coronavirus

A Plea for Christians Facing the Coronavirus

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By Doug Ponder

A little over three years ago I wrote an article about fear and politics. It’s probably worth revisiting in an election year like this one. In truth, the article has less to do with politics than with the fact that the most frequent command in the Bible is “do not be afraid.” I argued that, in a world fueled by fear, Christians have been given a distinct opportunity—even calling—to live as people without the same kind of fear as the rest of the world. This is not because we are free from tragedy or difficulty or persecution, but simply because we believe that the God who calls himself “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) will make everything right for his people in the end (Revelation 21:3-5).

This is all well and good in theory, but what do we do, say, when the Coronavirus comes to town? Also known as COVID-19, the Coronavirus has been officially declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC).[1] But just about everyone except for hermits already know this (and they may know as much too, since even hermits have access to the internet in the 21st century). Suffice it to say, if fear is from the pits of hell—and it is (cf. Hebrews 2:14-15)—then all hell is breaking loose.

The worst thing that can happen to you is literally incomparable to the glory that awaits you.

But God Said, “Do Not Be Afraid.”

Various forms of “do not be afraid” are repeated nearly one hundred times in the Bible—far more than any other command. Here’s a sampling:

  • Each time God made and confirmed his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he told them, “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1; 26:24; 46:3).
  • As the Egyptian army was riding to slaughter the Israelites, God spoke through Moses to say, “Do not be afraid” (Exodus 14:12-14).
  • When Moses descended with the Ten Commandments he said, “Do not be afraid” (Exodus 20:20).
  • As God’s people observed the strength of the pagan tribes in the Promised Land, God told them, “Do not be afraid of them” (Deuteronomy 3:22).
  • When Moses died and the leadership of a nation fell to Joshua, God comforted him by saying, “Do not be afraid” (Joshua 1:9).
  • When the cowardly Gideon was chosen to lead God’s people into battle, the angel of the Lord told him, “Do not be afraid” (Judges 6:23).
  • When the prophet Elijah was called to preach hard truths to a wicked king, God said, “Do not be afraid of him” (2 Kings 1:15).
  • As his people were surrounded by enemies and about to be taken into captivity, God said to them, “Do not tremble; do not be afraid” (Isaiah 44:8).
  • To the virgin Mary who had just discovered she was miraculously pregnant and likely to be divorced because of this surprising turn of events, the angel of God said, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30).
  • And when Joseph did contemplate breaking it off with Mary, whom he feared had been unfaithful, the angel said to him as well, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 1:20).
  • To the shepherds who saw an angelic host fill the sky with thunderous singing and blinding light, the heavenly chorus sang, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10).
  • After this miracle child became a man and began his Messianic ministry, Jesus kept on telling his followers, “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Luke 12:32).
  • When he spoke of his imminent departure, Jesus spoke about a coming Comforter and said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
  • After he was crucified and buried, the resurrected Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples with an important Easter announcement: “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10).
  • And to the church, who would face tumultuous times filled with persecution and difficulty of every kind, the risen Jesus still says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer… Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (Revelation 2:10).

The Fuel of Fearless Faith: The Good News of Resurrection

Of course, simply saying “fear not” works about as well as telling someone to “calm down.” Thankfully, we worship a God who not only commands his people but also empowers them to do what he asks (Philippians 2:13). Specifically, the faith that fights worldly fear is rooted in the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, which leads us to “not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

Isn’t that amazing? Our God raises the dead. Jesus wasn’t lying when he said, “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul…” (Matthew 10:28). For since he is raised from the dead, if you are united to Jesus by faith then the worst thing that can happen to you is literally incomparable to the glory that awaits you (Romans 8:18).

You believe in a God who raises the dead, but your neighbor might not, so keep loving them like Jesus—even if that means risking your own life.

The Shape of Fearless Faith: A Practical Conclusion

There is such a thing a bad kind of fearlessness, of course. Aristotle calls it “rashness,” which is the vice of excess (whereas cowardice is the vice of deficiency). By contrast, Biblical fearlessness isn’t imprudent, for it believes that everything we have—including our own lives—are gifts from God be stewarded well. What shape, then, does biblically fearless faith take in the face of the Coronavirus? Three things come to mind:

1. Don’t panic. There’s lots we still don’t know about this virus, and what little the experts do know suggests that COVID-19 is far from the worst illness the world has ever faced. Therefore, don’t do this or this or this to yourself or your kids. Instead, remember that our God reigns and he raises the dead! See also: the entire article leading up to this point.

2. Be wise. Wash your hands. Don’t share food with your coworkers. And, generally speaking, listen to what (real) health experts say. Being wise also entails not falling for the kind of misinformation that is spread by conspiracy theorists who use panic to drive traffic to their sites for monetary gain. Truly I tell you, they will have their reward in full.

3. Be kind. When a plague much deadlier than the Coronavirus spread throughout Geneva during the days of Calvin and Beza, the French Reformers advised Christians to trust God, to be wise, and to not fail to show charity to their neighbors.[2] In other words, remember that while God may not need your good works, your neighbor still does. Therefore, don’t stop Sunday services or vital ministries to the sick and the poor. You believe in a God who raises the dead, but your neighbor might not, so keep loving them like Jesus—even if that means risking your own life (John 15:13). It probably won’t come to that, of course. Yet if it did, God’s got you covered (John 11:26), therefore: do not be afraid.

[1] https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/30-01-2020-statement-on-the-second-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)

[2] For more on this fascinating story, including the struggles of Geneva’s ministers to keep the faith in the face of grave fears, see Calvin’s Company of Pastors by Scott Manetsch (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 284ff.

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimké Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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