A Holistic Mission Guide

The Church’s Response in Times of Crisis

Theology in Times of Crisis

In the face of the pandemic that ravages the world today, difficult questions arise. Is it a diabolical action? Does the virus have an evil origin? Perhaps it is only the work of man, as most people think. For others, however, it seems to be “mere chance.” I believe that none of these answers can explain the pandemic that is devastating the planet. In this scenario, it is worth consulting biblical wisdom. I am sure that we will learn a lot from the ancient biblical prophets. 

Among the prophets of Israel and Judah is the short book of Nahum. At the opening of his prophecy (1:3), we read the text: “His way is in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.” These words have echoed since the divine judgment that fell on Nineveh in the 7th century B.C., and they speak to us in a particular way in these difficult days of crisis.  

Not everyone realizes that the perspective of the prophets of Israel contrasts with the vision of contemporary, secularized, humanistic man. The antiquity of biblical times, like any time in history, was accustomed to catastrophes of all kinds, including plagues and natural disasters. In this unpredictable context, biblical revelation was distinct from the naturalistic worldview of the paganism of the ancient Fertile Crescent. In the paganism of Canaan, nature was divinized. In biblical Israel, the Eternal dominates all and transcends the world. Despite this contrast, in biblical times no one imagined that the world was under human power and that things should follow the course expected by reason that “understands the laws of the universe,” capable of mastering it. This anthropocentric focus appears in recent rationalism and enlightenment. The ancients would feel more comfortable with some ideas of recent thinkers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and even Sartre. They would understand the tremendous limitation of human beings, their powerlessness in the face of the strange world around them. Aware of reality, the pagans feared natural disasters, often attributed to specific deities. Baal and Ashtaroth dominated faith in the Canaanite culture. Men imagined themselves at the mercy of the gods who could strike them at any moment.  

In this environment, biblical thinking rejected pagan idolatry and emphasized the Eternal as the true and only God. The pagan gods were mere expressions of people’s imaginations. Nevertheless, biblical man never attributed the origin of phenomena to non-divine elements. A careful reading of Psalm 29, for example, will reveal the apologetics against Baalism and the emphasis that the LORD is the true God who dominates the storms. One can see that “the voice of the LORD” in Psalm 29 is the thunder that rumbles. In general, in the Bible, the suffering that strikes us originates from God himself and not from another source. Similarly, in the book of Ruth, the general suffering (famine) and also the specific pain (Naomi’s) come from the LORD himself. 

A theistic perspective of reality presents no alternative. It is impossible to imagine that a natural disaster, such as epidemics or earthquakes, does not have to do with God himself. Nature does not operate independently of divine action. The mistaken idea that men can demand from the Creator and that God should be blamed for the pain caused to them marks the revolt of atheists and agnostics who see life “under the sun” in the language of Ecclesiastes. So ultimately, with Scripture, we assert that the sovereign God who is in control of everything is “responsible” for natural disasters because everything comes from God.  

If we could talk to the biblical man of ancient Israel, it might not be so difficult to understand his reasoning. He would know, for example, that God had been responsible in a direct way for meteorological interventions that caused many deaths, as it happened with the flood and the parting of the Red Sea. Moreover, he would also easily understand that God is the one who takes the life of all those who die (Deut. 32:39 – “I put to death and I bring to life”). The LORD gives life and takes it away. On certain occasions, he calls some of his creatures a little before the time they expect. The man who kills is a murderer, for he has no right to take away what he has never granted. But this is not the case with the sovereign God. That is why our grandfathers liked to say that a deceased had been “collected.” Biblical man also used to understand that such divine acts could be a reminder to human beings of their fragility and sinfulness. The reading of the book of Psalms reveals this frequently (see Psalms 30 and 130). The relationship of suffering and sin associated with fragility was common. Biblical literature even created the term ‘enosh to speak of man as fragile. The term is distinguished from ‘ish and ‘adam and defines man in his distinction from the divine. 

In Matthew 5:6, Jesus speaks of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” When we understand the context, we see that the word justice was related to three aspects: legal, moral, and social. The moral sense had to do with conforming to the divine law, not transgressing the ten commandments for example. This moral dimension was linked to the legal sphere of society, that is the proper social ethics of Mosaic origin. So Matthew brings five great discourses to remind us of the five books of the Torah, and the Beatitudes are like the words of the Torah spoken on Mount Sinai. Jesus is a kind of new Moses. Therefore, the legal and moral aspect – this righteousness – is so valuable. However, that justice unfolded into mercy and refuge as well. That is why, unlike the ancient world, the texts of ancient Israel were unique in being concerned with widows, orphans, the poor and needy with a peculiar focus on the justice of God against oppression and wickedness common in the powers of the ancient world, such as Egypt, Babylon, and the Roman world of Jesus’s time where 60% of the population were slaves. So there is a need for justice in the world. A need for justice because of wickedness and oppression. Justice so that the way society is organized will submit to God’s commandments. The Torah has 613 commandments. The Ten Commandments summarize the Law, and Jesus will say that to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself summarizes the essence of all these commandments. From this perspective, what is the great dimension that involves the person who comes to follow Jesus? They live it out in practice. 

Jesus speaks of mercy (v.7). The word evokes God’s grace. It is acting in a sensitive way with the more fragile. Our world, the society that functions as Rome, is the world of the winners. Anyone who stumbles along the way will be run over and not stand a chance. The ancient Germanic people killed or abandoned their children when they discovered that they might have any problem. Our world works like this! If someone has difficulties in life, society itself abandons these people, blaming them. 

Mercy is aligned with God’s grace, with God’s unconditional love. This is how God sought out Israel. It was to make a covenant, to establish a partnership relationship by his own decision. He emphasizes that the relationship with Israel was not because they were good people. This same God who manifests himself in Christ Jesus with grace seeks us out. And this love of Christ that constrains us is the mark of the way God acts. When a person becomes part of the Kingdom, recognizing his limitation and his sin, he begins to dream of righteousness. This person who is reached by the Kingdom receives God’s mercy because he will not be punished as he should be. Mercy is the counterpoint of grace. Grace is receiving what we do not deserve, and mercy is not receiving what we deserve. 

When this unconditional love of God reaches us, we are reached by God’s mercy and our hearts are changed. And who are the merciful? They are those who have been treated by God with such love that they now treat other people that way too. It is the person who knows that the “so-and-so” did wrong, who knows that thinking objectively he does not deserve anything more; however, because God treats him in such a gracious way, this person believes in another chance for the one who is now the target of God’s mercy. If we exclude mercy, the world would be destroyed. There is only a chance for forgiveness, restoration, and rebuilding reality because of God’s mercy and love. Therefore, in the time of pain during the pandemic, the church must show this mercy and not just reinforce apocalyptic speeches. It must “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5.16). 

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Have you seen theological debate about the character of God arise in your community during this crisis? Did you personally experience any theological wrestling?
  2. How has the justice, mercy, and grace of God been evident in your life?
  3. How can we practically demonstrate the mercy of God at this challenging time?

About the Author

Luiz Sayão is the Academic Director of the Faculdade Batista de São Paulo, Senior Pastor of the Igreja Batista Nações Unidas, and Old Testament Professor of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Portuguese courses). He is a Brazilian radio producer (TWR), lecturer, and author on biblical themes related to Israel. The linguist and Hebraist specialized in the Hebrew Bible (University of São Paulo) and was the General Coordinator of Bible translation teams to convert the Bible to modern Brazilian Portuguese (NVI and Almeida 21).
Luiz Sayão

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