Fearing the Right Thing

Look for the spiritual implications of COVID-19

It is not a stretch to say the coronavirus outbreak, the ensuing panic, and the drastic measures taken to combat its spread are unprecedented in our generation. The pandemic has invaded our lives quickly and thoroughly. In a matter of days, life in the US went from normal to national emergency, shutting down multiple forms of commerce, entertainment, social events, and education. At the end of February, we were filling out our brackets, packing for Spring Break, and thinking about graduation parties and summer weddings. New restaurants were popping up all over Cedar Rapids. Businesses were booming. Now those restaurants are closed, as are schools, churches, and my place of employment. I work from my son’s room in the basement. I fought for wifi bandwidth with my wife and two teenage daughters until last week, when we finally broke down and installed a 5G router. Salons are closed too, which means my hairstyle has a life of its own. 

The shutdowns have exposed some senseless values our culture has embraced the last few decades. We now feel sorry for the millionaire professional athletes because they can’t play their games. On a positive note, we’re realizing we can actually go outside and go on hikes with our kids once in a while. Our parks and streets are filled with people. We actually like to stop and chat…six feet apart, of course. 

The other thing I’ve noticed is that the pandemic has incited an unusually heightened sense of fear and panic. I understand the precaution. One of my daughters works in a elderly care facility where at least four cases of COVID-19 have been reported. So, it is very real for us. We have to be careful for her sake and the sake of those she cares for. But there are many times when I think we’ve gone over the top. 

First of all, there’s the whole outcry about testing. Science has shown that at least as many infected people are symptom-less as those with symptoms. So, we’d have to test everybody, not just those with symptoms. And, we’ve seen that symptoms lie dormant, so one-time testing is not good enough. We’d basically have to test everyone, everyday. Those who advocate “wait for testing” are asking the impossible.

It seems like social distancing has become a new standard of morality. Abide by these new rules of conduct or you’re considered a hateful, selfish brute. One TV ad actually tells us to “not be stupid”, when reminding us to abide by social distancing guidelines. I see people driving their cars with masks on. I mean, what are you afraid of?  The park trail where my daughter likes to walk everyday was shut down. A park trail?  Really? Or just go to the nearest Wal Mart or Target. People are stocking up on essentials like toilet paper as if the end were coming. The coronavirus outbreak has unquestionably caused more panic than any other health crises in history. There is a difference between being respectfully careful and being paranoid. There is fear, and then there is unreasonable, panicky fear. Sometimes, the lines are blurred. We can’t tell which one is which. 

I think a lot about the implications of COVID-19. Scientists need time to understand it, how it spreads, how life-threatening it is, and how to combat it. Eventually there will be antidotes, explanations. But one thing science will never do is explain the purpose behind it.  I’m not an Epidemiologist, but I know the Bible. I see patterns that lead me to suggest God’s hands are all over the COVID-19 outbreak. Throughout early history, God has used plagues to get His point across, both to His own chosen people and to pagan nations. There are plenty of examples, a few notable ones can be found in Genesis 12, Exodus 8-12, Numbers 11, 14, and 25, I Samuel 6, and II Samuel 24. 

These plagues are never random, nor vindictive. God is not like a cruel man stepping on an ant hill just for the sport of it. Each of these plagues served an important purpose and achieved the desired effect. In each instance, plagues demonstrate God’s unquestionably exalted state above all power and authority in the world. They get people’s attention, spurring much-needed renewal and awakening.

Plagues also create tremendous opportunities for heroism, as we’ve seen in the faithful and courageous service of our medical community. When Phinehas the priest saw blatant immorality as the cause of a devastating plague, he arose and took action, stemming the horrible tide of death. As a result, God highly honored him, citing his jealousy for God’s honor, and rewarding him with a lasting covenant of peace (Numbers 25:6-13).

It is not a stretch to suggest that coronavirus is a wakeup call from God. Its quickness, thoroughness, and the ensuing panic are telltale signs that this is of God. God seems silent and unresponsive to those who do not understand Him, but when He acts, there is a certain quickness and thoroughness about it that is unmistakable (Romans 9:28). And when it is accompanied by an unusually heightened sense of fear and panic, it is clearly God’s work, for He can “appoint sudden terror” (Leviticus 26:16). 

While we follow orders to shelter in place, as we salute the heroes of the medical community, make masks, practice social distancing, and wash our hands, let us not ignore the obvious spiritual implications. In crises like this, we need to be asking ourselves, what is God trying to tell us?  Understanding God’s purpose for plagues is as important as understanding their nature, effects, and cure. Let us use this opportunity to weigh our misplaced values God has exposed through this plague. Let us take appropriate actions, not just with facemasks and hand sanitizer, but with introspective evaluation of the things we treat as sacred cows.

First, we cherish this life like it’s the only thing we have. I get that. It is very sad when any life is lost. If you do not believe that there is anything for us after this life, then yes, hold on to this life with both hands. Grasp as hard as you can with your fingertips. Do whatever it takes to survive and protect the lives of others. 

