For many, the last several weeks have been utterly demoralizing as waves of uncertainty and anxiety have crashed over the world. This will not end soon. COVID-19, otherwise known as Coronavirus, a highly contagious viral disease, has shot to the top of nearly every news headline. It has caused panic even among those to whom it poses very little medical risk--and for good reason.
Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the disease is not its symptoms, but the uncertainty of its diagnosis and how it spreads. This uncertainty stems from the fact that some individuals who contract the virus show very little symptoms, or none at all. During that time, a person who does not know they have the virus can spread it rapidly to others. In addition to the uncertainty of contraction, COVID has caused an economic decline. Since the only way to slow the communal spread is to mitigate human-to-human contact, many consumer industries are taking a toll. Businesses like airlines, cruises, sporting events, and even the sale of consumer electronics have been negatively impacted. In part, this has led to uncertainty in the stock market, which has caused the market to turn bearish for the first time since 2009.
I’m neither a medical nor financial expert, so I’m not going to give you advice in those areas. We all know by now that we need to wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, stay clear of large crowds, and not do anything rash with our money and investments.
But there is a question I can attempt to answer: Is there, or should there be, a Christian response to COVID-19? I think the answer is yes, but not in the sense that Christians have a silver bullet or cure. Christianity and Christians do, however, have something to offer the world in an era of uncertainty. They have the sure promises of Christ.
A large part of the Christian response to COVID-19 and other trending anxieties is vocational. Christians can and should do practical things like washing their hands and staying home when sick. The vocational focus also calls us to look close to home--to care for and watch over spouses, children, co-workers, and congregants.
Luther’s advice is fitting here. In 1527, during the spread of a plague, Luther wrote a letter concerning how Christians should respond. He gives the same kind of practical advice we hear today, such as stay home if you are sick or think you may have contracted the disease, take medicine, and listen to physicians.
Most importantly, as a preacher, Luther assails our gripping for control in situations of uncertainty. He notes that, first, an abundance of fear causes one to forget they have been delivered by Christ. They wrongly think death is the worst thing they can face. Second, they focus on preserving themselves at the expense of their neighbor. Luther writes, "In this way, [such a person] tries to bring about that we despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, become so enveloped in dark clouds of fear and worry that we forget and lose sight of Christ, our light and life, forsake our neighbor in his need, and so sin against God and man." (To John Hess, November 1527, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 238.)
By serving one's neighbor in times of sickness and death, Christians are also reminded that they are not called to save or heal the entire world. We do not take on the weight of sin crashing against the entire world because we know Christ alone can and has faced the sin of the whole world.
This means the Christian response is both common and unique. It’s common in that it shares physical concern and burden for neighbor. It’s also unique in proclaiming Christ not as a cure for COVID-19, but for its root cause and goal, sin and death. For this disease, while not the result of some particular sin, is like everything else that ails our world: it shows how sin and death have invaded and impacted every aspect of human life.
The heightened sense of illness and death in the public sphere is a not-so-subtle reminder that we cannot place our ultimate trust in things like physical health, financial security, and societal stability. These all wax and wane with the constant, uncertain fluctuations of a sinful world. Even the healthiest and richest among us cannot save or deliver themselves from sin and its wage.
Precisely in times of pandemic and anxiety, we see how unlike this sinful world God is. He reveals himself to us in immutable commands and promises. This Word of God is delivered to us at and through the cross of Christ. The commands are fulfilled, and the promises are guaranteed by the blood of the Lamb. Our death is faced fully in his death. Our resurrection is guaranteed by his resurrection.
Christ never promises that we will not get sick from COVID-19 or some other illness, now or in the future. But he surely does promise to be a fortress that stands against the uncertainty of this world, a place to reside and seek rest in spite of the restless siege of sin.