Article by Paul D. Miller, Professor, Georgetown University
There’s something antiquated about our enforced #coronacation. Like peasants in the 14th century warding off the plague-ridden and the unclean, we have abandoned human contact. Handshakes are out; elbow bumps are in. Our cities are empty, our marketplaces abandoned, our festivals depopulated. My family has survived 9/11, the anthrax attacks, war in Afghanistan, the Beltway Sniper, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Snowmaggedon, and two earthquakes.
Yet none of those events accomplished what the COVID-19 global pandemic has: civilization has ground to a halt.
I believe there’s a blessing here, much like the little girl who, given a large pile of manure on Christmas, celebrates because a pony must be around somewhere. We’ve been given a pile of manure in the form of a global pandemic. Thousands are dead, thousands more will die, and the living will be poorer and more frightened for years to come.
Where’s the pony?
Our Idolatrous Age
I grew up around computers, with access to health care, and never far from a TV, a refrigerator, a supermarket, a car, and a phone. My kids are even more saturated with tech, convenience, and the trappings of post-industrial civilization. The tools of civilization exist to empower us, to make survival a given and convenience affordable. These are good things, and I’m glad we have them.
But tools give us power, and power holds danger. When we have enormously powerful tools constantly at our disposal, that power starts to feel natural. The proximity and ubiquity of tech and convenience breeds a certain attitude: an assumed near-invincibility, a quasi-omniscience. Every problem is solvable, every question answerable.
The proximity and ubiquity of tech and convenience breeds a certain attitude: an assumed near-invincibility, a quasi-omniscience.
Out of toilet paper? Amazon can bring us more. Not feeling well? There’s a doctor down the road and a health-insurance plan to pay for it. “Dad, can you help with my homework?” Ask Siri and Google.
Ancient Greeks would’ve looked at citizens of postmodernity and called us gods.
Civilization breeds hubris. This feeling of near-invincibility infects how we look at ourselves, at others, at the natural world and, ultimately, at God. Sickened with affluenza, we need one another less, we look at nature as either a problem to solve or a resource to exploit, and we think of God hardly at all. Jesus warned that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Simply living inside the bubble of our tech-powered civilization is a form of fabulous, God-blinding wealth.
To be clear, civilization is better than its alternative. I don’t mean to suggest that we should indulge in a luddite rejection of science, technology, and modern convenience. Without science, the pandemic would be several orders of magnitude worse, and I wouldn’t have a laptop on which to type these thoughts.
This feeling of near-invincibility infects how we look at ourselves, at others, at the natural world and, ultimately, at God.
But all good things can become idols. There’s a reason that ultimate idolatry in the Bible is portrayed as a wealthy and powerful city. Great civilizations always involve great concentrations of power and wealth. They are, like Babel, Rome, and Washington, wondrous to behold. They testify to the creativity and ingenuity of their human creators and, however dimly, to the Creator. And like Babel in Genesis and Babylon in Revelation, they too often become the focus of our idolatrous admiration, particularly when we deceive ourselves into believing we are its architects.
Gift of COVID-19
When these great city falls, do we despair among the ruins? Italians under quarantine are singing and playing instruments from their balconies to cheer one another up, to recreate human community. Quarantine helped them need one another. These simple impromptu concerts, these little neighborhood symphonies, are a snapshot of what is possible when civilization deserts us. Instead of despairing among the ruins, we sing, go for a walk, roast marshmallows with the neighbors.
It’s the feeling of perfect security which is aberrant, disordered, and dangerous, not its opposite.
As C. S. Lewis wrote about living with the atomic bomb, “the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together.” If we’re going to die from the bomb or, in our case, be quarantined or sickened, let us pass the time “praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children . . . not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs,” or germs.
The COVID-19 pandemic can return to us a realization that was normal throughout human history but has become oddly rare: the feeling that life is tenuous; that a simple act of neighbor love is the first, and often last, duty we owe; that civilization is a fragile achievement; and—here is the key—that these feelings are, in fact, normal and good. It’s the feeling of perfect security that is aberrant, disordered, and dangerous, not its opposite.
If you’ve felt these truths as you read the headlines in recent days—that mix of discomfort, fear, gratitude, and a little bit of exhilaration—there’s your pony. Care for it well.
Paul D. Miller is a professor in the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
On August 17, 2017, cars packed the interstates surrounding Houston as people scrambled to evacuate. Hurricane Harvey was headed in, and millions were headed out.
The next morning, a picture went viral. It was a line of trucks pulling boats. These vehicles also crawled, bumper to bumper on the interstate, but what the internet slowly realized was that these trucks weren’t headed out—they were heading in.
Upon hearing the evacuation orders, these people ran into the storm to help.
Ever since that moment, I’ve been haunted by a question: is this a picture of the American church? Are we the kind of church, who, like the Savior we proclaim (Matt. 14:25), walks into the storm? Or, when the storm comes, do we gather our own and flee?
Salvation Turns Us Outward
One of the primary postures of a Christian is outward. Our salvation means that the curse of the inward curve of sin is broken, and we’re now free to turn outward—to love God and neighbor (Gal. 5:1). Like Abraham, we’re blessed in order to be a blessing to others (Gen. 22:17–18).
Our salvation means that the curse of the inward curve of sin is broken, and we are now free to turn outward—to love God and neighbor.
