COVID-19 and the Christian Response
Written by Derek King. Derek is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of St Andrews and a campus pastor at Christian Student Fellowship and, in due time, Lewis House.
By now, the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has interrupted your life in some way. If not, welcome back from your extended vacation without power or human contact. The sports world has come to a screeching halt, the toilet paper aisle is empty, and students are going to be diligently working on their school work from home during the next three weeks.
During the last half-century in America, this is entirely unprecedented. It’s caused some to dismiss the virus as a pick-your-wing hoax, while it’s caused others to start digging their bomb shelter to prepare for the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Christians are observing lent.
What is the Christian response to pandemic? How does a virus like this fit into God’s plan? These are difficult questions, but thinking through them to offer Christian answers is increasingly more important as COVID-19 digs in deeper here in the US.
The Facts About the Virus
Before getting into how Christians should think and live around this virus, we have to first understand what it is we are dealing with. Maybe the only thing more contagious than this virus right now is ignorance. You will never know how to appropriately respond unless you are informed about the virus and what is happening.
According to medical professionals, here are the highlights you need to know:
- It’s kind of like the flu, but also kind of not. It’s the flu’s crazy cousin. It shares similar symptoms as the flu, but it’s more deadly—potentially much more so. Worse, it often shows mild or no symptoms and has a longer incubation period. That might sound good, but it means you can have the virus—and pass it along to others—without knowing it.
- The sick and elderly are most in danger. If you’re a healthy, young adult, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll experience the worst of this disease. But it’s very serious in people over 60, and there is also evidence that obese people and people with other illness are at a heightened risk.
- Even if you’re young, it could still be a big problem. Even if you are at a low-risk of catching the worst of the virus, the virus is likely to have larger ripple effects in society. Over-crowded hospitals, a shortage of medical supplies, quarantines, an economic recession, and more are not certainties, but real possibilities.
- The number of cases is almost certainly vastly underreported. As of writing this, there are “only” 696 confirmed cases in the US and “only” 25 confirmed deaths, but it’s important to recognize that the nature of this disease means that many, many more people likely have the disease but without a confirmed case. We are short on tests, and not everyone that has it is tested. This disease is likely more rooted in your area than you think.
- It’s still a new disease. We are still learning a lot about this disease and how it operates. It’s a developing situation, and you should be in tune to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and your local and federal government. And take it seriously.
- It’s almost certainly going to get worse. At this point, the virus is almost inevitably going to spread to a significant degree throughout the US. Every state will have it, and every state will have multiple cases and deaths. However, this is not just a doomsday scenario. While it will get worse, there are steps that can be, and are being, taken to mitigate and contain the virus. So the question is how bad it will be, which is why…
What you do matters. On Tuesday, baseball star Bryce Harper said: “I don’t worry about a disease or virus. I just live my life. I’m doing everything the same.” This is exactly the wrong way to be about this.
What you do matters, and you need to adjust your behavior right now.
The reason is that how individuals behave will directly correlate to the reach of the virus. You may not get seriously ill yourself, but you might pass the virus on to others and contribute to a large-scale dissemination. You’ll hear more about social distancing in the coming days, and you should take it seriously: this is something we know helps reduce the spread of the virus.
If you can, avoid large crowds. Avoid touching others (including handshakes and high-fives and hugs). You should be washing your hands a lot more (and better). Wash them like you just cut up a jalapeno and need to get the pepper juice off. Wash them before and after meals, and before and after leaving locations. Use hand sanitizer. Try to stop touching your face, especially your mouth. If we all do this, the virus will spread less and less people will die.
One disease expert said this regarding the virus: “my job is not to scare you out of your wits, its to scare you into your wits.” These facts are not meant to cause panic. We can, to some degree, control the spread of this virus and a lot of uber smart people are working on it.
In the meantime, we should do our small part to reduce the spread how we can. We should be taking this seriously, educating ourselves, and listening to authorities.
What place does a disease like this have in God’s world? This is a complex question, but it must start with what the Scriptures teach us about sickness, disease, and suffering.
The story of the first three chapters of Genesis is clear: God made the world good—a paradise—but humanity rejected that goodness in their selfishness. Among other things, this means that disease is not God’s intention for his creation. It is, at best, an aberration. It is an unwelcome intruder.
Matthew 4:23: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
Jesus heals disease. God’s desire is not for disease and death, but for health and life. Jesus’ life and ministry is a breaking in of the Kingdom, a slice of heaven on earth—as it one day shall be in full.
2 Corinthians 12:7: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me”
We don’t really know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was—it could be physical or spiritual. But it is a reminder that not all disease is healed. Jesus is called the “Great Physician,” and rightly so, but it’s a mistake to think that God will miraculously heal all disease. The “health and wealth gospel” is not the gospel, but a weakened distortion. Paul surely prayed for healing, but he didn’t sulk when he wasn’t healed—but rather boasted in his weakness because, in it, the power of Christ dwelled in him (2 Cor. 12:9).
Romans 5:3-5: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Why does God allow suffering in his world? We don’t really know. We do know (see Genesis 1-3 again if you’re skeptical) that evil and suffering are not God’s design, but results of the fall. But rest assured: your suffering is not in vain. God uses our sufferings for good. C. S. Lewis said: “pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” If you are suffering, ask how God might be using it to rouse you from your deafness.
Romans 8:17: “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
We suffer with Christ in order that we may be glorified with him. You don’t get Easter without Good Friday. You don’t get resurrection without the cross. This is not only true of Christ’s story, but our own. Scriptural is repeatedly clear: if you want to be raised with Christ, you must first suffer with him.
Psalms 118:6: “With the Lord on my side I do not fear, what can mortals do to me?”
“Do not fear” is a common refrain in Scripture, and for good reason. Scripture itself is a good reminder that we need not fear anything this world throws at us, because it’s Friday now—but Sunday is coming.
The Christian Response to COVID-19
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo pens: “…he had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things. I suspect he got it from the Gospel.”
As Christians, we look at the world in a different light. That light is precisely the light of Jesus Christ. One of the most comforting things Jesus ever said is, “in this world you will have troubles, but take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). There is no inch of the world—of the universe—over which King Jesus does not have dominion.
In that knowledge, how do we respond?
“Think with a sober mind” (Romans 12:3). We tend to think of “sober” as contrasted with drunkenness, but the New Testament uses the word in a different sense: being self-controlled. Have your wits about you. Don’t lose your mind. Don’t panic.
In this case, don’t make this virus a bigger deal than it is. As Americans, we may never have experienced anything like this—thanks be to God! But what Americans call a “health crisis” is simply everyday life in many countries.
And while we’re at it, let’s not compare our sufferings—for many of us, this will likely only include staying home for a few weeks—to persecution that Christians face around the world. This is a challenge and it is difficult, but be of sober mind: our sufferings are not geographically or historically exceptional.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Christians have a long history of taking care of sick people during the spread of disease. The early hospitals were Christian inventions. During a plague that swept through Rome in the 3rd century, Christians stayed behind and cared for the sick while everyone else fled. They did the same centuries later while the “Black Death” decimated the global population. Instead of caring only for their own safety, these Christians cared first and foremost for those in need. They loved their neighbors as themselves.
These Christians are examples we can look to today in caring for our neighbors, but putting others first looks very different in this situation. Today, thankfully, there are medical professionals caring for the sick. But if you simply shrug your shoulders and say “I’m young, I won’t die,” then you’ve missed an opportunity to love others like Jesus.
This virus is going to spread, but how widely it spreads is still very much unknown. The best thing you can do to mitigate the spread of this virus is to reduce social contact and wash your hands more. These acts are so easy—and therefore easy to ignore—but go a long way towards caring for your neighbor, and at this point this is just being a decent human being.
But Christians have never been content with being decent. The call to love demands more from us. Rebecca Reynolds has offered some fantastic ways to love our neighbors during this outbreak, including:
- Check in on an eldery friend and ask if you can bring groceries so he or she can remain at home.
- Donate to an international organization caring for orphans in a virus-infected country.
- Express gratitude to at least one public official (police, 911 operators, doctors, nurses) walking into the face of the virus.
The call to love our neighbor is especially pertinent right now, and as Christians we should be the most vigilant in both reducing the spread of the disease and caring for those infected.
“Look to the Lord and his Strength” (1 Chronicles 16:11). “Thoughts and prayers” has come under some criticism lately, but maybe try actually doing it and not just saying. Pray for those you love. Pray for the sick. Pray for medical professionals. Pray for government leaders. Pray for the weak. Pray for our world. Pray for wisdom. Pray for peace. Pray for strength. Pray for healing. Pray, pray, pray.
All the while, remember: he has overcome the world.