The Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is clear in its prayers for such occasions that natural disasters are something ‘we for our iniquities have worthily deserved’ and that ‘we do most justly suffer for our iniquity.’ Death, famine, plague and sickness are all instruments of God’s ‘wrath’ through which we are ‘for our sins punished’ and ‘justly humbled’.
Yet the BCP does not zero in on any particular sin as if it alone was responsible for a specific act of judgment. That, after all, would take the kind of prophetic insight possessed and demonstrated by the Old Testament prophets, which it is somewhat dangerous to claim for ourselves. I’ve noticed that people who do presume to do this will often say God is judging us for all the things other people are doing (but not them), and which they themselves have often complained about before. Clausewitz famously said that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’; for many, plagues are too.
Jesus tells His disciples in John 9 that the blind man about to be healed was not born that way because of his own sins or those of his parents (John 9:1-3). He also tells us in Luke 13 that when we suffer from disasters or atrocities it is not because we are necessarily worse sinners than anyone else. But ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, He says (Luke 13:3, 5). Every pandemic, every crisis, is an opportunity to repent of our own sins, which all deserve the righteous judgment of God.
A sinful nation
John Owen preached a sermon on this passage in Luke 13 in 1681. It was a tumultuous year for the country politically and religiously, as people fought over whether to exclude the Roman Catholic Duke of York from inheriting his brother Charles’s throne. Owen’s sermon was subtitled ‘The only way to deliver a sinful nation from utter ruin by impendent judgments.’
There are four sins which will ruin a nation, says Owen.
The first is atheism. He includes in this ‘practical atheism’, thinking and acting as if there was no God, whether you say you believe in Him or not. There have to be sub-points, of course, because this is a puritan sermon, so he gives two examples of this: blasphemy or cursing; and bold, confident sinning. People take the Lord’s name in vain without a second thought (as they do on our streets and on TV every day); and they ‘boast of the vilest of sins’, proclaiming their sins like Sodom (Isa. 3:9).
The second sin which ruins a nation is having the form of true religion without its power. We are all Protestants, perhaps, and abide in our national confession of faith (The Thirty-nine Articles) he says. Maybe we even publicly brandish our Bibles. ‘But are men changed, renewed, converted to God, by the doctrine of this religion?’ he asks. Do they experience the power of it in their own souls?
Third: open contempt of the Spirit of God. The one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (Matt.12:32). Some deny His divinity or speak of Him as an ‘it’ which can be used, rather than as God (who, if anything, uses us). And His work in regeneration, in making people ‘born again’, is openly mocked and scoffed at.
Fourth, says Owen, the nation is judged because of ‘the abounding of uncleanness, which, having broken forth from a corrupt fountain, hath overspread the land like a deluge’.
Who can deny but that these four sins are still prevalent amongst us at this day – even amongst evangelicals now? And so we ought to pray:
‘Lord God, our heavenly Father, the healer of nations and judge of all: give us grace to humble ourselves under your mighty hand throughout this time of anxiety and discomfort. In your anger, remember mercy, not giving to us all we deserve for our many sins, but strengthening us to repent and recover from all we must endure. For we ask in the name of our precious Saviour, Jesus Christ, who bore our sicknesses and carried our sorrows that we might experience new life in the Spirit, Amen.’
Lee Gatiss is Director of the Church Society