In the present pandemic, many voices vie for our trust. Physicians and politicians, economists and pastors, friends and family offer a smorgasbord of statistics and predictions, counseling courage or caution. Incessant newsfeeds drive home the message that scenarios are in flux, “best practices” are up for revision, and those “in the know” readily admit how little they know in this unprecedented-in-our-lifetime global crisis. So what can be said that has not already been said or that will not have to be unsaid tomorrow?
In online Tabletalk posts, others have presented sound biblical perspectives for our response to COVID-19 as people redeemed by Christ and held fast in His unbreakable grip of grace. I’ve been invited to report on the effects of COVID-19 in our local context and in my present ministry. That is all I have to offer, realizing that others’ experience of this strange, sobering season differs from mine.
Since I retired two years ago and my wife and I moved to a small town in Tennessee, COVID-19 has not disrupted our daily lives as much as it has others’ lives. Our county has fewer than ten confirmed cases of infection (subject to change, of course). I was already laboring at my main “job”—reading and writing—at home. Our family and congregation have been spared infection (so far). Our congregation went to online worship at the end of March, but we maintain fellowship virtually. Our COVID-19 experience is a world away from those who are (or, sadly, were) employed, who live in a community with a climbing infection rate, who are herding energetic, housebound children, or who have concern for an aging parent in a retirement community.
Then again, maybe our experiences are not so different after all. The statistics that we hear on the evening news have human faces for my wife and me. We have prayed for my former students and their wives who were hospitalized with life-threatening coronavirus cases. One of these suffering friends lost her mother to COVID-19. A pastor in my presbytery laid to rest his father and his mother within a week of each other. Our son now works more for less, but he’s grateful to have a job. Your details differ, but our plotlines are similar.
What should Christians learn from this heartbreaking chapter in our Father’s providence?
Soon after our worship went online, I preached Psalm 46 to our congregation, as many other pastors have done in these weeks. (See Pastor Neil Stewart’s meditation God Our Storm Shelter.) This was the psalm I had brought to God’s people in California on the Sunday after September 11, 2001, as we reeled from images of the World Trade Center towers collapsing in flames. This biblical source of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is an obvious place to go for courage in troubled times, when desolations loom or pandemics spread misery and death, poverty and hunger. I won’t explore Psalm 46 here—Pastor Stewart did that well. I simply cite a single verse to structure suggestions about what Jesus’ disciples should learn in this time of pandemic: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Ps. 46:10).
Through COVID-19, our almighty Creator bluntly reminds us of the limits of our vitality. This contagious infection and world leaders’ vigorous reactions—lockdowns or safer-at-home recommendations, social distancing, etc.—have brought society’s frenzied busyness almost to a standstill. The print issue of the June 2020 issue of Tabletalk contained articles submitted well before the COVID-19 crisis precipitated America’s societal lockdown. When I read these words by Pastor Christopher Gordon, I thought, “What a difference a month makes!”
Almost universally, people complain of the busyness of their lives. Families are pulled away from the dinner table to sports practices, music lessons, and a variety of other activities. We have the best of modern conveniences, and yet we run ourselves ragged with never ending “appointments.”1
Who would have guessed that our sovereign God would ordain a global pandemic and our harried lifestyles would change so drastically? No sports practices or music lessons to prevent lingering at the dinner table, allowing family members to get reacquainted with each other. Admittedly, working from home poses challenges for mom and dad, and homeschooling may frustrate their children. Nerves are frayed by competition for laptop access and bandwidth, unwelcome interruptions, and “cabin fever.” But our Father knows when we need to slow our pace, and He sometimes has surprising ways to make it happen. If our default setting is Martha-esque, “distracted with much serving,” this hiatus in our activities could be the Master’s wise strategy to clear our calendars, so we can sit, Mary-like, as a disciple at His feet, listening to His Word, the “one thing” that we really need (Luke 10:38–42).
