by John Ellis
For the first three decades of my life, my native Floridian father scoffed at tourists, Yankee transplants, and anyone else who took preemptive measures beyond simply boarding up their windows whenever hurricanes would threaten the Panhandle. While in high school, I laughed along with my dad as he mocked the Pensacola Christian College students who were renting the house my dad grew up in. The newlyweds spent their first tropical storm cowering in the bathtub. After Hurricane Ivan in 2004, though, my dad changed his tune. Devastating the Pensacola area, where my dad was born, raised, and has spent the majority of his adult life, the brutality of Ivan’s carnage altered his perspective.
I thought of that anecdote while reading Andy Crouch’s summation of infectious disease experts’ views on preparation with the succinct tweet that, “Any actions by leaders to impose drastic measures against Covid-19 that doesn’t seem ‘too early’ to most people will in fact be too late.”
Setting aside conspiracy theorists who believe that Covid-19 is a plot by the Chinese government to bring down Trump’s administration, I find it hard to fathom that there are still Americans who are clinging to the mistaken notion that this virus is nothing more than the common flu. Earlier this week, Beth Moore sagely tweeted, “I can’t think of a time since social media graced the world with its large-and-in-charge presence that it would be important to let the actual experts be the experts.”
Heeding Moore’s advice, I’m not going to attempt to persuade anyone of the seriousness of Covid-19; explanations and advice from infectious disease experts and others in the medical community are easily found online – or you can call Italy (edit- here’s a helpful article written by a Christian who is also a doctor trained in epidemiology and who was on the front lines in China during the SARS epidemic leading WHO’s efforts to contain the virus). For those who still refuse to believe that Covid-19 is to be taken seriously, I don’t have anything to say to you. Seriously. There’s no reason for you to continue reading this post. I would instead encourage you to use the time reading The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. For the rest of us, those of us who are listening to the experts and reports from around the world, realizing that to some degree or another Covid-19 is to be responded to with more seriousness than the flu (and, for the record, much of what I have to say below applies to how we respond to the common flu, too), I want to encourage us to obey God by loving and serving others.
First and foremost, yes, God is absolutely in control. He is sovereign over all creation, including novel coronaviruses. That fact doesn’t merely mean that this didn’t take God by surprise; it means that He sovereignly means it for His glory and for the good of His people (see Genesis 50:20 for further and better instructions). Because we worship and serve the Sovereign Creator of all, we are free to obey Him, confident that nothing can separate us from His love (see Romans 8:31-39 for further and better instructions). But how can we practically serve God during this season dominated by Covid-19? Three main ways: 1. Diligently praise God for His sovereignty. 2. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, do not give in to fear. 3. By God’s grace, serve those in our communities who are the most at risk of being adversely affected by Covid-19.
Upon exiting the ark, the Bible records Noah’s first action as building an altar and offering a sacrifice to the Lord. While, pointing ahead to the full and final Atonement, there is a heavy emphasis on the need for atonement through his actions, Noah was also acknowledging God’s sovereignty.
No doubt, Noah and his family lost friends and relatives in the flood. No doubt, as they exited their temporary, once-floating home and scanned the desolate landscape stripped of other Image Bearers, the small company were tempted to be anxious and fearful about their future. Civilization had been wiped away. Their normal means of production had been disrupted to the point of non-existence. While they were undoubtedly highly skilled in a variety of disciplines and tasks, they were faced with having to do for themselves what others in their now lost community had done before. It wasn’t just that the toilet paper aisle in their local department store had been stripped bare; there was no store, no means of production, no supply line, and no one left to call out to on Facebook in a desperate search for toilet paper. From a human standpoint, they were utterly alone.
Yet, through it all, Noah’s first impulse was to acknowledge he and his family’s dependence on God. They acknowledged that even facing a complete restart of society without the aid of fellow humans, they, in fact, were not alone. The One who told Job that “whatever is under the whole heaven is mine (Job 41:11)” was not only with them but was in control. God had just given a vivid demonstration of His control, after all.
