On this the Bible is unmistakably clear: One should not test God.
COVID-19 provides fodder for some of the heaviest theological and ethical questions:
- Why does God allow suffering?
- Are some lives more valuable than others? To us? To God?
- What values govern our decision-making?
- Does prayer change God or us?
- And perhaps the most significant, what in the name of all that is good and holy have we become?
Some of these questions have been the subject of treatises by some of the greatest thinkers – or on several episodes of the now-concluded NBC sitcom, “The Good Place.”
And while we mere mortals have glimpses of what is light and right and good, we live with the knowledge that some questions are too tangled to unpack with a single Bible verse.
But on this, the Bible is unmistakably, unwaveringly crystal-clear: Not even Jesus himself should test God (Matthew 4:5-7). These verses from Matthew are found in the story about Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the evil one.
The 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness in this story are the basis for the 40 days of Lent through which many Christians are walking – the season of wilderness and waiting through which we trudge as we look toward Easter.
It is a haunting parallel to our trudge through this global pandemic.
In the wilderness, the evil one tempts Jesus three times: with sustenance, pride, and power.
Each time, Jesus declines. He rejects provision not from God. He refuses to test God. And he turns down power obtained by worshipping something not God.
The appeal to Jesus’ pride of place as God’s beloved is particularly poignant. The evil ones tells Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5-6).
He suggests Jesus’ body will not be in danger. And that appeal sounds awfully familiar.
We are hearing them around us now:
- “We are God’s beloved so we will continue to gather for worship in defiance of public health and safety mandates.”
- “We are God’s beloved so we have faith we will not get sick.”
- “We are God’s beloved so we have faith students are safe to gather on campus and in dorms.”
Jesus’ reply is the only correct reply. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Family of God, not even Jesus himself put God to the test. Together, let’s walk with Jesus through this wilderness, honoring God with our humility.
Sages who know statistics, science, ethics, medicine, and public health all have the message: Stay home or people will die.
Doing anything else is a failure of biblical proportions.
Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is the Parish Associate for Pastoral Care at United Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she lives in Durham with her family. She is the editor of “Though the Darkness Gather Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss.”