With well over 300,000 Americans having now died of COVID-related illnesses, virtually all of us have been touched in some way. What’s most striking about COVID-19 is its sheer unpredictability, including who it claims as victims, how one gets it, and why it affects people in so many different ways — especially those who die and those who don’t. “Underlying conditions” don’t seem to be the only deciding factor between life and death, nor solely age, and — despite disparate ratios — not even race. All of which focuses the spotlight on two questions regarding conventional wisdom among believers.
The first is the notion that “God took her,” or “it was his time to go.” Clearly, God has brought certain lives to an end on the day of his choosing (think Moses, Elijah, even Jesus!), but has God literally reached down into our world to “take” those who’ve died of COVID, while allowing others to survive? Is God a calculating Grim Reaper decreeing both the hour of our death and its manner, or was Solomon right that “time and chance happen to us all” (Eccl. 9:11)? If God truly “takes” those who die, it’s little surprise that some would blame God for loss of a loved one.
The second question expands on the first: Does God have a plan for my life? Many believers are convinced he does — especially that alluring promise “to prosper you.” This belief works well in First-World countries for those who live lives of comfort and ease, but finds less welcome when applied in Third-World countries. Is it truly God’s plan that millions die of starvation, or a lack of medical care — or worse, at the murderous hands of terrorists or evil governments?
“I know the plans I have for you” (Jer. 29:11) quickly pales beyond our safe, affluent borders… and in abortion clinics. Is it God’s plan for each aborted baby to die in the womb? COVID deaths and abortions highlight the danger of taking passages out of context. God having plans for his people in captivity is not the same as believing that God planned who our parents would be, where we would live, or who we would marry. While any of those things might possibly be from God, it simply can’t be God’s plan that a child is sexually abused, or that a particular person ends up being addicted, or becomes Nashville’s “Christmas-day bomber.”
Yes, God has had specific plans for individuals throughout “his story.” But the fact that David’s was a life specially chosen to fulfill God’s purposes for Israel doesn’t mean God planned David’s life (including an adulterous affair and a cover-up murder). If perhaps God has a plan to use you or me for some Kingdom purpose, our willful sins are, for sure, not part of any divine plan — other than God’s master plan to save sinners through Christ’s eternally-planned death.
And the point of this exercise? If each COVID death has been preordained as part of one’s life plan, masks and social distancing can’t make a whit of difference. Might, then, this horrible pandemic provide a good reason to stop speaking so glibly about “God’s plan for my life” and actually turn it on its head — prompting us to take more seriously our personal responsibility for the safety of others?
For those desiring a life plan, one could do worse than the golden verse: “Act for the good of your neighbors, just as you would wish from them in return.” Today’s sobering thought? If God is not “taking” those who die of COVID, could it be that we are?
F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (Pepperdine, Liberty, and Faulkner law schools), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues. He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order), and posts weekly devotionals on Facebook, drawing spiritual applications from current events.