This was written in the first week of March when coronavirus was just beginning to make its presence felt in the UK.
This week, as coronavirus continues to spread and increasingly dominates our thinking, I have been reading the book of Lamentations. It can be a difficult book to read at times describing as it does the anguish of one who, seeing disaster all around him, recognises that it is God himself who has brought about the tragic events he is witnessing. He acknowledges those events to be the just consequence of the corruption that exists in a world that has rejected God. The book is a helpful reminder that as well as being a God of love, God is to be feared since, as a holy God, he is also a God who requires that justice be done.
Proverbs 9:10 tells us that ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ and yet, today, the fear of God is something we rarely feel, preferring other things to worry about instead. Currently many are concerned about the coronavirus, and the prospect of a world pandemic. This is wholly understandable but the threat posed by the virus pales into significance against the danger we all face before a righteous God. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ [Hebrews 10:31].
Without presuming to imagine I know the mind of God by suggesting that the disease is a specific judgement from God for any specific sin, we would nonetheless do well to see the current spread of coronavirus, like any threat to our lives, as not only a call to action but also as call to repentance. I know it is for me. [See Luke 13:1-5]. As C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’
What then are we to do in the face of Covid-19? Is it really sufficient to hope solely in the effectiveness of catching our unexpected sneezes in our elbows, preferring foot-taps to handshakes and repeatedly washing our hands whilst singing ‘Happy Birthday’? Now don’t get me wrong, these are all vitally important things that we should all be practicing, and no less so for those like me who have a high regard for the sovereignty of God and thus believe that He determines the moment when each of us will die – after all such people rightly take great care to look both ways before they cross the road. As a doctor, I fully recognise the value of good advice and the benefits of medical science, frequently the means of God’s wonderful grace but we all nonetheless need something even greater than these sensible measures in which to place our trust.
The writer of Lamentations thought so too. Despite being cast down by the trouble he saw all about him, he none the less called to mind that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, that His mercies never come to an end, that they are, in fact, new every morning. He recalled God’s great faithfulness and, therefore, on account of what he knew to be true, had good cause to have hope. [Lamentations 3:21-23].
Even as a Christian I can sometimes find myself forgetting this. Sometimes I can find myself drawing more comfort from the survival statistics that suggest that if infected with coronavirus I am likely to come through it alive, than the more certain truths that I profess as a believer. This is unwise of me since the reality is that I cannot tell whether God will allow me to become infected, and, if infected, whether he will allow me to live or die. But, like the writer of Lamentations, this I know for certain – that God’s steadfast love for me will never cease and that, whether I live or die, his mercy towards me will never come to an end.
As it happens I have next week off and I am planning, God willing, to spend it in a holiday cottage in Eyam in Derbyshire. This seems strangely fitting since Eyam is remembered as the plague village. The first death from bubonic plague occurred there in September 1665 and by the Spring of 1666, 42 villagers had died. As a result there were understandably many residents who were at that time planning on fleeing the village but the recently appointed rector, William Mompesson, with the help of the previous incumbent Thomas Stanley, called a meeting and managed to persuade the villagers to stay with him and face death rather than put the lives of those outside the village at risk. As a consequence many residents died. Elizabeth Hancock buried six of her children along with her husband over an eight day period and by November 1666, when the last death occurred, a total of 260 people, at least a third of Eyam’s total population, had died. But their sacrifice had, by containing the disease, spared thousands of others who lived outside the area that had been cordoned off.
What enabled the villagers to act in the way they did must surely have been that in their distress they were, like the writer of Lamentations, able to call to mind that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that his mercy never comes to an end. Despite the pain and sorrow of the sickness and death that they experienced and witnessed all around them, they continued to hope in God, whose own beloved son, Jesus Christ, had himself given his own life to save others. They knew that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, that place where God’s justice and mercy met, had paid the penalty for all their sin and that they could, therefore, as forgiven people, look confidently forward to a day when God would ‘wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death [would] be no more’ [Revelation 21:4]. They knew that though ‘weeping may tarry for the night, joy [would come] with the morning’ [Psalm 30:5]. As such they could hold the things of this world lightly.
May we also know what it is to hope in that same God as we, like them, recall His steadfast love and mercy. And rather than being more concerned about the amount of toilet roll we can stockpile, may we, as we seek to look after both ourselves and others, be strengthened by that hope so that we are able to serve those who are in need of help in these difficult days, putting their welfare before our own as we too look ahead to that time when there will there be neither ‘mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away.’ [Revelation 21:4].
For ‘The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.’ [Lamentations 3:24]
A couple of quotes, now that Covid-19 has been declared a global pandemic.
Firstly from C.S. Lewis, writing 72 years ago with reference to the atomic bomb. Replace atomic bomb with ‘coronavirus’ and the words have some relevance to us today.
‘In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.’
Of course, when social distancing measures are fully introduced not all of this will be possible but the point is, nonetheless, well made. And secondly a quote from Augustine, the great theologian and Bishop of Hippo, writing in the 4th century,
‘What does it matter by what kind of death life is bought to an end? When man’s life is ended he does not have to die again. Among the daily chances of this life every man on earth is threatened in the same way by innumerable deaths, and it is uncertain which of them will come to him. And so the question is whether it is better to suffer once in dying or to fear them all in living.’
The threat of death that we face today is real, but not new.
But the ‘God of all comfort’ [2 Corinthians 1:3] who, through the centuries, has comforted our brothers and sisters in Christ who faced that same threat, has not changed. He is the same ‘yesterday today and forever’ [Hebrews 13:8].
Whether we live or die, he is always to be relied on.