This is the church’s moment to rise to its call. We stand at the beginning of a crisis. Even if we don’t know exactly how bad this will be, we certainly know that fear is more viral than any virus.
Of course, we must remind ourselves that we have nothing to fear (Deut. 31:8; Matt. 14:27). But it’s equally important to remind ourselves that we don’t drive out fear by wishing it away—we drive out fear by acting in love. Love is what replaces fear (1 John 4:18), and love is always outward—to God and neighbor.
So we must walk into this storm. We must know that we have been equipped, by faith in Jesus, to have the metaphorical trucks and boats necessary to do so (Eph. 2:10; 2 Tim. 3:17).
Here, then, are nine ways Christians can practically love our neighbors in this moment of crisis.
1. Glorify God by Obeying Authorities
One of the primary ways regular people can help curb the spread of a virus is to comply with recommendations (Rom. 13:1–5). Remember we do this not in fear and self-preservation, but as an act of love to the vulnerable whom this sickness might kill. Much of this compliance can become worship-filled acts. Wash your hands and say a 20-second prayer for your neighbors while you do so: “Lord, protect the vulnerable from this virus.” Bump elbows instead of hugging, and intentionally pass peace while you do so: “Peace be with you.”
Of course, you know you’re supposed to do these things, but you may not have realized that these ordinary acts of self-restraint are incredible acts of neighbor love, and should be acknowledged as courageous and spiritually significant. Over the next few months our lives will be filled with the inconvenience of canceling cherished events—but it so happens that self-sacrificial love is always inconvenient.
2. Organize Errands for the Elderly and the Immunocompromised
This virus appears to discriminate. Children (praise God!) aren’t being affected nearly as much as the elderly. Further, healthy people will most likely be fine, while the immunocompromised or those with chronic health conditions are at greater risk. If you (like me) are low-risk, then work with your church or community to organize ways to keep at-risk people safely quarantined and to bring them anything they need.
Over the next few months our lives will be filled with the inconvenience of canceling cherished events—but it so happens that self-sacrificial love is always inconvenient.
The church is well-practiced at bringing meals to new parents or grieving relatives; now is our time to use these systems to benefit the vulnerable. I’m a millennial, and this is an incredible moment for our generation to serve. Singles and couples without kids are especially well-poised to serve.
3. Admit There’s a Crisis, But Don’t Panic
The best leaders don’t lie or hide reality. But they also don’t panic. They tell the truth and lead courageously. One of the unique things about living in a non-authoritarian country is that local leaders can have incredible influence at times such as these.
Pastors, business, and community leaders should understand that, like it or not, they’re suddenly in an incredibly significant role. We can also do this as a collective voice—in our homes, schools, and social media. The church can help lead the public by not downplaying a pandemic that will certainly kill thousands and thousands of more people, but also by stewarding conversation toward outward acts of service, not inward acts of self-protection.
4. Share Good Information; Ignore Bad
This isn’t the time when we need lots of armchair epidemiologists voicing opinions on stats. This is a time when we need to give deference to experts and, importantly, not cloud the air with misinformation (Prov. 15:2). Love your neighbors by sharing important information—don’t harm them by being unwise about what you share.
It’s helpful to share and footnote reliable information; it’s harmful to circulate hearsay (Eph. 4:29). Before you share something on social media, love your neighbor by taking a few minutes to at least read the whole article, and better yet, do your best to verify it’s coming from a reputable source.
5. Serve Healthcare Workers
In a pandemic, we should think of health-care workers as we did first responders during 9/11. They’re the ones risking life and limb to protect others. We should be praying for them, supporting them, bringing meals to them, offering them childcare, and supporting in any ways possible. They’re voluntarily walking into burning buildings to do things we cannot do, so let’s help them with the things we can do.
6. Spend Money as an Act of Economic Love
One of the huge effects of pandemics is fiscal shutdown. The young coffeeshop owner probably won’t get sick, but her business might die if people stop ordering. We must obey authorities, but within those boundaries we must see our spending as an act of charity, of which the root word is caritas—that is, love. America runs on small business—this isn’t a political slogan. It’s plain reality.
Before you share something to social media, love your neighbor by taking a few minutes to at least read the whole article, and better yet, do your best to verify it’s coming from a reputable source.
Flourishing local economies are real threads of shalom. It would be easy to let fear stop you from participating, but this is actually an opportunity to spend more money than you otherwise would at local establishments—so long as you stay within the bounds of authorities’ recommendations.
If you can’t go to local establishments, buy gift cards from them online to use later. Consider getting takeout from local places when you’d normally go out to eat, rather than hoarding groceries. Spend money intentionally as a way of loving others through working to help sustain the economy.
7. Feed and Watch Other People’s Kids While Schools Are Closed
One of the most difficult things about schools closing is that the brunt will fall most heavily on the vulnerable. Many children rely on school meals to eat. Many parents can’t work if their kids aren’t at school. Those of us with white-collar jobs we can do at home will make it work. We’ll work remotely, take turns watching kids with spouses, and catch up once the kids are in bed. Many can’t work remotely or leave their kids alone to go to work.
Churches in my hometown of Richmond are coordinating with local schools and government efforts to help provide food and volunteer services for at-risk children. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if, in the wake of this crisis, our collective memory was of the church joining hands with its neighbors to serve the vulnerable?