Our divinely imposed stillness can also free our attention to engage others personally, even if “virtually.” In our congregation, each officer (pastors, elders, deacons) has a group of members whom we contact regularly by phone, text, or email. Since my wife and I are still quite new to this church, my own care group “assignment” has motivated me to get to know brothers and sisters whom I used to greet in passing: young parents, a bachelor, middle-age couples, and senior citizens. COVID-19 was God’s instrument to bring us closer to each other while we stay apart physically. The crisis has even given me an excuse to reach out (while safely “distancing”) to each family in our neighborhood. When I gave them our contact information “just in case” they need us, every neighbor reciprocated—a baby step toward getting to know each other better.
For many people, of course, this crisis has not meant “stillness.” Medical caregivers, first responders, law enforcement officers, and others labor even longer hours than before, protecting and comforting vulnerable and suffering neighbors. Parents work from home or wait in food bank lines while learning a new career—homeschool educator. For the rest of us, however, time freed up by canceled commitments can be reinvested not only in spiritual Sabbath for our own restless hearts but also in prayer for sustaining grace for those laboring overtime.
Know That I Am God
Through COVID-19, our Creator confronts us with the limits of our knowledge and control. Realizing that the Lord is God drives us down and lifts us up. It shatters our illusion of competence, humbling us. It counteracts our confusion-fueled desperation, exalting us in hope.
Knowing that He is God humbles us. A TV advertisement assures viewers that, amid the uncertainties of this pandemic, there is one thing we can trust completely: science. The sponsoring pharmaceutical company promises relentless scientific research until vaccines and cures are found. We are rightly grateful for the labors of medical researchers, but this commercial claims more for science than it can deliver. We sense this when we hear top epidemiologists repeatedly acknowledge how little they know about the bizarre behavior of this invisible enemy. Their admissions immunize us against the illusion that “science” deserves unquestioning trust. On the other hand, the Creator of everything can be trusted, completely and always.
Knowing that He is God (and we are not) also humbles us in another way: He is Judge, and we are not. The media bombards us with conflicting signals and competing experts. Some of the counsel comes with qualification and nuance. Others speak with bold confidence. In this atmosphere of passionate public discourse, Christ’s people and their leaders could easily succumb to the surrounding polarization in the battle of contradictory and competing leadership.
Humility and the grace of the gospel must make God’s people different from their anxious and angry neighbors. The churches in Corinth and Rome were divided over dietary decisions. Some members condemned others’ exercise of freedom, while the latter despised the inhibitions of their self-appointed judges (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8–9). Into this maelstrom of judgmentalism and smug superiority, Paul wrote, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Rom. 14:4). The contradictions that swirl around COVID-19 and obscure the path to prudent response provide Christ’s people with an extraordinary opportunity to learn humility, respect for others’ views and concerns, and simple kindness.
Knowing that He is God gives us hope. Knowing that the Lord is God, “our refuge and strength, a very present help” (Ps. 46:1–2), gives us reasons for confidence for the ultimate future. When breaking news shakes us, we can turn to the sure Word of the unchanging Lord, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Jesus our brother died to free us from enslavement to the fear of death (Heb. 2:14–15). Our lives are anchored in God’s heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 6:19–20). We are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). This hope sets us free, in the face of threats to life and livelihood, to risk reaching out in compassion to those in need (Heb. 10:32–35; 13:1–3).
Conclusion: Who Will Be Exalted?
When our frenzied minds are stilled and we know that our Lord is God, we agree that He alone can claim, “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Ps. 46.10). Surrounded by a world that is driven by self-protection and self-promotion, we who have experienced God’s love in His Son have a self-transcending aspiration: to exalt our Redeemer, come what may.
Awaiting a capricious emperor’s verdict, Paul calmly contemplated diametrically opposing outcomes: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Whatever lay ahead, Paul’s “eager expectation” was that God’s Spirit would give grace, so that “with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). We cannot foresee short-run outcomes, for our health, for businesses and livelihoods, for the churches that sustain our pilgrimage of faith. But God’s indelible grace sets our hearts free from self-preoccupation and self-protection, so that Paul’s longing becomes ours: to see Christ exalted through our bodies in all the earth.
- Christopher J. Gordon, “Prayer as a Means of Grace,” Tabletalk 44.6 (June 2020), 10. ↩︎