God, Us and the Coronavirus
A recent headline from Fox News reads: "Coronavirus is like a biblical plague – But hardship brings vision, clarity and growth." In the article, Rabbi Sam Bregman said the "coronavirus pandemic has hit the world like a plague of biblical proportions".
Another headline in the Wall Street Journal said, "A Coronavirus Great Awakening? Sometimes the most important ingredient for spiritual renewal is a cataclysmic event". The article opens with the line: "Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival? As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there is reason to think so".
As we are being inundated with news conferences, website headlines, and to Facebook rumors, it is easy to be swept away in a tsunami of angst regarding our present and collective futures. These are unprecedented times as we watch this virus catapult our generation into a frantic state of fear and anxiety.
The coronavirus is causing people to live with a deep sense of dread and depression not knowing that they may be ticking timebombs of potential harm to their loved ones. Indeed, it is frightening to consider that at one point, there was a “patient zero” who unwittingly set off this entire pandemic.
Moments like these bring out the best and worst in humanity. Some will draw closer to God as they are confronted with their fragile mortality. Others will harden their hearts – blaming and cursing God incessantly for their misfortune. Thankfully, many will shine by helping others in their time of need (Samaritan's Purse for example), and yes, there will be those that will take advantage of whomever they can for their own selfish gain.
Whether or not the coronavirus signals the beginning of the end times, none of us can be certain. I am sure that millions thought the same when the Spanish flu killed over 100 million people in Europe and the United States from 1918 to 1920.
Some will see this current pandemic as God's judgement on our world for its sin and disregard of him; while others will see this as just another evolutionary anomaly that science will eventually tame. Regardless of what you may be thinking right now, having a cavalier attitude about this pandemic – by not considering its greater spiritual implications for our world – would not be a good attitude to embrace.
C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, insightfully suggested that "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a morally deaf world" While Lewis' book had set out to disentangle the knotty issue of pain and suffering, he ended up concluding that no intellectual solution can avoid the need for faith.
Having faith in God is critical for times like this. It is what grounds us and helps us to see what matters most in life. And let's not forget, it may also be a time that God uses to rouse us in our deafness by attempting to draw us closer to him.
Though many are not aware of it, the Biblical narrative is not silent about God’s ability to bring judgment to a nation or to the entire world as a means of rousing them from their moral deafness. For example, when God spoke to Solomon after the dedication of the temple, he both stated his ability to send plagues in response to Israel's sin and rebellion and also told Israel what they could do to alleviate them. He said in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14, "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
God did not say "if", he said "when". He knew we would sin and be rebellious. He knew we would need forgiveness too. So, God has used, does use, and will continue to use things just like the current coronavirus outbreak to speak to a morally deaf and rebellious world.
So, it's not improper for us to ask, "Is God speaking to us now? And if so, "What is God trying to say to us. Are we listening? What is he wanting us to learn from this global pandemic? Is he trying to draw us away from our sin – to be closer to himself? Is he trying to remind us that we must have a strong faith and trust in him? I have no doubt that all of this is true.
I am also certain that he would want to remind us of our moral responsibility as Christians. We may all chafe under the strict guidelines of quarantines, but quarantines existed in biblical times too. In the Old Testament there were strict quarantine regulations for those suffering from infectious diseases (see Leviticus 13). So, when we are asked to follow government and medical advice to drastically reduce all social contacts, our acquiescence is not an expression of unbelief, it is an expression of wisdom and love for our neighbors.
And speaking of our neighbors, "How can we best live out our faith and love our neighbors in the midst of this pandemic?" The late evangelist, Dr. Billy Graham, said, “Suffering can give us opportunities to witness. The world is a gigantic hospital; nowhere is there a greater chance to see the peace and joy of the Lord than when the journey through the valley is the darkest."
There were many dark times in history where the light of Christian charity shone with dazzling brightness amidst infectious disease and societal upheaval. In fact, Christians overcame the impulse to flee to safety and isolate themselves from the suffering of others:
In 165 a plague swept through the mighty Roman Empire, wiping out one in three of the population. It happened again in 251 when 5,000 people per day were dying in the city of Rome alone. Those infected were abandoned by their families to die in the streets. The government was helpless and the Emperor himself succumbed to the plague. Pagan priests fled their temples where people had flocked for comfort and explanation. People were too weak to help themselves. If the smallpox did not kill you, hunger, thirst and loneliness would. The effect on the wider society was catastrophic. Yet following the plagues the good reputation of Christianity was confirmed, and its population grew exponentially. Why was this? Christians did not come armed with intellectual answers to the problem of evil. They did not enjoy a supernatural ability to avoid pain and suffering. What they did have was water and food and their presence. In short, if you knew a Christian you were statistically more likely to survive, and if you survived, it was the church that offered you the most loving, stable and social environment. It was not clever apologetics, strategic political organization or the witness of martyrdom which converted an Empire, so much as it was the simple conviction of normal women and men that what they did for the least of their neighbors they did for Christ.
Just like then, this is a time to let our light shine, just as Jesus told us to do in Matthew 5:16. If one human being is unwittingly capable of bringing about such an incalculable amount of damage and havoc to the world, imagine how much goodness and healing even a single human being is capable of creating if he or she intentionally marshals their abilities in service to Jesus.
In the meantime, let's come back to those headlines. Is this pandemic like a biblical plague? It certainly looks like it! Could it result in a spiritual renewal? I certainly hope so! Is it a sign of Christ's soon return as some would suggest? I'd like to think that too! But as I mentioned earlier, we cannot know for certain at this point.
But there is something I would like you to reflect upon. This pandemic could be an early indication of what Jesus says will happen at the end of the age such as “pestilences” and "fearful events" (see Luke 21:11). Merriam Webster defines pestilence as a “contagion or infectious epidemic that is virulent and devastating." That's a pretty good description of what's going on right now. And to add an even greater sense of urgency to the moment, the United Nations has just declared on, April 1, 2020, that the coronavirus is "the most challenging crisis the world has faced since World War II".
Jesus said these pestilences would arrive like "birth pains". This means that they will increase in frequency and intensity in the time leading up to His return. So, again, whether this is an indication of Christ soon return, or the harbinger of a coming spiritual revival, we will have to wait and see.
In the meantime, there are some things we can all be doing. Just like King David prayed in 2 Samuel 24, we need to cry out to God and ask Him to stay His hand, grant forgiveness, and to hold the plague back from the people (see 2 Samuel 24:21).
We also need to realize that even while we practice safe distancing practices, people are still suffering and in need of our help. They are grieving the loss of their loved ones. They are facing economic uncertainty. So, this pandemic should challenge all of us to seek the face of God, to call out to him for mercy, and to pray for each other's well-being and safety.
Pray for God to have mercy on our nation and to reveal the areas of needful repentance. Pray for the saving of many lives and the healing of many who are sick. Pray for the heroic doctors, nurses, first-responders, medical researchers, workers keeping our food stores and vital services open, government officials, and all essential service workers who are all doing everything they can to get us through this crisis.
And remember, trust can calm our worries—but trust in what? Trust who? Who can be so strong and wise and good that you can entrust your life to him? God is. The Psalmist said, "God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1). We can trust him. He is our refuge. And Jeremiah added, “Blessed (happy) are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence (Jer. 17:7)
God created you and loves you more than you can imagine. Jesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me (John 14:1). Jesus knows how easily we can be troubled. He knows our doubts and fears. That's why, for good reason, the Bible says, “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper Collins, 1940, 1996), 40.
 Stephen Backhouse quoted in Simon Ponsonby’s Loving Mercy: How to Serve a Tender-Hearted Saviour (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), 155.