Four Exhortations for Christians Confronting A Pandemic

One can hardly pass a day right now without hearing about COVID-19. Debates rage about its severity, about its political implications, about what should be done. I am not writing to weigh in on any of those issues; one of the problems in post-modernity is that we pretend to an expertise we do not have. I'm not a doctor, an epidemiologist, or a health policy expert. I will simply make two observations in that regard: that we should listen to those who are experts and take whatever reasonable precautions they recommend, and that we ought not assume we know the future in either direction. Perhaps this will be a flash in a pan that disappears in a month; perhaps it will lead to mass tragedy on a global scale.

What I do want to offer is four exhortations in light of that wide range of options to those who claim the name of Jesus Christ. We ought to live distinctive lives, and that includes how we think about and move through pandemic disease.  One of my greatest concerns, as a pastor, is watching Christians fail to show any difference from their neighbors in these issues.

First: we must refuse to be ruled by anxiety. One of the endemic sins of modern Christianity is our fearfulness. Scripture is unanimously opposed to such a spirit (see 2 Timothy 1:7, Philippians 4:6, Romans 8:15, Joshua 1:9, and many other passages). To live in the grip of terror about the future is simply not permitted to us as believers.

Crucially, this is not because we deny the potential gravity of something like a pandemic disease. There is a brand of pseudo-Christianity which pretends like nothing bad will ever happen to us if we say we belong to Jesus; that is spiritual snake-oil designed to make its peddlers rich and its consumers without hope. No, terrible things can and do happen in our world, including to those who follow Christ. Paul lists some of them in Romans 8: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and even martyrdom. History should also make this clear, especially in terms of disease. The Black Death, for example, ravaged the most Christianized part of the world, killing almost 60% of Europe's population in a matter of years.

It is not the Christian position that COVID-19 will just be a flash in the pan. Our hope is not in a swiftly-deployed vaccine or the effects of spring weather or anything else aimed at minimizing the potential risk. Instead, the Christian prohibition about fear rests on the certain promises we have in Christ: His love regardless of circumstances, His Spirit as a seal on our hearts, and the confidence of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The dangers of this world are not minimized; rather, the grace and power of God are maximalized, and thus we ask with the Psalmist, "What can flesh do to me?"

To be clear, none of that precludes wisdom. It is not sinfully fearful to wash your hands or use antibacterial wipes - that makes sense. However, to live in a way that is ruled by anxiety either about disease or its ramifications for things like the economy or politics is to make that thing an idol, implicitly having more power over our good than God.

Second: we should be taking risks for mercy. That might seem to run contrary to what I just said, but let me explain. In China, as stories leaked out about the initial spread of the disease, one remarkable and often-overlooked phenomenon was the massive volunteer effort that helped curtail its spread. Tens of thousands of average Chinese people volunteered to go door to door distributing masks, delivering groceries and taking temperatures. Many Christians were on the front lines of these efforts, although obviously many involved were also just good citizens with a sense of their neighborly obligations. Regardless, we should appreciate the real risks these people took to themselves in order to care for those in need.

Christians in America ought to be doing the same. If a neighbor gets sick, we should be the ones offering to help them. If there is a choice of who gets needed care, we should be the ones offering to give it up for others. If someone needs to die, we should be the ones proclaiming that to live is Christ and that such a fate is gain. The promise of the resurrection is our security and the self-sacrificial love of Jesus is our example. We should be bold in our mercy and care for others.

Again, of course, none of that precludes wisdom in how we pursue that calling. However, Christian wisdom does not rule out risk, it simply encourages us to be thoughtful about minimizing what risks we can within the overarching pattern of cross-shaped love. Too often prudence is a pretext for selfishness; we are not allowed such comfortable lies.

Third: we should not give up meeting together. Scripture enjoins us to live as a redeemed community, not as isolated individuals. Jesus's bride is the church, and our purpose is to adorn her with our good works (and presence) for her wedding day. I have already been asked about things like canceling services, even before a single case had appeared within a hundred miles of us.

Now, this one requires some clarity up front. There might come a point at which the state seeks to suspend large public gatherings for the sake of health; certainly, churches should comply with such a request. Even before that, there might be a point at which wisdom dictates certain changes in practice, such as ending the ubiquitous hand-shaking in many Christian gatherings.

That said, there are two errors we can make within such caveats. One is to cease gathering pre-emptively for fear of risk to ourselves. This is simply sinful. Both the first Christians and many brothers and sisters today face real hazards simply by gathering for worship, yet they did it regularly. If fear of disease was a sufficient reason not to meet with fellow believers, we would never do it. Might there come a point where it is necessary for the good of society to temporarily suspend such gatherings? Absolutely. However, that is about society's good, not our own personal attempts to minimize any possible risk.

In addition, even if such steps were necessary, we ought to do everything we can to still have fellowship and worship. The Sabbath is set aside as a day of worship and rest by God in creation; no coronovirus changes that. Likewise, we need the encouragement and wisdom of fellow believers, the proclamation of the word, communal prayer, and the sacraments. Might we have to do such activities in a smaller-group setting? Perhaps. Might we, for a season, even have to rely on individual family worship to fill that void? Possibly. Regardless, we must do what we can to continue to be faithful to this command.

Last: we should go on rejoicing and living. Hope and joy are both commands in Scripture, and we must be especially diligent in safeguarding them in such an anxious time.

We will all die. Maybe from COVID-19, maybe from old age, maybe from something completely unexpected. This is not good - death is an alien invader in our world, a punishment for sin - but it is normal, and Jesus has delivered us from its terror. Because of this, we must not let an obsession with death (or avoiding it) remove our ability to live. We might be perishing, but we should be celebrating at the same time.

C.S. Lewis, writing about the threat of nuclear war, puts it like this: "If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things--praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts--not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds."

In all of the above, I pray you catch a vision for what such a lifestyle can do. We will not impress our neighbors with our anxiousness. We will not change the world through our selfishness. We will not show Christ's unity by huddling in our homes. We will not show our hope by living in despair. However, as we start to live different, Christ-shaped lives, we will be showing forth to a watching world the grace and power of God.

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