For almost two years now, a pandemic has made its home among us. In the early days, there were some who breezily opined that it was just another flu bug, and others who squawked that it was the end of the world. I suppose it has always been so when pestilence hits: some are predisposed to ignore it, and others to hide under the bed. Contagious disease is nothing new, though for a generation accustomed to comfort, it feels new (thus the term, “novel coronavirus”).
For everyone still breathing, it raises questions—why us? why now? why is the world so very broken? who’s in charge of this whole operation, anyway? why would a good God allow such a thing, and what might he hope to accomplish? And here’s a big one—why am I still alive and reading this when so many others have perished? What am I here for?
The whys of the world feel like a luxury when we live in the grip of to-do lists, but one good sickness has a way of knocking us flat, and suddenly there’s time to ponder. Perhaps that in itself answers one of our whys: a large-scale disruption of our busy, important lives causes us all to pause and look up, and that is no bad thing.
This pandemic is now part of our story. But the story itself is much bigger than this cultural moment, and it might be wise to wonder how it all fits together.
The Big Story
From a Christian perspective, the story of the world goes like this: the great and powerful God of the universe created the world from an overflow of love. Every aspect of creation was a triumph—light out of darkness, order from chaos. The new world was beautiful, intricate, and without death. From the tiny, hardy flowers of the arctic tundra to the ebullient, flamboyant giant hibiscus, from long-necked giraffes to crimson starfish, all of it spoke of the artistry, brilliant design, and yes, love, of the Creator.
We began in a garden, where “healthy” is too pale a word by far to describe conditions—life was vibrant, verdant, flourishing. But humankind, from the get-go, tended to choose our own rights over love. “You’re not the boss of me” was the declaration that doomed us all. So to answer “who’s in charge?” and “why would a good God allow tragedy to reign?” brings us back to our beginnings, when the Father let his children choose. The plot thickened, the conflict was established, an enemy slinked onto the scene.
From the death of Abel (whose very name meant “breath” or “vapor”) through the ten plagues of Egypt, we have had our share of woe. Trouble’s bound to come, and come it has, in the form of tuberculosis, Spanish flu, Black Death. The cholera epidemic of 1846 killed a mere million, which in light of COVID sounds tame (though the disease itself was ghastly).
In biblical times, we are told that God sent pestilence (actively, purposely) time and again, frequently upon his own people, usually in judgment, always to get our attention. In Numbers 16, for example, with their miraculous deliverance from Egypt fresh in their minds, the people grumble (again). Moses, seeing pestilence break out, exclaims, “wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun” (Num 16:46). Aaron quick grabs a censer and makes atonement for their sin; “he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” (Num 16:48).
We are frequently reminded that God holds life and death in his hands; as Job puts it, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
When Christ comes along, the picture shifts. The long-awaited Savior has come, with “healing in his wings” (Mal 4:2). Indeed, Jesus inaugurates his ministry with the announcement, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, Isa 61:1-2).
The Kingdom of God, which Christ insists he has come to kick off, is the fulfillment of many an Old Testament prophecy—the blind will see, the deaf will hear, what is broken will be made whole, what is ruined will be restored. Suddenly the message of ancient Scripture becomes clear: life apart from God is disastrous. In choosing our autonomy, we cut ourselves off from the wellspring of life. But his love, never-failing, has chased us down. His heart is to heal. Jesus, like Aaron, stood between the dead and the living, bringing atonement once and for all. The death of death, as John Owen reminds us, came in the death of Christ.
Sickness and Saints
As you might expect, the followers of the “Great Physician” were themselves committed to a ministry of healing. Jesus is remembered for countless acts of mercy, among them, healing a man with a withered hand, a woman with a hemorrhage, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the lepers. Likewise, the early church was famous for boldly striding into the fray of infectious disease. In an era when the value placed on human life was at a low ebb, Christians were known for scooping up abandoned infants and caring for the mortally ill.
Around 249 AD, the Roman Empire was wracked with pandemic. What it was, we don’t know for sure. Smallpox? Measles? What we do know is that 5,000 people a day succumbed to death. A bishop in Alexandria reported, “Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
Even the pagan emperor Justinian “the Apostate” later credited Christians for their fearless nursing, saying that if paganism had any hope of winning the day, pagans had better learn to out-do the Christians in love. Christianity, Julian said, “has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”
Christians are, of course, sprinkled throughout the history of medicine, starting hospitals, discovering cures, providing first aid on the battlefield, and often contracting the very diseases they labor to heal. We are the “Galileans,” after all, the “little Christs,” ambassadors of the Kingdom of hope and healing.
This Present Moment
All of which brings us to the present moment. Just when we think we’ve bested disease and conquered the quaint fevers and maladies of the past, we are struck yet again with worldwide plague.
If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d have expected that a pandemic would bring out the best in us. The biblical and historical record is clear. Sickness demonstrates God’s power (Exo 9:14) and paves the way for people to call on his name (Exo 9:16). It reminds us of our limitations and mortality (Ecc 5:15-17), our weakness and our need for God (2 Cor 12:9). As C.S. Lewis had it, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Christ, not sparing us from the wounded world, sent us out as lights in the darkness, citizens of another Kingdom sojourning for a while in the mean streets of this one. Surely when “pestilence stalks in darkness” and death “wastes at noonday” (Ps 91:6) the contrast between the power of death and the exploding light of life would be most evident?
As Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecc 7:2). It’s not terribly difficult to see that a dying man needs hope; surely our message in such a time isn’t hard to discern:
- Your neighbor thought that sixty was the new forty, that her days of merry-making would last forever? Friend, we are like wildflowers that come and go. We are vapor, here for just a moment; tomorrow we die.
- Your boss thought that success, acquisition, accolades, wealth were all that mattered in this life? Friend, you can’t take it with you, but there is a better country up ahead.
- Your colleague thought he had all the time in the world to patch things up with his dad. What balm can there be when death has struck a good man down? It is well, it is well with my soul.
A pandemic is a pause that forces hard questions.
We are wasting it.
Back in the garden we chose autonomy over love. The Father held out relationship—stream-side walks in the cool of the day, long, lingering conversations about anything and everything, purpose and vocation at his side. We chose instead to demand our rights. But Jesus called us to carry a cross, to go after the broken, to put a hand on the untouchable.
Love in a time of coronavirus might look like laying down our rights, trumpeting grace (undeserved) instead of demanding independence. It might mean that we keep no record of wrongs, turn the other cheek, or suffer indignities. It might be that we reject grumbling and sing another chorus.
If the collective outcry of the world is fear, we should be singing faith; if they yowl in anger, we should be singing peace. If the dominant chord from our lips is complaint, we have missed an opportunity in a critical moment.
Thousands of people die every day (not just during a pandemic). But now, for a fleeting moment, millions of people are afraid. They’re actually looking for hope, contemplating the state of their souls. Maybe now’s not the best time for an argument. Maybe it is a good time for love.
“Why now? Why us?” Why not?
Epidemics come and go; life under the sun is breath, vapor, fleeting and elusive. Every extra day you live is a gift, so let your short life overflow with double love, for God and neighbor, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.
Oh, Lord, don’t let us squander today.