8. Renew Your Household with Spiritual Rhythms
Your household is at an incredible moment. Suddenly, what has always been true is plainly evident—we live in a dangerous world, and your house stands as a missional outpost of love amid that danger.
Spend money intentionally as a way of loving others through working to help sustain the economy.
In a time of voluntary or enforced quarantine, all normal household rhythms have been disrupted, which means this is an incredible opportunity to form new rhythms that guide you toward God’s power in a time of human powerlessness (read Scripture together).
Take this as an opportunity to reframe how your household spends its time and practice habits that guide you toward courage in a cultural moment of fear (pray together).
Cultivate rhythms that guide you to concentration and presence, in a blitz of information and alerts (strongly consider limiting the frequency you check the news to twice a day).
Above all, cling to spiritual disciplines that guide you toward a household gathered in love, rather than scattered in fear (have intentional conversations).
9. Don’t Stop Small, Low-Risk Gatherings
Time and again, history has shown that our bodies don’t just need health; our souls need hope. The human capacity to endure in the harshest of circumstances is incredible—so long as there is hope. For Christians, this means reminding ourselves that Jesus is our only hope in life and in death, and communal worship is central to this hope. Christian community is the primary place where we process our anxieties, and preach the good news of Jesus to each other. While now is a time where we absolutely must significantly alter the way we meet, we must not give up small and safe gatherings, even if that means we have to connect by digital means.
Our bodies don’t just need health; our souls need hope. . . . Listen to authorities to stay safe, but fight for Christian community to stay alive.
Consider that this is an amazing time to experience and remember what has always been true: the church isn’t a building, but a people summoned together in the name of God. Consider that this is an amazing time to live in solidarity with the global persecuted church, which always has to meet in homes. Consider, above all, that by clinging to small and safe gatherings, we resist isolation as an act of hope.
There are great resources to help you think through how to do this wisely and safely. Understand that your soul needs friendship like your lungs need air. Your spirit needs community much more than your house needs more supplies. Listen to authorities to stay safe, but fight for Christian community to stay alive. These things are not mutually exclusive. We can—and we must—find ways to gather.
Walking into the Storm
My prayer is that God would lead the American church into a moment of maturity, where we remember our core identity: a body of believers who are blessed so that we might become a blessing.
Let us, then, like the Savior we proclaim, walk into this storm.
(Happy Birthday to my Mother (Ellen Mae Sndograss Hester – 1925-1999)
Suffering Will Always Change You
Article by Vaneetha Rendall Risner
Several years ago, a close friend walked away from faith.
I still remember our last conversation about God, as she told me that he had not come through for her. She had prayed and asked him to change her situation, but things continued to get worse. She asked angrily, “Is this how a good God treats his children?” and went on to list all that God had not done for her, despite her faithfulness. She was tired of doing the right thing because it hadn’t gotten her anywhere.
I understand how my friend felt. I too have had unwritten, unilateral contracts with God where I tried to live a righteous life and in return expected God to bless me by fixing all my problems — especially if I prayed and read the Bible. After I became a Christian as a teenager, I felt sure that God had promised me an easy life and all I had to do was live it.
For years I felt God fulfilled his part, but my confidence eroded after my first miscarriage. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. Then a marriage crisis almost undid me, and just as I started healing, our infant son died unexpectedly.
What Suffering Produced in Me
Each time something else went wrong, I begged God to fix it, to take away the pain, to restore things to the way they were. When things kept getting worse, I angrily stopped talking to God, wondering if he was even listening.
I realized, however, like Peter, that there was nowhere to go, because only Jesus had the words of life (John 6:68). I cried out asking God to help me to trust him, to reconnect, and to find hope in what seemed like impenetrable darkness. I needed peace and I couldn’t find it anywhere besides Christ. It was then that my faith radically changed. I found an inexplicable peace and hope that I had not experienced before — my easy trouble-free life had not yielded anything but an enjoyment of the present. But suffering was producing something unshakeable.
Suffering is a catalyst that forces us to move in one direction or another. No one comes through suffering unchanged.
Suffering Always Changes You
Paul says, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5).
Here, the Christian’s suffering will ultimately result in a hope that won’t put us to shame. But we do not go directly from suffering to hope. For some, like my friend, suffering leads to rebellion and anger, crushing their hope, not bolstering it. What’s the difference? Why does suffering increase faith and hope in God for some and destroy it for others?
I’ve pondered that question for years. I am grateful that God chose to reveal himself to me through suffering, yet grieved when others only see the suffering and not the loving God behind it. Some of the difference lies in how we understand and experience hope and suffering in our walk with God.
How to Find Hope in Suffering
To find hope through suffering, I cannot be tied to a specific outcome. My hope is not that my situation will turn out a certain way, or that God will give me exactly what I want, but rather that God will always do what’s best for me. It is a living hope in a Savior who loves me, not in an outcome I feel entitled to. I need to trust that God wouldn’t allow anything that isn’t best for me, and that everything in my life is put there for my good (Romans 8:28). God’s love has been poured into me, and all of Scripture proclaims that love. The cross displays it and the Holy Spirit seals it.
But if I do not trust God and believe that he loves me, I will not see how my suffering could be good. In the moment, it is painful; it certainly doesn’t feel good. I will start judging God’s faithfulness and love based on what I can see and whether God answers my prayers the way I desire. I will walk away before I get to see the end, experiencing the hardest part of my trials without ever getting to the good part. I won’t see anything to rejoice in and my suffering will seem pointless.
