Deep inside every human being resides an ache, a longing for security. We were made for paradise, not to be stalked by viruses, bacteria, and other death-wielding diseases. But like it or lump it, facts are stubborn things, the game is afoot, the hunt is on, and the odds are not in our favor. Notwithstanding all our advances in healthcare and medical technology, mortality rates remain remarkably consistent across the world: one death for every person.
For an eternal soul, rather attached to life, that’s an alarming statistic, one that we like to ignore: “Tomorrow,” we think to ourselves, “I might die tomorrow, but probably not today. In any case, my worst fears rarely come true; things are usually much better than they seem, and besides, I’m relatively young and quite fit, so I’ll probably be OK.” Like any fair-weather friend, such thinking only helps until it doesn’t. When the music stops and the bottom really does fall out, what are we to do?
God has given us many songs in the Bible to sing at such moments. None are richer than that ancient hymn of steadfast faith, Psalm 46. Through the ages, these words have formed a haven of rest for souls harried on all sides by death, demons, and darkness. In a world gripped by COVID-19 fever, here is a pillow upon which your soul can safely rest amidst the storm.
The psalm pictures a time of unimaginable chaos. The mountains, those ever-constant landmarks that were there before we were born and will exist long after we are gone—yes, those mountains are falling into the heart of the sea (Ps. 46:2–3). Picture the maelstrom: the world is in freefall. In all the dark days of human history, the human experience doesn’t get much worse than this. In such times, then and now, the question everyone is asking is, What on earth are we to do?
Don’t Be Overwhelmed with Fear
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Ps. 46:1–2).
The psalmist’s confidence finds its root in his theology. In the Hebrew word order, the first two words of the psalm contain the secret: “God is for us a refuge.” God is for us. He is not against us. Let that thought sink in. Christian, God is on your side. His being is for you. So are His wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. God in His fullness is engaged on your side and for your benefit. In this regard, the psalmist identifies three particular aspects of God’s relation to His people:
- God is for us as the One to whom we can run when we’re in danger (refuge).
- God is for us as the One who’s strong when we are weak (strength).
- God is for us because He is near when we need help—literally, “a help in tight places, very findable” (Ps. 46:1).
Whatever COVID-19 throws at you, Christian, you will not face it alone. God will be with you. The closer the danger, the nearer the Shepherd. The One who died in your place for your sins will never abandon you. “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Don’t Be Overwhelmed with Sorrow
In the second stanza, the psalmist takes us to Mount Zion. Imagine the scene there. Remember what’s happening to the mountains. You might expect to find panic: foundations shaking; walls collapsing; people running hither, thither, and yon; and mothers gathering up their little ones to run far away. But the atmosphere in the Holy City is not one of panic; it’s one of peace and gladness. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.” (Ps. 46:4–5).
This river is the life-giving presence of the living God (Ps. 46:4–5). The saints in Zion, you see, are a strange breed. They can and do know joy amid even the worst catastrophe. This isn’t because they are heartless or somehow insensitive to pain. They are made of the same stuff as the rest of humanity, but their ability to remain calm and focused flows from their unbreakable relationship with God. God’s presence keeps them safe, come what may. Whatever happens, God is there. He cannot be separated from these Old Testament believers or from us. Even in the lowest and darkest time of night (just before dawn), when we are most vulnerable to the enemy’s attack, God will come to our aid (Ps. 46:5). Even when the nations rage against His people, God needs but speak a word and the earth melts (Ps. 46:6). The nations no longer have an inch of ground on which to stand.
What’s more, the presence of God is available for any and for all who understand its worth. Do you see? He does not reserve Himself for the hoity-toity folk or the high and mighty. He is available for the Jacobs of this world (Ps. 46:7), those who are inherently unstable, difficult, flighty, selfish, grasping, and deceitful. If such a God reached down to the likes of Jacob (before Jacob became known as Israel), you can be sure that He is not above helping you and me. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).
Don’t Miss What’s Really Going On
When times are tight and the pressure is on, we tend to develop tunnel vision and to lose perspective. Pain feels personal and has a way of pulling all our thoughts inward, such that self-pity almost inevitably becomes the mother tongue of agony. God knows this, and so He calls His beleaguered people to lift up their eyes and “behold the works of the Lord!” (Ps. 46:8). He wants us to see what He is doing behind the scenes of history: He is putting down the nations’ proud rebellion against Him (Ps. 46:9; cf. Ps. 2); He is exalting His name in the earth (Ps. 46:10), and He is keeping His people safe through it all (Ps. 46:11).
Years of Christian art have led us astray when it comes to understanding the import of the command “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). We read those words and think of a snowy Christmas in Vermont. A better picture might be a bunch of children fighting in the back of a car. Reason, kindness, and love have all flown out the window. All they can think about is their own petty turf war and what they stand to lose in it all. At some point, Daddy turns around and kindly but firmly barks, “Be quiet!” That is the verb the psalmist employs here. God is rebuking His people for losing sight of the big picture. Isn’t that what so often happens in times of disaster, whether it’s a sick child, an “abnormal” medical result, collapsing markets, or the looming shadow of COVID-19? How easy it is for you and me to lose perspective, to miss the big picture and to fail to see how God is indeed working.
In my time as a pediatrician in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, I saw many parents who saw only the crisis of a sick child. It’s the natural response for us all. But every so often, God brought one of His spiritual giants into the ward. It was usually a parent of a child with some chronic, debilitating illness such as cystic fibrosis—a parent, one long trained in the school of disappointment and with the kind of spiritual insight one never gains in following the path of least resistance. These dear souls saw the crisis and felt the bewildering pain just as keenly as the rest. But here’s how they were different: they had the faith to reach through that pain and lay hold of a better, richer, and truer reality. By faith, in the crisis, they saw an opportunity for God to reveal His glory, for their child to grow in grace, and for themselves to witness for the Savior.
In these next few weeks, as we face our own share of “tight places” (Ps. 46:1), I pray that the Giver of every good and perfect gift will grant us all the grace to be courageous and joyful and the faith to perceive the golden thread of history winding inexorably onward to glory. As John reminds us again and again in Revelation, a throne stands “in heaven” (Rev. 4:2). Somewhere, somehow, Someone is in control. In Christ, God shares our nature and knows our frame (Ps. 103:14), and He is not ashamed to call us brother (Heb. 2:11). Mary’s boy child understands our weakness from the inside, and our pain touches the nerves of His heart (Heb. 4:15). As Pantokrator (the All-holding One), Jesus gathers all the pieces of our lives in His hand and rules them all for His glory. Rest your head on this pillow tonight, Christian, and you will find peace for your soul and shelter from the storm.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 16, 2020.