Joy, Love, and the Coronavirus: A Pastoral Letter
In case you haven't heard, the Coronavirus is here and we should be AFRAID. At least that's the prescription from the gatekeepers of our news outlets and social media. So far it appears that Wall Street is taking this medicine, which has caused wild swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. I noticed this morning at the gym that every cable news outlet (thankfully I can watch all of them at the same time!) is engaged in a rousing competition to see who can design the most devastating DJIA ticker. I think CNBC wins with their "Market TURMOIL" graphic that includes a bright red font, an enormous arrow pointing down, and grainy images of masks and HAZMAT suits.
I do not write any of this to make light of the Coronavirus situation. The virus has already affected many lives, and at this very moment many people are grieving the loss of loved ones or suffering through significant physical pain. But I do want to challenge two common responses to the Coronavirus: fear and self-interest.
A Joy That Overwhelms Fear
Two weeks ago at City Church we made our way through Mark 5:21-43, which poignantly shows us the authority of Jesus over illness and death. Sick for twelve years with an illness that causes social shame in addition to physical distress? That's nothing for Jesus. He can heal you with the hem of his garment! Sick with an illness that eventually causes your death before Jesus can make it to your house? No problem! Jesus can walk into your bedroom, throw open the blinds and wake you up from death just as parents would wake their daughter up from a nap.
Followers of Jesus can therefore be honest about the realness and horror of illness and death without being locked in fear, because the authority of Jesus deals our fear a lethal blow. Will Jesus always heal our earthly ailments? No. But he always maintains authority over them. And at all times we remain his spiritual sons and daughters, which means that illness and death never have the final word!
Keep in mind the certain hope for God's people! When King Jesus returns in victorious glory, God himself will give us resurrection bodies. Then we’ll enjoy eternal LIFE with God, an eternity where sickness and death and mourning will be no more. In that sense Jesus always heals, a healing made possible by his journey to the cross and his resurrection from the grave. There he defeated the power of sin and death, which is why today we sing (1 Corinthians 15:54b-55):
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"
Should we be sorrowful and even angry that illness and death are part of this world? Yes! But we don't have to be afraid. Instead we can live with joyful hope, singing the praises of the authoritative King Jesus, the king who calls us his children. This kind of joy overwhelms our fear.
A Joy That Unleashes Sacrificial Love
Crises often promote self-interest. When we're afraid, we tend look out for ourselves. There is of course an honorable, godly kind of zeal to protect our families and avoid foolish risk-taking. There is also a selfish kind of zeal in which we look out for ourselves without much (or any) concern for the way our actions affect those around us.
But the joy of being the children of King Jesus can satisfy us so profoundly that we are unleashed to sacrificially pour ourselves out for others rather than retreating to our fearful, self-protecting cocoons. Since we ultimately look forward to eternal life with God, we can consider the interests of others more significant than our own (see Philippians 2:1-4), even if the earthly costs for doing so are substantial.
And by the way, people might see our joyous hope and ask about the reason for it! In his book "The Rise of Christianity", Rodney Stark considers the surprising growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire and concludes that Christian compassion in the face of catastrophic plagues was a significant factor. Consider this observation of Christian service in the midst of a plague that began in 260 AD and at its peak was killing 5,000 people per day in Rome. Dionysius (then the Bishop of Alexandria) wrote:
"Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains."
Dionysius also wrote:
"Other people would not think this a time for festival [but] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy."
And Rodney Stark reflects on this by concluding that:
"At a time when all other faiths were called to question, Christianity offered explanation and comfort. Even more important, Christian doctrine provided a prescription for action. That is, the Christian way appeared to work."
(special thanks to Alan Cross for gathering all of these quotes).
In other words, crises are often catalytic opportunities for people to encounter Jesus and put their faith in him, especially when Christians live with sacrificial zeal.
How Then Shall We Live in the Face of the Coronavirus?
1. Consume more Scripture than news.
It's wise to be informed, but let's fill ourselves up with Scripture instead of cable news and social media. Scripture immersion drives out fear. News immersion stockpiles fear.
2. Avoid news sources that promote fear instead of providing helpful information.
I have friends who work in the news media, and I have great respect for what they do and the value that news media can provide. However, not all media sources are created equal. Sources that mainly cause alarm (bold fonts, red fonts, HAZMAT suits, "microscope" illustrations of the virus, doomsday charts and statistics, etc.) provide little value and can even be harmful. Decisions that can be profitable for a news company can (at times) be detrimental to the common good. So let's pursue news sources that are balanced and helpful rather than alarmist. This article from Scientific American is an excellent example.
3. Bring your fears directly to God in prayer.
As one Puritan author has said, "pray brief prayers often." This is such an effective daily strategy for combatting fear. There's no reason to wait to pray until our "formal" devotional times. Pray now!
4. Consider possible opportunities to sacrificially love your neighbors.
If the virus threatens us directly, how might God be calling you to love your neighbors? Which people in your community might be particularly vulnerable? How can you help bear their burdens rather than focusing only on your own? It's better to start thinking about these questions now rather than reacting emotionally when a crisis escalates.
City Church family - I love you all. Be blessed.