Yet when my hope is in a God whom I know loves me, God shapes me through my trials. When my son died, my faith was shaken, and I doubted everything around me. But when I cried out to God, he poured himself and his love into me. My faith grew stronger.
So, when I learned of my debilitating disease years later, I was distraught at first, but remembered how faithful God had been to me. I didn’t panic; I knew from experience that God would give me all that I needed. Scripture reminds us that being burdened and despairing of life itself can strengthen our faith (2 Corinthians 1:8–9). This is because the deepest trials make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead. The more we endure with Christ and find him sufficient, the stronger our faith becomes.
This endurance produces character. Suffering softens my rough edges, makes me less judgmental, and helps me value people over things. It forces me to focus on what’s important in life.
As a result, I’m more compassionate, more self-controlled, more content, more prayerful, more passionate about the Bible, and more excited about heaven than I would have been otherwise. Left to myself, I’d be more irritable, critical, and impatient than I already am, but my physical limitations are teaching me kindness, patience, and grace. All my suffering has been an opportunity for growth.
My hope is that one day I will behold God’s glory and be transformed (2 Corinthians 3:18), and suffering gives me a foretaste of both. While I cannot see now what I hope for (Romans 8:24), God’s promises in Scripture and my firsthand experience of his faithfulness assure me that I will not be disappointed. I have tasted that faithfulness in the deepest, most treacherous valleys where God’s presence has dissolved my fear (Psalm 23:4), so I am certain his promises will never fail.
Therefore I can rejoice in my suffering, knowing God is using it to produce in me what I could not produce in myself. My faith is stronger, my character more like Christ’s and my hope more secure. Thanks be to God that as we trust in him, assured that he’s doing what’s best for us, suffering does indeed produce hope.
5 Lessons from Spurgeon’s Ministry in a Cholera Outbreak
Article by Geoff Chang
As reports of the coronavirus spread around the world, pastors and church leaders are discussing how they should respond to the outbreak. Throughout church history, many pastors have worked through similar challenges. As a young village preacher, Charles Spurgeon admired the Puritan ministers who stayed behind to care for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665.
In fall 1854, the newly called pastor of London’s New Park Street Chapel pastored the congregation amid a major cholera outbreak in the Broad Street neighborhood just across the river.
How did Spurgeon respond?
1. He prioritized local ministry.
During that epidemic of cholera, though I had many engagements in the country, I gave them up that I might remain in London to visit the sick and the dying. I felt that it was my duty to be on the spot in such a time of disease and death and sorrow.
Spurgeon’s popularity had grown throughout the Fenland villages outside Cambridge during his pastorate at Waterbeach. Even after arriving in London, he continued to be invited to preach in those villages throughout the week. During the outbreak, however, Spurgeon recognized his responsibility to be present with the sick and dying. This was not a time to be an itinerant preacher; this was a time to focus on caring for his church and the community in which he lived. He would not outsource this task to his deacons or other church leaders, but remained in London in order to fulfill his duty.
2. He adjusted his meetings, but continued meeting.
The Broad Street Cholera Outbreak of 1854 occurred in August and September of that year, and its effects were felt in the weeks and months to come. The neighborhood where Spurgeon’s church met was not quarantined, so they were able to continue meeting throughout those months. Interestingly, no record of the sermons Spurgeon preached during those days remain. Perhaps the outbreak forced the congregation to adjust some of their previous practices, including the transcription of sermons. Additionally, Spurgeon was likely too busy in those days to edit sermons for publication.
Yet we know that the congregation continued meeting during those days, because the church’s minute books contain records of congregational meetings throughout fall 1854. In those books, amid all the pastoral challenges of the outbreak, Spurgeon and his deacons continued to receive new members, pursue inactive members, observe the Lord’s Supper, and practice all the other normal activities of a church. Not only that, but in retrospect it was particularly during this time, when news of death raged all around the city, that Spurgeon found Londoners most receptive to the gospel:
If there ever be a time when the mind is sensitive, it is when death is abroad. I recollect, when first I came to London, how anxiously people listened to the gospel, for the cholera was raging terribly. There was little scoffing then.
In other words, not only did Spurgeon gather his church amid the outbreak, but he saw in these gatherings a uniquely powerful opportunity for the gospel.
Given our current limitations, our greatest opportunities will likely come in the aftermath of the outbreak, when (in God’s mercy) the church is once again able to gather. Those gatherings of the church will not only be a sweet reunion of God’s people, but also a tremendous opportunity for preaching the gospel to those desperately looking for hope.
3. He cared for the sick.
As the pastor, Spurgeon not only continued to gather his church, but he also made himself available throughout the week, working tirelessly to visit the sick and grief-stricken:
In the year 1854, when I had scarcely been in London twelve months, the neighborhood in which I labored was visited by Asiatic cholera, and my congregation suffered from its inroads. Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave.
In these visits, Spurgeon prayed with the sick and grieving, and pointed them to the hope of the gospel. But more than just bringing gospel content, his presence communicated something of God’s comfort to his people. Though these visits were often full of fear and grief, there were also glorious occasions of faith and joy:
I went home, and was soon called away again; that time, to see a young woman. She also was in the last extremity, but it was a fair, fair sight. She was singing—though she knew she was dying—and talking to those round about her, telling her brothers and sisters to follow her to heaven, bidding goodbye to her father, and all the while smiling as if it had been her marriage day. She was happy and blessed.
