Living by Faith During an Epidemic
The believer, by rights, is best able to bear bad news. After all, we believe that we are morally corrupt, unable to reform ourselves, and so incorrigible that the only solution was that the Son of God live and die in our place. If we can accept that, we should be able to face hard truths about our health and the economy. And there are hard truths.
Basic information – four ideas
First, several lines of evidence suggest that 15-50% of the population could contract the corona virus over the next 12-18 months. Perhaps 10% will get very sick. Few will die, but many of us will develop a fever or a cough, feel tired, or lose our sense of smell. Various factors point to a final infection rate of 15-60% and a pandemic lasting a year or more. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo said most of their people will contract the virus, their estimates are high, but not irrational. The final tally is often placed near 25-30%, although studies differ. England’s Imperial College and the World Health Organization (WHO) and expect a long, high volume illness; see the twenty page Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team Statement of 16 March 2020).
Second, economists typically say the US economy can tolerate two or three months of the current shut-down strategy. Unless we back off, we will head toward unemployment of up to 20%; the peak during the Great Depression was 25%. This will hit the poor the hardest.
Third, the peak of infection seems likely to arrive around May 1, but it could be this summer, this fall or winter, although it will probably taper off with local waves arriving now and again. Why the long term? Because that is how novel, highly contagious diseases behave. The Spanish flu of 1917-19 and the Asian flu of 1957-8 lasted one or two years. The peak of the great plague ran from 1347 to 1351. Secondary waves are to blame: After the initial wave subsides, people return to normal activity. Since part of the populace is still infected, the disease spreads again. Quarantines don’t work in the long term, since too many humans break the rules. Besides, there are homeless people and people who must produce food, medicine, and more. So secondary waves are common. Thus, infection rates may be higher through the summer than they are in March. If we were reluctant to use our buildings or join crowds in March, we might be more reluctant in the fall. For to flatten to peak of the epidemic is to lengthen its tail. A smaller spike can mean a longer spread.
Fourth, the next months will be hard on all entertainers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. In the first week after the shutdown, several of my friends lost their jobs, closed their businesses indefinitely, or lost most of their clients. if the disease tails off slowly, schools and churches may not be able to open at the normal time in the fall. Higher education should anticipate drops in enrollment in the fall. Like businesses, churches will need to consider new ways to serve their people – how to offer pastoral care and community, not just online worship. Churches will probably suffer financially since many donors will lose part of their financial capacity. Of course, others will give sacrificially.
Andy Crouch, a leading theologian, says the best analogy for the current crisis is a long winter, not a short blizzard that we can ride out. Crouch, like others, believes we will never “go back to normal,” for the crisis will bring permanent change. Therefore, Crouch says, every organization should view itself as a start-up and must therefore “set aside confidence in their current playbook as quickly as possible, write a new one that honors their mission and the communities they serve, and make the most of their organization’s assets — their people, financial capital” and relationships. https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff
A far better outcome is possible. There are three reasons to hope the peak will be far less severe; none is impossible. First, scientists may quickly find a cure. We must wait and see. Second, we might develop a vaccine very rapidly. But vaccines take time; a year would be fast. Third, warmer weather may make the virus less contagious. We will see, but it has appeared in virtually every nation by now. What then should a Christian do? Let me suggest four disciplines
Four spiritual disciplines
Lamentation. For most of us, work is harder, life seems less rewarding, and we feel anxious. The Lord gave us dozens of psalms of lament because there is so much to lament in this world. They give us language so we can pour out every tragic emotion. Hear the cry and the confidence in Psalm 129:
“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”— let Israel now say—
“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.
The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows.”
The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.
Praise. Even during plague, there are reasons to give thanks. We should praise God for modern medicine, for the vast productivity of our farms and for our superb transportation system. We give thanks for the church, which supports us, and, above, all for the gift of life in Christ. Therefore, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:2).
Honesty. It helped no one when early announcements suggested that schools would reopen and large gatherings would resume in a few weeks. We could have a summer without baseball and a fall without football, concerts, or residential universities. We also have to be honest about our own health. Many of us have “an underlying condition” – an autoimmune disorder, diabetes, asthma – but we hate to admit it because it makes us feel weak or ashamed. If you are older and your health is imperfect, be honest. Ask yourself, “Is my family more aware of my risks than I am?” We have to be honest about tradeoffs. Timothy Burke points out that we have a real ethical riddle on our hands https://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/. With bracing candor, Burke says “I’m 55, I have high blood pressure, I have a history of asthma, I’m severely overweight and when I contract the disease, I may well die.” Against his own interest, he contends that we cannot think only of saving his life while ignoring the damage a total economic shutdown causes for the poor.
Sacrifice. If you are under young and healthy, this disease has brought vast disruption, even though you have scant reason to fear death. You are giving up travel, concerts, parties, and income for the sake of others - the sick and the aged. That is beautiful and we need to celebrate it, whether its origin is God’s saving grace or his common grace. But the aged and sick need to think of the poor. And everyone must prepare to endure. Let me suggest three practices.
Several practices can help us endure. First, stay in your Christian community. Keep attending church online. Join in worship by singing, confessing your faith, and following the readings. If you have joined a community group, stay there. If you haven’t found one, join one. We need each other more than ever.
Second, care for each other. List the people you know who need emotional or material support in coming months, due to age, poverty, or chronic illness. Help them as you can. Love your family. Yield to them in new ways. My anniversary fell on one of the first days of isolation. We could not dine out, so we planned to watch a movie. Since our tastes differ substantially, I decided to be generous and let her choose whatever she wished. Alas, she chose a romantic melodrama that started with a preposterous plot, then populated it with caricatures rather than characters. She thought it was sweet, and it was, but I couldn’t bear it. She knew that, so she gave me permission to work on my computer, as long as we sat close and kissed each other whenever the lead characters did. Deal! If you are a leader, formally or informally, remember the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Policy makers, who have been so secure for so long, can forget those who work in the gig economy or earn $14 per hour. By attending to others, we can “walk in love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2).
Third, let’s continue to observe the Lord’s Day. Yes, that starts with worship, but it is also a day of rest. Most of us need rest more than ever as we have had to learn a new way to work, without advance planning or the kind of technical assistance we desire. It’s very stressful for most of us. So we need to remember that the Lord instructs us to rest in him every night and at the start of every week. Our week starts with rest – the first day of the week, not the weekend - because the Lord has worked and does work for us first. This is a gospel principle.
Finally, let us live by faith in Jesus and his gospel. This morning, I noticed that another news report concluded with the happy thought “Together, we can bring this to an end” by staying in quarantine a while longer. This is false in short and long terms. This virus is not going away. Corona viruses have been around for years; they are no more likely to disappear than the flu or the common cold. And even if we defeat any particular illness, we will all die one day (unless Jesus returns first) and then we will meet the Lord. Our ultimate hope is the person and work of Christ, Lord and Savior. He is the cure for illness, for death, and above all for the sin that brought death into the world. Let us trust him, the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of life, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.