Last week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said this in response to his state’s success in “flattening the curve”, and reducing the expected numbers of illnesses and deaths:
“The number is down because we brought the number down….God did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that…That’s how it works. It’s math. And if you don’t continue to do that, you’re going to see that number go back up. And that will be a tragedy if that number goes back up.”
To his credit, in the eyes of most, governor Cuomo has done an admirable job of managing the crisis in his state. The feedback on his leadership has been overwhelmingly positive. He has communicated calmly, clearly, and consistently – knowing when to take a compassionate tone with the suffering and fearful, and when to take a stern, direct tone with those not doing their part to help their communities. Regardless of how one feels about some of governor Cuomo’s other policies, so far, it appears he has led his state through this crisis with competence, thoughtfulness, and care.
That being said, governor Cuomo’s statement above is only half true.
Governor Cuomo is right in the sense that no nation, state, county, or city should expect to sit back, do nothing, and go about life as normal during a highly contagious global pandemic and then expect God to bail them out. To do so would be unwise, unhelpful, and may even be described as sinfully “putting the LORD your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Governor Cuomo was right to insist that his state take immediate action to limit the suffering and death caused by COVID-19, and those who benefited should be grateful.
However, governor Cuomo is wrong to attribute all of his state’s resulting success, healing, and avoidance of catastrophe to THEIR efforts, and explicitly cut any semblance of God’s grace, mercy, and kindness out of the equation. Doing so displays a sense of arrogance toward (or, to use the old-fashioned term, hubris) and ingratitude to God. Governor Cuomo was in error to give credit for his state’s recovery to everyone BUT God.
But before we pile on governor Cuomo too heavily, we should admit that we’re all tempted to fall into this way of thinking. At times, we too think that acquiring the things which sustain us – food, water, shelter, clothing, etc. – is completely up to us. We’re convinced that it’s entirely OUR responsibility to obtain these goods for ourselves (and our dependents) through our own blood, sweat, and tears, and have no room for any sense of dependence upon God. Sure, we may occasionally pray for God’s help in getting these things when we’re REALLY in a bind; but at the end of the day, we believe it’s ultimately up to us. And when we do get those things we sought, we may conveniently forget to thank God for playing any role at all in bringing them about, and spend far more time patting ourselves on the back.
I’m sure there are many reasons humans think this way. The most obvious one, of course, is our sinfulness (often characterized by pride).
But another way to avoid this error may be to familiarize ourselves with idea of God’s “providence”. Theologian Robert Letham defines God’s providence as “God’s upholding and governing of all things”. More specifically, Letham defines God’s “ordinary providence” as follows:
“God uses means…He determined that it should rain this morning in Bridgend, Wales – he frequently decides this. His plan is implemented through air pressure, the direction of winds, temperature, dew point, and so on, factors which, singularly and together, can explain why it’s raining. The integrity of these secondary sources is maintained; a weather report represents this. But these forces are all directed in accordance with the eternal will and purpose of God. In the natural world, God makes the grass grow for the cattle (Psalm 104:14), and he does so through rain and the climactic conditions that produce it.”
That may seem reasonable enough; but both of those examples (rain falling and grass growing) have to do with natural, environmental processes. What about situations involving humans? Letham goes on:
“Similarly, with human actions, God decreed that the Allies should win the Second World War, defeating Nazi Germany. However, this did not occur apart from the efforts of millions of soldiers and civilians from many countries, and the leadership of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and a range of others. God’s sovereignty and human action work together, the former being the driving force.”
In short: there isn’t always a neat, tidy, discernible line between our works and God’s works. God often works through our works. He often accomplishes his will through seemingly “ordinary”, natural, explainable events in our world – and through the ordinary, natural, explainable actions of people like us.
Could God do things differently? Of course! God could intervene (and has intervened in the past) in extraordinary, or even miraculous ways apart from anything humans do; he’s not dependent upon us to accomplish his will. But more often than not, it appears that God chooses to accomplish his will through his ordinary providence.
Both God’s extraordinary and ordinary providence are seen regularly in the Bible. God supernaturally intervenes in history to establish the nation of Israel; but he chooses to accomplish it through the faith and obedience of Abraham. God supernaturally intervenes to save Israel out of Egyptian captivity; but he chooses to accomplish it through Moses’s leadership. God supernaturally intervenes to punish Israel for idolatry; but he chooses to accomplish it through the common experience of invading enemies. God supernaturally intervenes to justify sinners in the sacrificial death of his Son Jesus Christ; but he chooses to accomplish it through the ordinary means of jealous religious leaders, a treacherous disciple, a cowardly politician, and hardened Roman soldiers.
We see God’s providence at work today as well. God is in charge of upholding local churches; but he accomplishes it through faithful Elders and pastors. God is in charge of calling sinners to faith; but he accomplishes it through a neighbor, friend, or family member simply sharing the Gospel. God is in charge of caring for damaged Christians; but he accomplishes it through the love and service of brothers and sisters in Christ.
God is in charge of ending this pandemic. He will likely accomplish this through the research of scientists, the knowledge of epidemiologists, the skills of doctors, the courage of nurses, the policies of governors, and the wisdom of citizens who take necessary precautions. But when this pandemic has passed, may we not forget to thank God for what he has done, even when it appears as though we accomplished it ourselves. May we remember that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation of shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
If a garden you’ve planted and tended produces tasty fruit, you shouldn’t just give credit to your green thumb (though you may really have one); we should thank God for his provision. If a parent overcomes a cancer diagnosis, we shouldn’t just praise those who carefully administered chemotherapy; we should thank God for healing. If we have roofs over our heads, food on our tables, and clothes on our backs, we shouldn’t just thank our boss for recognizing the value we bring to the business and paying us for it; we should thank God for meeting our needs.
Likewise, when we’ve made it through this pandemic, we (and governor Cuomo) won’t have to choose between thanking people and thanking God. We can thank both the people who worked diligently and sacrificially toward that purpose, and the God who, in his providence, worked through them.