While pastors are limited in their ability to be physically present with their people in the current outbreak, they must continue to remain in touch with their people, especially those who are must vulnerable. Through the use of technology and others means of communication, we have the responsibility to shepherd our people through this trial.
4. He was open to new evangelistic opportunities.
Spurgeon did not limit himself merely to visiting members of his congregation, but was willing to visit “persons of all ranks and religions”:
All day, and sometimes all night long, I went about from house to house, and saw men and women dying, and, oh, how glad they were to see my face! When many were afraid to enter their houses lest they should catch the deadly disease, we who had no fear about such things found ourselves most gladly listened to when we spoke of Christ and of things divine.
On one occasion, at 3 a.m., Spurgeon was summoned to visit a dying man. Surprisingly, this was not a Christian, but someone who had opposed him:
That man, in his lifetime, had been wont to jeer at me. In strong language, he had often denounced me as a hypocrite. Yet he was no sooner smitten by the darts of death than he sought my presence and counsel, no doubt feeling in his heart that I was a servant of God, though he did not care to own it with his lips.
Take advantage of any opportunities you might have to preach the gospel to those who are afraid.
Spurgeon went right away, but by the time he arrived, there was little he could do.
I stood by his side, and spoke to him, but he gave me no answer. I spoke again; but the only consciousness he had was a foreboding of terror, mingled with the stupor of approaching death. Soon, even that was gone, for sense had fled, and I stood there, a few minutes, sighing with the poor woman who had watched over him, and altogether hopeless about his soul.
Not every evangelistic opportunity will result in dramatic conversions. But during times of disease, surprising opportunities may arise. Therefore, take advantage of any opportunities you have to preach the gospel to those who are afraid.
5. He entrusted his life to God.
As Spurgeon gave himself to this pastoral work, he soon grew physically and mentally exhausted. He also began to fear for his own safety. Amid his fears, though, he learned to entrust himself to God and to his faithfulness:
At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardor to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions; but, soon, I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it.
I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up in a shoemaker’s window in the Great Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore, in a good bold handwriting, these words from Psalm 91:9-12, “Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.”
The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvelous power, I adore the Lord my God.
As we entrust our lives to God and faithfully carry out our responsibilities, we have an opportunity to demonstrate what hope and peace look like in the midst of death.
Here, Spurgeon does not promise that no Christian will ever die of sickness. Rather, the Christian “[need] not dread [sickness], for he has nothing to lose, but everything to gain, by death.”
Once again, pastors must exercise wisdom and take appropriate precautions as they care for the sick. At the same time, our security cannot finally be in those precautions; it must be in God. As we entrust our lives to him and faithfully carry out our responsibilities, we have an opportunity to demonstrate what hope and peace look like in the midst of death.
Ordinary Ministry in Extraordinary Times
In many ways, Spurgeon’s example during the cholera outbreak of 1854 follows the pattern of normal pastoral ministry on every occasion. Pastors are to be present with their people, care for the suffering, be faithful in evangelism, and model trust in God through it all. The main difference is that during an outbreak, there is a heightened reality of suffering and death. Therefore, the work becomes more intense and urgent, and the opportunities for the gospel multiply.
Certainly, our task in looking to church history is not simply to copy all that was done before. This coronavirus outbreak presents unique challenges that previous pastors did not face. We need to exercise wisdom appropriate to our current day. But the core of our ministry remains: preach the gospel.
Speaking in 1866, amid another cholera outbreak, Spurgeon gave this charge to pastors and all other Christians:
And now, again, is the minister’s time; and now is the time for all of you who love souls. You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good. You have the Balm of Gilead; when their wounds smart, pour it in. You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him. Lift high the cross before their eyes. Tell them that God became man that man might be lifted to God. Tell them of Calvary, and its groans, and cries, and sweat of blood. Tell them of Jesus hanging on the cross to save sinners. Tell them that: “There is life for a look at the Crucified One.”
Tell them that he is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by him. Tell them that he is able to save even at the eleventh hour, and to say to the dying thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
University campuses across the nation are canceled due to COVID-19. For many Christian students this pulls you away from your campus ministries and the churches in your university context. Although you’re still taking classes online you may feel you have a lot of time on your hands, and no help for growing spiritually. You may be tempted to use this time to catch up on Netflix, video games, social media, or simply to take a break from the busy schedule you’ve been keeping.
(And the main points made in this article have great applicability to adults of all ages as we go through this mandated time of ‘social distancing’ and more isolation.)
That may be fine for a few days, but I want to challenge you to not waste this unique season God has provided. Endeavor to deepen your intimacy with Christ and to continue to pursue his command to make disciples. School may be canceled, but the mission isn’t. Paul instructs us:
Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Eph. 5:15–17)
With this in mind, here are three simple ways you can “redeem the time” the Lord is giving you during this season.
1. Don’t Isolate Yourself
The book of Proverbs says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1).
One of the enemy’s primary strategies is to get believers isolated so he can take them out. If you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel you know that lions first go after the young and the sick, but most of all they attack those isolated from the rest of the herd. “Sin demands to have a man by himself,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed. “The more isolated a person is, the more destructive the power of sin is over him.”
