa 10:5–12; Acts 17:26; Job 12:23; Ps 47:7–8; 66:7.

[14] John Webster, “Providence,” in Christian Dogmatics, ed. Michal Allen and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 164.