What God’s Power Looks Like

My three year-old son, separated from his preschool due to the coronavirus, has been asking for the songs they sing there. One of them is a jazzed-up kiddie version of the hymn, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” The relevant lyrics which keep ringing through my head are:

There’s no greater power than the power of our God!
There’s no greater power than the power of our God!

I sing the mighty power of God that made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad, and made the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that designed the sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at his command, and all the stars obey.

Then there’s his Jesus Storybook Bible. One of his favorite stories is that of Jesus calming the storm (Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25). The creative way the book describes the moment when Jesus wakes up in the boat and calms the storm goes like this:

Jesus stood up and spoke to the storm. “Hush!” He said. That’s all. And then the strangest thing happened…

The wind and the waves recognized Jesus’ voice.

(They had heard it before, of course—it was the same voice that made them, in the very beginning.) They listened to Jesus and did what he said.

We had a strong storm here in Massachusetts the other day, which scared the dickens out of my kid. He mentioned this story, hoping that Jesus would do the same thing. I’m sure that the disciples saw plenty of storms after that one with Jesus that weren’t stopped; though they probably didn’t get into a boat in the same way ever again.

The hymn and the story are tough to celebrate these days. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s hard not to feel that Jesus should step in again with all of that power of his and just put it all to a stop. And it’s easy to struggle with doubts when he doesn’t.

We’re not alone. The Hebrew Scriptures themselves contain the twin paradox of God’s ultimate power over nature and the fact that his people often wonder if he has forgotten them. On the one hand, in the Genesis 1 creation account, God speaks and things just happen, hence the refrain, “And it was so.” No struggle. No unruly forces of nature to wrangle and subdue. The cosmos is fully obedient to God’s voice.

In the book of Job, Job is the most righteous man alive, but Satan claims that he only listens to God because of how prosperous he is. God allows Satan to take away his possessions, his family, and inflict him with terrible sickness. Though Job doesn’t curse God, he cries out to God in confusion. He knows that God rules the world, and could have done something about it. God answers him with his own set of questions about the inner workings of nature, showing that his ways can be as inscrutable as they are absolute. Psalm 89 also recognizes this supreme power of God:

Lord, the heavens praise your wonders—
your faithfulness also—
in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord?
God is greatly feared in the council of the holy ones,
more awe-inspiring than all who surround him.
Lord God of Armies,
who is strong like you, Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging sea;
when its waves surge, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like one who is slain;
you scattered your enemies with your powerful arm.
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours.
The world and everything in it—you founded them.
North and south—you created them.

Psalm 89:5-12a, CSB

yet later in the Psalm, the writer despairs because this all-powerful God seems to be missing:

How long, Lord? Will you hide forever?
Will your anger keep burning like fire?
Remember how short my life is.
Have you created everyone for nothing?
What courageous person can live and never see death?
Who can save himself from the power of Sheol?
Lord, where are the former acts of your faithful love
that you swore to David in your faithfulness?
Remember, Lord, the ridicule against your servants—
in my heart I carry abuse from all the peoples—
how your enemies have ridiculed, Lord,
how they have ridiculed every step of your anointed.

Psalm 89:46-51, CSB

An extensive discussion of these issues can be found in Harvard professor Jon Levenson’s book Creation and the Persistence of Evil.

As we Christians wait and pray for God to deliver us from the coronavirus, and wonder why it’s taking so long, it may help us to remember what the Scriptures tell us God’s power ultimately looks like. For a clue, we can look at the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in St. Matthew’s Gospel. The sun turns to darkness. There is an earthquake. Cosmos becomes chaos the moment its Creator loses his battle with the forces of death and decay and succumbs to their power. Jesus, the Son of God himself, now echoes the ancient and confused cries of the Psalmist, as well as our cries now: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A hymn expresses it majestically:

Hear Him cry out, the Word made flesh,                       
Who called all things to be;

The sun, which knows His voice so well,                                   
In shock holds back its beams.  
Hear how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend!

The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

With the hindsight of resurrection faith, we see that God’s power was displayed most not in the creation of all things, but fully in subjecting himself to the forces of chaos, decay, and death within that creation. As St. Paul said in the letter to the Colossians:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Colossians 1:15-20, 2:13-15, CSB

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God is bringing order to his broken world. The verdict has been pronounced; the endgame is clear–but we now await the consummation. The powers of death and decay still lash out at God’s good creation, including in the form of infectious diseases, but they will not have the last word. As we pray for an end to the pandemic, we see the power of God in the suffering of Jesus reflected in the self-sacrificial love of those who put their lives on the line to save others.