School may be canceled, but the mission isn’t.
I once saw a video of a pack of wolves trying to attack a baby musk ox separated from its herd. As the wolves started to attack, the herd noticed and charged straight toward the action, forming a circle around the baby. They continued circling until the wolves decided to leave. Every follower of Christ needs a community like that. The best way to overcome temptation is to have a group of like-hearted people to run with. Paul warns, “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).
You may not be able to go to your college ministry’s large-group meeting, but you can still connect using technology with a few close believing friends. A weekly call with two or three others can make all the difference in keeping yourself encouraged and motivated spiritually.
If you are the discipler, help the other person make stretch goals in their spiritual disciplines. Goals such as praying for an hour a day, memorizing two verses a week, or fasting once a week are great ways to grow in the Lord. Give them books to read, memorize verses together, labor in prayer together over the phone together. Challenge them to take an online course like Perspectives or one of many provided by The Gospel Coalition.
If in-person discipleship groups are not possible, technology like Zoom or Google+ hangouts can be a great way to continue connecting. The last few summers our ministry has led online discipleship groups, and they’ve been life-changing. We read a book together, discuss it, memorize one verse a week, and then keep each other accountable for some basic spiritual disciplines.
This season is a perfect opportunity to deepen your relationships with those you’re discipling.
My advice for online discipleship groups is to ensure they’re small enough (three to five people) to allow for lots of sharing, accountability, and prayer. It’s also helpful to have clear expectations and at-home learning assignments. Accountability in a situation like this is vital.
3. Use Spare Time to Grow in Wisdom
“A wise person is hungry for knowledge, while the fool feeds on trash” (Prov. 15:14, NLT).
So much of what we encounter in this world is garbage. The problem, though, is that pursuing wisdom isn’t always easy. It doesn’t come from mindlessly scrolling through your newsfeed. God wants to give us real wisdom, his wisdom, but we have to intentionally pray and work for it.
Here’s a truth you need to embrace: you don’t know what you need to know to live the life God has called you to live.
Wisdom is not simply head knowledge; it is a deep understanding of God and how life really works. It is so much deeper than mere intelligence.
Wisdom is not simply head knowledge. Wisdom is a deep understanding of God and how life really works.
The book of Proverbs was written to give knowledge and discernment to the young. You definitely fit in this category if you’re a college student. There is a built-in disadvantage to being young—not having lived long enough to know all the questions you should be asking. Ever heard the phrase “wisdom beyond your years”? There’s a reason people note it when they see it—because it’s rare. As pastor Harold Bullock says, “Teachability is the only shortcut to success in life.”
This is the perfect time to get a jump start on gaining wisdom. Let me challenge you to constantly be pumping your head with great audio resources like an audio Bible, sermon podcasts, or solid audiobooks. Bonus points if you read real paperback books. Setting goals for studying or memorizing Scripture is a perfect way to grow in wisdom. Use time that other people waste to grow in wisdom!
Paul Worcester and his wife, Christy, lead Christian Challenge at California State University, Chico, where they seek to introduce college students to Jesus and raise up multiplying disciples. Paul recently founded Campus Multiplication Network with the goal of training leaders to multiply ministries and churches around the world. Paul is the author of Tips for Starting a College Ministry and the co-author, with Steve Shadrach, of the new edition of The Fuel and The Flame.
More than 130,000 confirmed cases. Nearly 5,000 deaths. Entire countries on lockdown. Sporadic access to testing. And no vaccine. Such headlines recall the outlandish scenarios of science-fiction paperbacks, but right now they represent reality as coronavirus grips the world.
Unfortunately, responses to the pandemic also seem lifted from the pages of a sensational novel. Public reactions have veered from dismissiveness when the virus confined itself to other countries, to hoarding hand sanitizer and masks when it encroached on familiar shores. The stock market has crumbled, limping along at the worst performance in decades. Fights erupt at grocery stores over dwindling stocks of toilet paper. Even churches face strife in this highly charged atmosphere, as pastors who continue services withstand accusations of social irresponsibility, while those who cancel weather outcries about lack of faith.
The histrionics are more than just unseemly. Panic-buying depletes resource from the needy, and detracts focus from the real concern at hand, namely, how to protect those most vulnerable from COVID-19. It’s a question that troubles pastors across the United States, with those ministering in megachurches and those tucked away in the country equally struggling to discern how to shepherd their flocks through the crisis. It’s a question that cuts to the heart of Christian discipleship, as we seek to love one another as Jesus loved us (John 13:34–35).
Unless we think carefully about whom the coronavirus threatens, and respond out of love and not fear, it’s a question we risk getting horribly wrong.
To understand why containment of the novel coronavirus has proved so challenging, think of COVID-19 as a common cold that targets the lungs. Coronaviruses aren’t new, and in fact they account for up to 30 percent of upper respiratory infections globally. Chances are high that at some point in your life, your stuffy nose, sore throat, and dry cough—all a nuisance but rarely dangerous—arose thanks to a coronavirus.
COVID-19 is as contagious as any coronavirus that causes the common cold. We pass it easily through droplets when we sneeze or cough, even before we notice symptoms of illness. COVID-19 differs from other coronaviruses, however, because it targets the lungs instead of the nose and throat. This explains why most diagnosed people present with fever and cough, without the runny nose and sinus congestion you’d expect from a cold. It also explains why it jeopardizes health-care systems. COVID-19 is a highly communicable virus with the potential to cause pneumonia in numbers that overwhelm hospitals. Italy is living out this threat, with the sudden surge in cases stressing its facilities beyond their capacities.