We do have to be realistic, however. Everyone will die someday. We may be able to preserve this life for a few more years, but ultimately, we will die. Sometimes, death is necessary to obtain a far greater state.  Abraham Lincoln understood this.  His second inaugural address should be required reading in every household. As terrible as it was that hundreds of thousands of men died in the Civil War, Lincoln understood that it was imperative that lives be lost in order to secure abolition of slavery. 

But to those who have nothing but this life, all they can do is live their “best life”.  To many, that just means live under the “YOLO” mantra (you only live once). But even that loses meaning pretty quickly. Aging has a way of silencing even the most cocky, adventurous souls. 

There is a better way to live our “best life”. We have to be open to the possibility that this life is not the only reality, that there could actually be a life besides this one. Unlike this physical life we can see, feel, and touch, there is a spiritual life, invisible, yet real all the same. The spiritual life is not just available in the future; it is available right now. That is the message of God if we’re willing to accept it. In His view, the spiritual life is a better life. We ought to be prepared for it. We ought to see this life for what it really is–a prepping ground for that life that comes after this.

Over and over, we are told to use life this way.  Jesus called it “storing up treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20, 19:21). It’s living like this isn’t the only game in town. It’s living in a way that earns His rewards, not in this life, but in the spiritual life. It’s living this life as if God were watching and will “render to each person according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6). It’s living to please Him and others, not just ourselves (Ephesians 5:10, Romans 15:1). It’s living as if every deed will be weighed and measured for its value to God (I Corinthians 3:10-15).

Storing up treasure in heaven means living to please God, not man. We love to look good in the eyes of other people. We do so many things for appearance sake. We give to charity and make sure people know about it. We tailor our social media to get as many “likes” as possible. We clean up the outside and are never transparent about our vile thoughts and intentions. We market ourselves well and look pretty good. 

For those who live to impress others, Jesus says, “they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). Those who see this life as prepping for the spiritual life understand the importance of donating without being noticed, of being pious in secret, of doing things solely to be noticed by God.  They are OK if no one ever finds out. 

Storing up treasure in heaven is also living with accountability for actions. Paul calls it “reaping what you sow” (Galatians 6:7-9). There are consequences for ignoring God and making up your own rules about how to treat other people. YOLO people get whatever they can from this life, be it sex, power, money, entertainment, or fame. They use others in a narcissistic grab for fulfillment. Jesus says that “for every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for” (Matthew 12:36). But YOLO people slander without second thought, flatter to win the affection of others, and criticize without fear. They defend their actions by claiming their rights. They tell us not to judge and call us “haters” if we confront. They eat, drink, and are merry (I Corinthians 15:32), and why not?  Deep inside, they know they will die and it will all be gone.  This is the reality of those who have nothing else but this life.  No wonder they hang on to it. No wonder they defend it like there’s no tomorrow. 

Those who are prepping for the spiritual life do not cling to this world so tightly. They have vowed to deny themselves and go after Jesus (Luke 9:23-25). They restrain their lips, watch out for hurtful or self-serving words. They listen for God’s prompting and speak encouraging things in the moment (Ephesians 4:29). They celebrate the accomplishments of others. They trust in God when wronged rather than bear a grudge. They seek His insight so they can perceive the needs of others, and His strength and courage to meet those needs. 

In a sense, these followers of Christ have already “lost” their life, so the fear of death is no longer unsettling. They have a home in the spiritual life that comes next, a residence in a better mansion.

This greatly disturbs people who do not know Christ. The world sees Christians as arrogant, selfish law-haters who refuse to wear masks, who fill the streets demanding that businesses reopen. All I can say to that is, please, don’t assume that just because I have faith in an all-powerful God that I therefore don’t care about COVID-19. Just because I’m not afraid, it doesn’t mean I am ignorant and blind to the devastation. I happen to see this life for what it is, and what it is not. I will keep my distance, wash my hands, and do all that stuff. I am too close to elderly people under the care of my daughter not to do that.  But I also will not give in to undue panic.  

Jesus says “do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul, but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body..” (Matthew 10:28). Let us not fear COVID-19’s power to kill the body.  COVID-19 has no power over our souls, and unlike the body, the soul can actually experience that spiritual life. Let us not fear COVID-19, but fear the God who has power over body and soul, the God who can grant us access to the spiritual life.

There was an old Keith Green song that comes to mind in which he says in reference to heaven, “this place is living in a garbage can compared to what’s going on up there”. It is a good reminder for us. It is good to try to preserve life, but let us not forget–there is a better life than this. It is available to everyone. It is not a fairy tale utopia, but an actual life with God. It is a life of joy, peace, and righteousness (Romans 14:17).  It is not too far off (Matthew 10:7).  A humble response to God’s calling is all that is required to enter. If you are reading this and you sense His stirring in your soul, then I bid you escape the fear of COVID-19 and death. Respond to God’s stirring with simple and sincere trust in His mercy and forgiveness of sin.

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