There is no question at this point that we are living through a calamity that will be more than a footnote in history books over the next several decades at least. The scope of the calamity centers certainly on the COVID-19 virus, the lives it has taken and the health impacts that have been felt around the globe. Additionally though, it has had vast economic impacts that would accompany any pandemic, but that were made more pronounced by extended lockdowns in many countries, including our own. Additionally, those health and economic impacts exposed inequities in American society as communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the virus, due in large part to pre-existing gaps in health care access among other systemic factors. The lockdowns added another kind of social strife to the pandemic’s list of impacts as they exposed and exacerbated existing divisions within societies and especially in American political culture. Further, it has highlighted, both globally and nationally, the disparities of wealth as the ability to socially distance, work from home, engage in remote education, etc. are certainly not equally feasible, based largely on income and net worth. All of this is to say nothing about the mental, emotional and spiritual toll that the isolation that physical distancing, the inability to gather, the limited ways we are able to serve our neighbors through our work, etc. have taken on us as human beings. Without a doubt, this is a calamity that we are living through. How are we, as Christians, to think about and respond to such a situation? Allow me to offer some thoughts.
First, as followers of Christ, our greatest responsibility is to make much of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through word and deed. In these days, our words and deeds are in many ways more visible than at others, so we should always be asking: does this choice, this tweet, meme or post, this action, exalt and adorn the gospel, or detract from it? This singular focus should inform our every move as believers.
Secondly, as those whose hope in Jesus is secure, we should avoid two extremes. On the one hand, we must never allow panic, irrational fear, or outrage define our response to circumstances that threaten our lives. We await the coming of the Kingdom which is unshakable and so we should not be shaken in the present. On the other hand, we must never allow that hope to make us indifferent to our own suffering, much less to the suffering of others. Scripture is clear that suffering and death are a feature of this present fallen world because of sin. Jesus died to defeat sin, suffering and death, so they are not intrinsically good or helpful things that we should think of as anything other than an assault on God’s good design. In other words (and to borrow a very tired cliche), we must not be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.
Thirdly, avoiding those two extremes allows us to minister uniquely to those suffering around us and to deal with our own suffering. We can offer true and empathetic comfort to our neighbors who should be struck by both our genuine lament and our refusal to despair in the face of disaster. This is paramount because while suffering is an evil intrusion into God’s good world, we serve a God who suffers voluntarily and who can work within suffering to bring about redemption. It is by dying that death was defeated and we are assured that our suffering and deaths will be redeemed by that same Savior. This is a uniquely Christian perspective on suffering that is not shared by any other faith or thought system that I am aware of. Many religions treat suffering as intrinsically virtuous to force separation from this temporal world. Other systems, many of them not religious, treat suffering as a thing to be avoided at all costs, creating environments where others are harmed to keep a privileged few insulated from hardship. The Christian will embrace suffering as not the greatest evil while simultaneously affirming the reality that it is inherently wrong.
It is that last point that I feel is the church’s most potent witness in these days. So much of the strife over what to do has seemed to assume that there is a scenario where we get to the end and there would be minimal to no real loss or pain. There has been an assumption that we were in a position to successfully mitigate all of the harms this virus unleashed and come out to where it wouldn’t show up in the history books. We think that quicker action would have resulted in “manageable” loss of life or we imagine that the lockdowns created unnecessary economic suffering. As Americans, we want to have it all, even in a pandemic. Our history, especially in the last 2 generations has been spared such disasters, so we have come to think we are immune to them somehow. We expect minimal loss of life with minimal impact on the stock market and an unnoticeable inconvenience to our daily lives. To that the church should compassionately and unequivocally say that plagues are bad. They are the result of humanity abandoning the Living God and thus inviting death and chaos into God’s good world. They wreak havoc that humans cannot control or manage. It is our hubris and arrogance that imagines we can, but it is those qualities that got us into this mess in the first place. Christians can model the humility that accepts that we cannot fix or stop all suffering in the world, but we know the One who can…and will! Plagues invite us to recognize that while bread is a good gift of God, we do not live on bread alone. Prosperity and health and safety are all good things but they are fleeting and meaningless if we are separated from the God who provides them.
Adopting this perspective will help us make much of the cross as we demonstrate an empathy with the suffering of our neighbors, a willingness to suffer with and for them, and a faithful resolve that neither their suffering nor ours has to have the last word. It will make us humble towards our leaders as we recognize that while they can make matters somewhat worse or better, they are neither fully to blame, nor capable of fully preventing or solving this crisis. Such a posture will demonstrate faith, hope and love in the midst of a calamity. It is our birthright as those whose citizenship is in heaven to live in this way.