And yet, most people with COVID-19 don’t get critically sick. Eighty percent of those with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19—and likely more who develop mild symptoms, but don’t seek testing—recover at home without incident. Overall, the mortality rate from this virus is 3 percent, higher than the flu, but multiples lower than that of the Ebola strain that has ravaged Africa. Children, in particular, seem to escape serious illness from COVID-19, a surprising divergence from the U-shaped distribution of illness—highest among the youngest and the oldest in the population—that we typically observe with infectious diseases.
Most of us pocketing hand sanitizer and clearing shelves of bread won’t need medical care for COVID-19. But in our panicked responses, we risk neglecting those who do.
While the overall mortality from COVID-19 is relatively low, the risk of death dramatically rises among those advanced in age and living with chronic illnesses. Mortality shoots up to 15 percent among those older than 60 years of age, and after 80 years the death rate from COVID-19 rises to 22 percent. While the vast majority of the population, including children, will weather coronavirus infections from home, the elderly and infirmed face a high risk of death. Long-term care facilities and geriatricians recognize the dangers, have issued alerts, and recommend against social visits to nursing homes and assisted-living centers to protect those most vulnerable.
The question we should be asking ourselves isn’t which supplies to stockpile in preparation for an apocalypse, but rather how to support those at real risk for losing their lives to this swiftly moving disease.
Loving Our Neighbors
Loving our neighbors during this unsettling period requires we (1) limit the overwhelm on the medical system, so doctors can provide for the sickest, and (2) protect and support those most vulnerable to infection.
Tactics to reduce the health-care burden encompass those recommended by CDC and WHO to “flatten the curve.” As COVID-19 is so highly communicable, we can’t completely contain it. But we can slow its spread such that it doesn’t swamp hospitals and deprive patients of medical care. Many of these measures are common-sense preventative steps—washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice to time it), not touching your face, staying home when you feel unwell, keeping your distance from people who are sneezing, and so on. In communities with confirmed COVID-19 cases, more aggressive social distancing measures are wise, and Daniel Chin offers an excellent review of a stepwise, systematic approach to such efforts.
The question we should be asking ourselves isn’t which supplies to stockpile in preparation for an apocalypse, but rather how to support those at real risk for losing their lives to this swiftly moving disease.
In addition, we should familiarize ourselves with CDC’s recommendations for people at high risk for infection, and ensure the vulnerable in our midst are safe and nurtured. Those for whom COVID-19 poses the greatest danger, are also those who commonly require help from others to manage daily life. CDC recommends that the elderly and chronically ill avoid crowds, close contact, and elective medical visits, but all these guidelines prove complicated when you require assistance with meals, wound care, or dialysis several times weekly.
As churches implement procedures to shield the elderly from illness, we should also remember to reach out to our brothers and sisters, to ensure they have systems in place for support that also limit their chances of infection. And if safety measures cut them off from the spiritual disciplines they hold dear, we need to connect regularly and often, by phone or internet, to remind them of Christ’s love during these trying days.
Our hope rests not in fully stocked shelves and ample disinfectant, but in the saving blood of Christ, who gave his life so that one day all disease and pestilence will vanish from the earth (Rev. 21:4). As the headlines scroll across our screens, and anxiety mounts in our chests, let his love for us, rather than fear for ourselves, spur us to action.
Remember to wash your hands. Remember to stay home when you’re sick. And most of all, remember to do all this not out of panic, but out of love for your neighbor—the 80-year-old in the third pew, the nonagenarian in the choir, the transplant recipient at work—because Christ loved us first.
Kathryn Butler (MD, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons) is a trauma and critical care surgeon who recently left clinical practice to homeschool her children. She has written for Desiring God and Christianity Today, and is the author of Between Life and Death (Crossway, 2019), on end-of-life care through a Christian lens. She blogs at Oceans Rise.
The FAQs: Coronavirus Explained by an Infectious Disease Expert and Pastor
Article by Dr. MIGUEL NÚÑEZ
Along with being pastor for preaching and vision of the International Baptist Church in Santo Domingo, Dr. Miguel Núñez has practiced medicine in different capacities for more than 35 years. He is board-certified in internal medicine and in infectious diseases. He was also an assistant clinical professor of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (1989-97) at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, New Jersey. For this reason, the Gospel Coalition contacted him for information related to the current outbreak of coronavirus from the medical point of view and to offer some words of pastoral wisdom.
What is the coronavirus?
Since the beginning of this year, we’ve been reading and hearing about a family of viruses known as coronaviruses. There are 69 species of this virus, seven of which can affect humans. The rest of the virus species are contracted by animals—mostly pigs, bats, and other small mammals. Its name comes from the fact that on the surface of the virus there are protrusions that correspond to proteins that the virus uses to adhere to other cells it wants to infect.
What is the history of the coronavirus?
The medical community has known about these viruses since the 1960s. However, it wasn’t until 2002 to 2003 when the general population began to become familiar with them due to an outbreak of one of the viruses that occurred in China, eventually called SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). This epidemic was contained in China. According to the World Health Organization, only about 8,000 cases were reported with a mortality rate between 9.5 percent and 10 percent.
