Most churches have stopped in-person services during the COVD-19 pandemic. A few across the country have not. Inevitably, their explanation involves some version of, “We trust God to care for us.”
If this sentiment were confined to a couple crackpot congregations, it wouldn’t be worth talking about, but it seems certain that as churches plan to re-open early, they’re going to use this explanation to justify it.
Along with this justification comes an implied criticism: churches that don’t open early must not trust God as much, right? I might have even heard a few people around me quietly wonder the same.
Buckle up, because I’m going to use one of those super-technical theological terms we learned in seminary.
Centering the discussion of COVID-19 around our personal trust in God a load of crap.
It’s not enough to say we trust in God. We need to understand what we trust God for.
Really, really bad theologians say that God exists only to bring favorable outcomes to our lives. They claim that good things happen to those whom God favors, while bad things happen to those God doesn’t care for. This is what the crackpot churches are saying. “We are demonstrating our faith in God, therefore God will reward us by protecting us from the virus.”
Jesus spoke against this kind of presumption repeatedly during his ministry. It leads to the obvious conclusion that God is only with people whose lives go perfectly. You can tell God’s favorites because they’re rich and well-fed and healthy. Meanwhile God despises the sick and less fortunate. If someone gets Coronavirus, it must be because they’re not faithful enough.
If that’s true, though, why did Jesus spend all that time with people outside the central, fortunate few in the community?
Also, how do you reconcile the fact that all of us, sooner or later, come to the same end? If God is only about bringing favorable outcomes in this life, why aren’t the best among us living forever while the worst depart sooner?
Trusting in God does not mean expecting only favorable things will happen to me. That outlook shows a lack of trust. God is only God to the extent I experience goodness. Trust that only works when things go right doesn’t seem very trusting!
Instead, we have the kind of trust Paul speaks of in Romans 14:8…
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
We hope good things happen to us and to all people. We know, in a broken world, this won’t always be so. We do not define God’s goodness primarily by our personal fortunes. Instead we say that the things that happen to us are important, but not the center of everything. Whether things go well or poorly for us in a given moment, God is with us. No illness, not even death itself, can take away that relationship.
This does not mean that we erase the distinction between good and bad, though! We still regard health as preferable to illness, helping people as preferable to harming them. Trusting God helps us get over our obsession with personal outcomes and concentrate instead on the welfare of our neighbors.
The welfare of our neighbors is not served by convening in a way that could spread COVID-19 to them and their families. Churches that trust in God are able to claim that without risk to their faith identity. Churches that say, “We must get together NOW [or else we won’t have enough money and people won’t worship God rightly],” are not trusting in God, rather themselves. Note how central their existence and gatherings become, and how little the welfare of their neighbors means. They are willing to sell out everything and everyone as long as they continue onward, as-is, without interruption. Does that sound like trust in anything beyond themselves? Does that sound like faith?
If we use “trust in God to protect us” to justify things that are harmful to the community, where’s the line? We could potentially justify anything we perceive as good for us, no matter who else gets hurt in the process. This is a terrible road to walk down. It leads not to faith, but to destruction in the name of faith.
Ironically, Jesus confronted a similar situation in the fourth chapter of Luke. Tempted in the wilderness, he was dared to do something harmful to show that God would protect him. These are the words he heard on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem:
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Whether he would be rescued from the fall or not wasn’t the point. Jesus refused to allow “trust in God” to become an excuse for doing something unhealthy and wrong.
It’s not a horribly big leap from, “If you trust in God, you’ll jump off this roof,” to, “If you trust in God, you’ll attend this service with us even though the virus is still active.” But we all know whose voice speaks those words. It’s not a voice that trusts in God. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
You’ll be able to tell plenty about how churches view their relationship with God and their neighbors by how soon they open and for what reasons. The louder they insist that this is about trusting in God and doing God’s work, the deeper you should dig about what the real motivations are and how much trust is really involved…or not.