Guest commentary by Donald K. McKim
The pandemic, COVID-19, is all around us. The range of its reach is global; its power can be deadly. Our lives have been disrupted in so many ways, beyond what we could have imagined just weeks ago.
Life in society is now marked by “social distancing,” working from home and washing our hands as often as possible. Our social fabric seems torn apart as we hunker down in our homes as we hope “this too shall pass.” We hope the pandemic curve flattens, and medical relief can be become available — and effective. Meanwhile waves of worry follow, one after another, with concerns about unemployment, finances and the health of others – especially those we love – as foremost on our minds and in our hearts.
There are no quick cures for a pandemic. We cannot escape its reach and its effects touch us all. What we can do, however, as Christian people, is to look to the resources of Christian faith. Through the centuries, the church has endured pandemics and epidemics and much else, sustained by faith in the God who has created, sustains and loves the world in Jesus Christ. Our theological understandings of God and of ourselves help us through the very worst of times. They give us grounding, a foundation, to face the pandemics of life with the grace and confidence of the children of God (1 John 3:1).
What resources can strengthen and nourish us “in the midst” of our current situation? What can we ponder in this pandemic?
Part of the human community
Dramatically, the pandemic has linked us – one to another – across all barriers of society, nationality, ethnicity and beliefs. We are, first of all, humans created by God. The human family is a whole, each of us uniquely God’s creation, and we all share this common origin. So we are joined to one another. As John Calvin commented: “We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love.” We are not exempt from human suffering and the travails of our fellow creatures. So our hearts reach out in genuine love to those all over the earth and those surrounding us, in genuine care for them as we all face dangers. We love others because we love God (1 John 4:19).
Fragility of human life
Tribulations come to us. In our whole human race as well as in our personal lives, sufferings and difficulties envelope us. We face the fragility of life at every turn. During a pandemic, we have nowhere to turn to surmount that which blankets the earth and the whole human family. Now, as at no other time, we admit our weakness, our frailty and our vulnerability. Hope has to come from beyond ourselves. Our support and power to endure has to come from God. It is God who “consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). We join, globally, to seek help from our creator and sustainer.
Beyond our control
To admit our need for God’s help is to acknowledge our lives are beyond our control. When times are good, we tend to think we are navigating nicely and have things managed well. That myth is shattered when troubles come and we feel more that life is a lottery with no safeguards or safety to be generated on our own. Our help must come from God who protects us through all things (Psalm 46; Psalm 121). We must trust that God is the guide and protector of us all and give ourselves over completely to trusting in God, as Calvin wrote in the “Institutes.” Only turning to God in humble trust can help us abandon our sense of self-sufficiency. Only then can help come.
Faith is basic
Martin Luther usually spoke of faith as “trust.” In pandemics, as in every pain of life, faith is basic for Christians. We trust God. We trust the God who loves us and is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Our faith is not “a leap into the dark.” It is realizing we are being upheld securely by God’s love. As the psalmist knew, God’s people are “not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord” (Psalm 112:7). In the midst of our trials, God’s people trust. So, said Calvin, “the confidence which they place in God enables them to rise above all the cares of the present life.” We endure our trials by seeing beyond them, by trusting the God who loves us utterly in Christ Jesus.
Jesus Christ is God with us
We can trust God – and that God holds us as God’s people – because we believe Jesus Christ is God with us. This was the promise given before Jesus’ birth, that Mary and Joseph “shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). We are never left alone in life — even in pandemics. God is always “with us” in Jesus Christ. In him we see “the human face of God.” As Calvin put it, “God is known only in the face of Jesus Christ, who is [God’s] living and express image.” No other word can sustain us — now or ever: God has become one of us human creatures; and God is always with us through all things in Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit is active
More than ever, in pandemic times, we need to look for and rely upon the sustaining and guiding work of God’s Holy Spirit. We need to claim the promise Paul pronounces that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). Jesus promised his disciples the Spirit “abides with you” and “will be in you” (John 14:17). The Spirit is with us and helps us in many ways. During tough times, we look for the Spirit’s activities all around us. Mr. Rogers famously spoke of his mother’s advice during scary times: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” The Spirit brings people to help us. Then, in these days, as a Florida newspaper headline put it: “Coronavirus: As worries mount, ‘look for the helpers’ — and if you safely can, be one.” There, “individuals and teams of like-minded people are reaching out to see what others need.” The Holy Spirit is active in ways, and through people, we do not expect. Hope in the Spirit.
These ponderings point us to three theological emphases of our Reformed tradition: God is sovereign; God can bring good out of bad; and we can use the means God gives us.
God in Jesus Christ is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15). Our faith is in the sovereign God we know in Jesus Christ. God is sovereign in history – even through pandemics – and in our own lives. God’s purposes will be fulfilled, now and forever.
God brings good out of the bad we experience. More than ever we claim the promise: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Through all we face, even pandemics, God can work for good, even when things seem hopeless in themselves. Our only trust is in God’s help.
We can use the means God gives us. Through it all, we are supported by God’s love in Christ and by the love of others, especially in “the communion of saints” — the church. Love and care from others can be expressed in many ways. Prayer becomes even more important as we thank God and petition God, seeking to do God’s will even in difficult times. These are means of God’s grace as we do all we can to be disciples of Jesus Christ and to serve others.
Now, more than ever, we need to be bolstered by what Paul heard when he prayed for relief for his “thorn in flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Like Paul, we too pray for relief from this gigantic “thorn” — this pandemic that besets and brutalizes the whole earth and its people. Paul heard God say, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’” (12:9). May we hear God say the same to us!