Ten years later, another strain of coronavirus emerged in Saudi Arabia, with an extremely high mortality rate of 35 percent. Fortunately, that epidemic was also contained. Unfortunately, 2,400 people were affected, of which about 800 died. This virus was called MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
We wouldn’t hear about a similar virus until December 2019. The first reports of a respiratory syndrome emerged, once again in China, specifically in Wuhan province. The virus has been referred to as SARS Covid-2, and the disease as COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease, 2019).
There are rumors that this virus has mutated, though no mutation has been recognized by medical officials.
How far has this virus spread?
Since then, this virus has spread to more than 115 nations. As of March 11, there are more than 126,300 cases reported in the infected countries. Of these, some 68,285 patients have fully recovered, there are about 53,382 cases considered active, and more than 4,633 people have died. Of the active cases, 89 percent seem to have minor conditions, and the rest are in severe or critical conditions.
How deadly is the new coronavirus?
The average mortality rate is around 3.4 percent. The highest mortality rate was reported in Italy, estimated at a little less than 6 percent. The lowest mortality rate was reported in South Korea, calculated to be around 0.7 percent.
It’s important to note that the mortality rate of this species of coronavirus (COVID-19) is not comparable to the two coronaviruses mentioned above. In reality, the mortality of this new epidemic will probably end up being much lower than reported, since up to 20 percent of patients remain completely asymptomatic, which means they will remain undiagnosed. If the number of cases of coronavirus increases, this increases the denominator with the consequent reduction in the percentage of mortality.
The highest-risk patients are those older than 60 and those who suffer from a chronic disease, either respiratory or another type such as diabetes mellitus or renal failure.
The mortality rate may end up being 1 percent or less, according to a published article in the New England Journal of Medicine. By way of comparison, the common flu in the United States has a mortality rate of approximately 0.1 percent. However, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta estimates that in the current flu season, between 20,000 and 50,000 people will die in the United States.
How is coronavirus transmitted?
Transmission occurs through small droplets of liquid from coughs or sneezes. It can also be transmitted by touching objects these droplets touched. The virus enters through mucosa in the mouth, the nasal route, or the eyes. The incubation period is estimated to be between two and 14 days.
Many wonder how long the coronavirus can live outside the body—anywhere from several hours to several days. Viruses are microscopic organisms that live inside cells. Therefore, they’re alive as long as the cell they inhabit is alive. If the environment or surface on which the virus is located is wet, or has a high degree of humidity, they may be able to remain alive for several days. If the surface is dry, the virus may die within hours.
It’s estimated that each infected patient will transmit the virus to an average of 2.6 people. Most cases of COVID-19 have been reported in people who’ve been in contact with others who had been infected by the virus. However, in several communities there are cases where the disease appeared without any contact with someone infected.
The closer you are to the affected person, the greater your risk of being infected. It should be noted that the CDC considers “close contact” to be about six feet (1.8 meters) away from the person.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
As mentioned above, 20 percent of patients will never develop any symptoms. The observed symptoms are fever, cough, muscle aches, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms are similar to those of a flu, particularly similar to influenza.
Symptoms remain mild in 85 percent to 89 percent of cases, but 11 percent to 15 percent of cases progress to severe and critical symptoms. These patients will have respiratory distress, the development of pneumonia, and even the presentation of hypotension or septic shock.
Why is the situation alarming for many?
Globally, the alarm is due mostly to the number of infected patients, not so much by the mortality rate. The increased number of patients makes the number of deaths due to this virus potentially very high.
Potentially, millions of people would be affected by the virus by the time the epidemic ends. This could produce hundreds of thousands of deaths unless we develop a vaccine or some kind of treatment soon.
Most vaccine experts say we will not have a vaccine before the next 12 to 18 months. Multiple antivirals are being tested, but there is currently no official recommendation for any of them.
What prevention measures should we take?
We recommend frequent hand washing. For medical personnel who handle cases of coronavirus, the use of gloves, gowns, and even glasses may be necessary, depending on the procedure to be performed on the patient.
It’s also recommended that, until this epidemic is considered to be under control, we minimize physical contact with other people (examples: shaking hands, hugging, kissing, and so on).
As for travel safety, it depends on the destination. If you plan to travel to a country where the number of cases has increased, the recommendation is to not travel to that nation.
For example, this week Italy has declared a total quarantine. In fact, a few hours ago Italy closed most shops and restaurants, with the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets. The state of California suspended all meetings of more than a thousand people, and these measures are likely to be tightened in the immediate future. U.S. President Donald Trump decreed a few hours ago the suspension of all flights from Europe.
As believers, how do we need to think about it?
Without a doubt, we must be prudent and responsible, both in observing the recommended measures and also maintaining our health.
The world population seems to be in panic. But for Christians, it’s important to emphasize that there’s no reason to experience such anxiety. Especially when we consider that the God of the heavens and the earth is the same God who controls every microbe, atom, or molecule.
This is a good time for Christians to demonstrate sanity, peace, and hope, recognizing that our lives do not depend on the entry of a micro-organism into our bodies. Instead, it depends on the God who determines the beginning and the end of our history on earth.
The apostle Paul calls us not to be anxious for anything (Phil. 4:6). We can call Christians to peace in the worst circumstances because of God’s sovereign control over his creation.