For many years to come, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, South African Christians, together with the rest of the country’s population and many others throughout the world, have been in lockdown. We have been separated from our families and our fellowship has been reduced to pixelated talking heads and distorted voices. While it might seem that there is not much to do except wait while the virus works its way through the population, there are at least three things that Christians might do in response to the pandemic.
First, we should lament. Already more than 1 million people have died from the pandemic and millions more have lost loved ones. In addition to these deaths, we have experienced global economic and social losses, the effect of which will become more evident in coming years. These losses should cause us to cry out to God in lament.
The Book of Psalms trains us to cry out to God during times of upheaval and catastrophe. In the psalms of lament, we hear God’s people address him. They bring their questions before the Lord, confess their inability to understand his ways, recognise that he acts for their ultimate good in all things, cry out to God for rescue, and express confident hope in his future saving acts.
But the Bible also tells us that God does not stand apart from our lament. As Mary and Martha spoke to Jesus about their deceased brother, Jesus mourned with them, weeping over the death of his friend, Lazarus (John 11.35). As Herman Ridderbos points out in his commentary on the Gospel, “[Jesus] weeps with those who are weeping … he experiences and participates in the grief of all whose loved ones have gone to the grave.”
And as Paul considers “our present sufferings” (Rom 8.18) and the way in which creation itself “laments” (vv. 19-22), he reminds us that the Spirit “intercedes for us through wordless groans,” praying for us in accordance with the Father’s will (vv. 26-27).
Our first response during these tragic times should be to lament. We should mourn with those who mourn. We should cry out to God for comfort and encouragement and salvation, not just for ourselves and our loved ones, but for all creation. We should do this in the certain knowledge that God’s understanding and knowledge of our suffering goes far beyond on our own. We should do this in the certain knowledge that God participates in our lament. And we should do this in the certain knowledge that in God’s economy, glory always follows suffering (Rom 8.18-30).
Our response to the pandemic should not stop with lament. Our confidence in God’s goodness to us should lead us to express that goodness to others.
This is not the first time that Christians have had to live through a pandemic. In the mid-160s, one of the Roman co-emperors, Lucius Verus, returned from a military campaign in what is today Iran. His army brought with them an unwanted hitchhiker: an infectious disease. In a time before vaccines or even broader exposure-based immunity, the disease, most likely smallpox, ravaged the Mediterranean region. Scholars estimate that between a fifth to a third of the population died during this pandemic. The handful of Christian writings that have survived from the second century do not say much about the Christian reaction to the pandemic. Almost a century later, however, another pandemic struck. Our historical records for this disaster are much richer and give us insight into the way in which God’s people responded. The model provided by these Christians is one we might consider during our own experience of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
In the mid-third century, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote the following:
“Most of our brothers and sisters, because of their exceeding love and affection were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending them in Christ, and so most gladly departed this life along with them; being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbours, and willingly taking over their pains.”
Although modern medical systems have relieved Christians of this particular responsibility, there are other ways in which we should be helping others, not the least of which is ensuring that we continue in fellowship with others. The lockdown has dramatically altered our social relations. These must be rebuilt as our societies open up. During the initial stages of the pandemic, Christians who did not lose their incomes gave generously and sacrificially to those who had. In addition to giving, Christians should now be looking for opportunities to provide employment and start businesses in order to benefit our broader society.
Our lament should not lead to despair and further isolation. Rather, we should seek to act for the good of those around us.
Finally, despite our present trials, we should continue to live our lives in confident expectation of God’s coming kingdom.
In his commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo reflects on the Christian experience of suffering:
“A Christian views the suffering of this life in a larger, world-transcending context that, while not alleviating its present intensity, transcends it with the confident expectation that suffering is not the final word.”