Meditation on a Pandemic

These are days of unprecedented uncertainty. What once may have seemed like a tragedy localized to Wuhan, China, has now spread to nearly every nation. No one will be left unaffected. Modern society has skidded to a halt: sporting events and concerts have been canceled, restaurants and coffee shops have limited public seating, and colleges and churches are moving online. Not since the Spanish influenza one hundred years ago has a disease so altered the world.

What can we do in these anxious times? Aside from following our medical community’s practical guidance, the Bible provides resources: trust, lament, and hope.

Trust

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23:4 proclaims in the familiar King James translation, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” More than we might realize, the Bible focuses on God’s protection in this world. The Psalms of trust often proclaim that the Lord will aid his followers in times of need. In Psalm 91, for example, the poet has confidence in God amid entrapment (v. 3), warfare (v. 5), and wild beasts (v. 13), and also “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness” and “the plague that destroys at midday” (v. 6).

As Christians, we can sometimes speak dismissively about our earthly life. But anyone who has seen the sun setting over a mountain range or heard a child laugh dare not depreciate God’s creation, even if it is fallen. There are things of real value in this world, and to appreciate them, and desire that they continue, is not only honest, but also an expression of gratitude for God’s common grace. Many good things are now at risk: most obviously, our health and the health of those we love, but also, for example, careers and economic security. Jesus assures us that a loving heavenly Father, who concerns Himself with sparrows and flowers, also watches out for us (Matt 6:25–34). He ends with advice we would do well to take to heart: “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Lament

None of this guarantees that we won’t suffer this-worldly loss, whether of life, health, finances, or future plans. Although this outbreak fits within God’s permissive will and we trust that God, in His wisdom, can achieve certain beneficial ends through it, that is not the same as saying that it reflects God’s desires for the world. Ezekiel assures us that God takes no pleasure in death, even of the wicked (Ezek 18:23; see also 1 Cor 15:26). The continual refrain of the lament Psalms is so powerful: “How long, O Lord?” We are invited by the prayers of the ancient Israelites to cry out to God in our suffering. One of the darkest cries comes from the 88th chapter of the Psalter: “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death” (v. 3), “my eyes are dim with grief” (v. 9), “I have borne your terrors and am in despair” (v. 15), the psalmist sobs. The song ends, “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend” (v. 18).

Few passages are as bleak as Psalm 88, and I pray that such grief will afflict as few people as possible. With death tolls already high in China, and mounting in nations as diverse as Iran, Italy, and now the United States, it is solace to know that we can address God with our honest pain. Even those less deeply touched by COVID–19, those whose businesses are shuttered or whose jobs are furloughed, may find a resonant voice in the Psalms, Job, or Lamentations over the coming months.

Hope

But lament cannot be the final word. To paraphrase the apostle Paul (in 1 Thess 4:13), we do not fear as those who have no hope. While it is a mistake to be dismissive about our earthly life, it is a disastrous error to neglect our future life, especially at a time like this.

The gospel gives us hope, because an eternity is promised those who have faith in Jesus. Shortly before His crucifixion, our Lord left His disciples with peace and commanded them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27), precisely because an eternal home awaits (vv. 1–3). Paul weighs “our present sufferings” against “the glory that will be revealed in us” and finds the former inconsequential by comparison (Rom 8:18). First Peter tells us that we have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1:4), and in Hebrews 11 the heroes of old “admit[ed] that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” and “were longing for a better country — a heavenly one” (vv. 13, 16). We are promised near the end of the Bible that in the new heavens and new earth, God “will wipe every tear from [his followers’] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4).

The message of Christianity is especially apt in times of suffering and worry, like the COVID-19 pandemic. For those who suffer loss, lament, but let it be a prayerful cry to God. For all of us who place our faith in Christ, let us remember our hope, that God’s “hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again” (John Donne, Meditation XVII) at the restoration of all things in eternity.

Timothy Gabrielson is assistant professor of biblical studies at Sterling College in Kansas and an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute.