Christian Reflections on the COVID-19 Crisis

Yesterday our church’s worship service was cancelled due to COVID-19 precautions. We’ve also cancelled all activities this week except our in-home small groups. We want to honor our leading authorities and join our society in minimizing health risks for the most vulnerable among us.

If you know our church’s history, you know this isn’t our first rodeo. In 2017 Hurricane Harvey flooded our building and 50 of our homes, uprooting our church and disrupting us in ways that required fresh faith, agile wisdom, and a long endurance.

Every crisis has its own challenges and opportunities, and COVID-19 is no different. Some of us are tempted to dismiss the whole situation. For others, exaggeration and anxiety can swirl into an emotional epidemic more contagious than the virus itself. But surely Christian wisdom has a different DNA than either condescending dismissal or breathless hyperbole.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a few reflections on this developing situation, not as a health professional or a city official, but a simple follower of Christ seeking the wisdom of God.

Events like these remind us, first, that the world is groaning. The Scriptures tell us that the world groans because it’s bound to a state of corruption and can’t escape without God’s intervention. At every level, our material world is laced with a curse brought on by sin. And our planet seems to know even better than its inhabitants that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. As Christians, we know that one day God will intervene and make all things new, but until that day, like a woman in labor, the earth itself is groaning (Romans 8:18–25).

As we groan together under the weight of pathogens and epidemics and pandemics and disruptions, we’re also reminded that we’re not invincible. The winds of crisis have a way of blowing away our paper castles and exposing our vulnerabilities. Life and health, and the rhythms they allow, are gifts of God’s common grace. No matter how orderly our lives or wise our habits, “normal” is not guaranteed.

Of course, many believe this “crisis” is overblown at best and a hoax or conspiracy at worst. Others see a virus lurking on every touchscreen and exploding from every sneeze. It’s hard to practice in our culture of outrage, but as Christians, we can disagree honorably. “Here I stand, I can do no other” is meant for history-altering wars over justification by faith, not online tussles over public health concerns. The Bible even tells us how to disagree well, and it starts by interrogating our tendencies to judge and ridicule each other: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?” (Romans 14:10). If you’re deeply disturbed that some fellow Christian has either too much energy or too much apathy about COVID-19, just keep in mind: “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). Do your research, follow your conscience, and share your thoughts when fitting, but remember that you don’t have to set the world straight. God’s going to do that himself.

Amidst all the competing voices, it’s vital that we hear one voice above all: the sure teachings of our Lord who told us about the world we’d walk through as we await his return. Even if you’re hard-wired to be a denier or a contrarian or a conspiracy theorist, no Christian should diminish Jesus’ clear warning that there will be wars and famines and plagues and global crises as signs that the end is coming. The exact ratio of rumor to reality differs in each situation, but Jesus foresaw such signs, for those with eyes to see.

As his followers, we’re not called to rabid speculation or end-times fanaticism. But we also shouldn’t ignore, neglect, or discount the many ways we’re urged to stay ready. What does this readiness look like? It’s not the clenched, bunkered hoarding of a doomsday prepper. Nor is it the scoffing condescension of those who claim the moral high ground in every crisis and ridicule the clamoring peasants below. Instead, Christian readiness is a confident and generous mindset grounded in the faithfulness of God. It’s prayers like this: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). And it’s people like this: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future” (Proverbs 31:25).

How can we keep smiling at the future in a world of trouble? Because even when crises sweep away our sense of normalcy, we who believe the promises of God find ourselves standing on something more stable than “normal.” Beneath the wind and the waves, there’s a rock. We’re standing on Christ. As Christians, we’re united to him, so that nothing can sever us from his life and love. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us” (Romans 8:35, 37). We don’t ultimately trust in statistics or countermeasures, guidelines or quarantines, test kits or cures. Yes, keep washing your hands and stop touching your face—be vigilant and diligent—but always make gospel reminders your wisest daily protocol.

At the same time, keep in mind that our trust in God doesn’t cancel our other roles and relationships. We’re dual citizens—citizens of heaven and citizens on earth. As Christians, we’re often called to swim upstream in our culture. But our faith doesn’t render us independent from society’s concerns. As ambassadors for Christ, we want to be the very best citizens and neighbors, not the most distant or dismissive. Courtesy, not condescension, is the proper attitude for all who’ve inherited an unshakeable kingdom solely by grace. We should be eager to honor our authorities, serve our fellow man, and act in solidarity with our communities as wisdom and courtesy dictate. “Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to slander no one, to avoid fighting, and to be kind, always showing gentleness to all people” (Titus 3:1–2). We honor God best not by dismissing city officials or ignoring our neighbors, but by honoring and serving them as God requires.

After all, a crisis doesn’t cancel our call to serve. A crisis opens doors. Hurricane Harvey provoked an outpouring of service in our city that we’ll never forget. To this day, traces of love and generosity and the dirtiest forms of tangible service mark our shared memories. If COVID-19 remains with us for any length of time, I fully expect the church to respond the same way. Because Christ is always calling us into new and fresh acts of love.

In this particular season, our initial calling is clear: help the most vulnerable. The category of “most vulnerable” shifts from crisis to crisis. In a flood, it depends on your location. In some epidemics, children are most vulnerable. In the Holocaust, it was the Jews. With COVID-19, all of us are susceptible, but those most vulnerable have been clearly identified—the elderly, those with underlying health concerns, and those whose medical needs might be neglected if hospitals and medical resources become overwhelmed. Over time, categories of vulnerability will morph and expand, perhaps focusing as much on economics as the epidemic.

Either way, those who feel less endangered shouldn’t grumble about the more vulnerable. Rather, we should all gladly endure inconveniences to participate in national and local efforts to mitigate what we’re facing together. To weather a crisis well, the least vulnerable must remain as concerned as the most vulnerable. One ancient leader asked, “When will there be justice in Athens? There will be justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as outraged as those who are.” Isn’t the simplest definition of love to care about others more than yourself?

If this disruption lasts even a few more weeks, we’ll keep realizing ways we can serve each other. In any crisis, this means minimizing risks while maximizing love. But we shouldn’t worry about getting the recipe just right. God promises the right mixture of wisdom and love to all who enter the arenas of compassion or justice or generosity. Some of what we do will be organic, and some of it organized, some of it private and some public, but God will show us the way. Just as we shouldn’t rush to be hoarders, we shouldn’t lust to be heroes. Most small needs won’t feel desperate, and our meeting them won’t feel heroic. But such is our work in the kingdom of God, and blessed is the man who sees the magic of grace at work in the mundane.

Because COVID-19 isn’t the only thing that’s contagious. Faith and hope and kindness and service can also spread. Over spring break, I took the family for ice cream. When we got to the register, the clerk was holding a $20 bill. A stranger had paid for us. I looked around, but saw no one. When the clerk handed me the change, I was still surprised enough that I just put it in my pocket. A few minutes later, it felt weird, and even wrong, that I’d received such grace and then pocketed the overflow. But maybe that’s a good illustration of how we often treat God’s grace. He surprises us, pays what we owe, blesses us, and leaves us with extra. But we just passively pocket his goodness and walk away, when there are so many more people to bless, and a bottomless spring of grace God wants to share.

The world needs this grace—the grace of God in Christ through his church. And the world has gotten smaller. We’re not spending our entire lives in a single county anymore. We’re not sailing across uncharted oceans. We’re not sending letters by horse-and-rider. We now cross the planet in a single day, carrying whatever we carry with us. We’re a global community and a global economy, constantly connected by politics and trade and travel and technology, but also by our vast network of human contact. Perhaps like me, you’ve walked into a store recently, paid for something, and wondered how many other fingers have touched that glassy touchscreen.

Epidemics reveal how much human life depends on interaction. Interaction means influence (or influenza). We touch each other, and influence each other, and share what’s in us and on us, far more than we ever imagine.

As Christians, we should ask ourselves, “What are we doing with all these touches?” We never come to an interaction empty-handed. Our hands are always full. In our hearts we carry the bread of life, a Savior with hope and healing, a living water never contaminated or corrupted. And as Jesus showed when he fed thousands, his bread can be shared and shared and shared again, and it never runs out.

COVID-19 is taking every opportunity to spread. Oh, that Christians would become this contagious, this passionate about spreading! We don’t even have to create lots of new contacts to get started. The spread can simply take place through the daily contacts we already enjoy in the normal course of life. I have no doubt that God wants to use every last Christian to spread his grace throughout your sphere of influence as we move beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

Which reminds me of something majestic from the life of Jesus himself. You might have noticed that Jesus was always touching the sick and the unwanted. Lepers, bleeding women, broken men, children pushed away by others, a friend’s fevered mother-in-law.

Under Israel’s law, “clean” and “unclean” were two of the major legal categories. When the clean touched the unclean, the clean became unclean. But here comes Jesus, from heaven to earth, from the realm of all that’s good to the realm where every good thing is corrupted. This clean one starts touching what’s unclean. But now, when clean touches unclean, the unclean becomes clean. Jesus was contagious. He shared who he was and what he had, walking through a dirty and unclean world to do it.

We may not be able to heal with a word or declare someone’s sins forgiven. But we can point people to Jesus, the one who can. And we can lean into this crisis and not away from it, taking every opportunity to do good and cultivate new character and collect vital wisdom for the years to come. So whether this crisis lasts just another week or stretches into months, let’s make the most of it. Let’s ask God to recalibrate our lives as we relearn how to number our days, lift our eyes to the harvest, and spread what’s truly worth spreading.