Making it a habit throughout the day to praise God for His sovereignty is an antidote to our fears. We not only owe praise to God for the rising and setting of the sun, it’s a reminder to us that He sits on His throne and laughs at those who believe that His plans can be thwarted. So, brother and sister in Christ, no matter what happens with Covid-19, whether it’s the best-case scenario or the worst-case scenario, make it a habit to praise God in all things, even the hard things. Doing so will also remind us that we are not here to serve ourselves.
What does it look like to love and serve others? By God’s grace, even with all Her flaws and errors throughout history, Christ’s Church has historically risen to the occasion during times of crisis, giving glory to God while serving others.
Our early brothers and sisters in Christ valued the lives of babies left to die more than they valued their own societal esteem and resources. Rescuing infants who were victims of Roman society’s despicable penchant for infanticide, Christians obeyed God and preferred the vulnerable above themselves. During times of plague and epidemics, the Church is known for setting aside their own concerns and serving the sick. When the bubonic plague hit Zurich in 1519 with a mortality rate close to 30%, Zwingli refused to evacuate and spent his time helping treat and ministering to those afflicted with the plague. His efforts were only stopped when he contracted it himself. By God’s grace, he recovered, but not before penning the first four stanzas of his “Plague Hymn”:
Help me, O Lord,/ My strength and my rock;/ Lo, at the door/I hear death’s knock.
Uplift thine arm,/Once pierced for me,/That conquered death,/And set me free.
Yet, if thy voice,/In life’s midday,/Recalls my soul,/ Then I obey.
In faith and hope/Earth I resign,/Secure of heaven,/For I am thine.
There are many other examples of Christians acting for the good of their communities during times of crisis, and Covid-19 shouldn’t be any different (and, by God’s grace, won’t be any different). But what does esteeming others higher than ourselves look like in 2020? No doubt, answers to that will change as the situation evolves. For now, though, based on what the experts have been preaching, social distancing seems to be the best way to serve our communities.
Our family was planning on going back to the D.C. area for spring break, mainly to visit friends. Late Wednesday (3/11), my wife and I decided that it would be best for us to stay home. Not best for us; best for new friends that we love and for our community that we are called to serve.
Breaking the change of plans to our disappointed kids, I told them that God has called us to love and serve others. Balancing calming their fears with calls to selflessness, my wife and I explained that if we were to get it, we would be fine, and there is a chance that we wouldn’t even know we had it. But, we added, we have friends who won’t be fine if they get it. Because of them, because of those who are high risk in our community and because at the moment there is no treatment nor a vaccine for Covid-19, we are making changes, including cancelling our trip.
Not long after our family discussion, I began to see a quote from C.S. Lewis popping up online. No doubt, you’ve seen the quote on your social media newsfeeds, if not, it’s easy to find, so I won’t link to it. To those who may be unfamiliar with it, the gist of it is that Lewis was encouraging people facing the threat of atomic bombs to not let fear grip them. Instead, Lewis encouraged, if and when it’s dropped, the atomic bomb should find everyone doing their normal, everyday things. For his time and place, C.S. Lewis’ words were true and needed. For today, though, his specific societal advice carries little relevance and, in fact, is bad advice.
Unlike Covid-19, I can’t inadvertently give an atomic bomb to my friends battling cancer. Unlike infectious diseases/viruses, I can’t pass atomic bombs to those in my community who are high risk. Because of that, living life normally is bad advice for today. With what we know from infectious disease experts, refusing to engage in social distancing is a heinous act of self-love. Just because you will be fine if you contract Covid-19 doesn’t mean that those you give it to will be. While it may be true that the virus’ effects on you may be parallel to those of the common flu, boasting “it’s nothing more than the flu” while flaunting your rejection of social distancing reveals that you love yourself more than you love your neighbor – a direct violation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:36-40.
Loving and serving those in high risk categories through social distancing is not a synonym for fear and panic. On the flipside, refusing to engage in social distancing is not a synonym for being rational and calm. Of all people, Christians should be the first ones laying down their rights in the service of others. Yes, God is in control, but that’s not an excuse for selfishness or fatalism. By God’s grace, let’s commit to praying for and finding tangible ways to serve those in our community who are or might be drastically affected by Covid-19, even if that means making drastic changes to how we go about our day.
Soli Deo Gloria