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Hardship of all kinds is not a thing unknown to the church. The early church suffered through disease, persecution, famine, fires, economic downfall, and war. Towards the end of the 2nd century, a mysterious epidemic broke out and swept across the Roman Empire. Today, many scholars believe this was an outbreak of smallpox. During the 15 year duration of the epidemic, it is estimated that a quarter to a third of the Roman Empire died from it.
Shortly after, another epidemic devastated the Empire in the third century, reportedly killing as many as 5,000 people per day in Rome. Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity points out that Christianity actually flourished during these epidemics, while paganism declined. The book suggests that during these epidemics, people were having a crisis of faith and followers of Christ had an opportunity to display their faith in Christ and offer hope and peace in a desperate and scary time.
This is a time of fear and panic for our world. As followers of Christ, we have the opportunity to help those who are in need and share the gospel of peace. How should we help a world in panic? We must remember what we know:
1. We live in a fallen and broken world. We know that things are not as they are intended to be. Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22).
2. We trust in a loving and sovereign God. Despite having circumstances outside of our control, we know that we follow a God who loves us and has a plan. As Job said, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
3. God is currently working towards his plan of eradicating all disease. We know that when the new heavens and new earth arrive, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” (Rev. 21:4). As Christians, we have confidence that we will one day enter into that paradise. Therefore, we can say along with Paul, “For to me, to live it Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
4. We are called to be lights in a dark world. How can we be set apart during a time of distress and confusion?
a. We must not give in to fear and worry. We can and should remain alert and take sensible precautions to avoid infection or its spread, but we must realize that worrying won’t change our circumstances or lower our chance of infection. Worry won’t help us fight off illness or move us to action. Worrying about COVID-19 (or anything else) will only increase trouble. Jesus said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?...Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matt. 6:27, 34) Rather than worrying and being anxious, Jesus calls us to respond with prayer and trust in him, displaying his peace which surpasses understanding (Phil. 4:6-7). We need not worry ultimately because we know the One who has defeated sin and death (1 Cor. 15:55–57).
b. We should love and serve those who are suffering. During this time, many will be faced with sickness, financial hardship, loneliness, and family burdens. The church has often stood out because of its willingness to offer help to others during times of disease, plagues, and pandemics. So, rather than just asking “How do I stay healthy?” perhaps we should also be asking, “How can I help those suffering around me?”
c. We should offer the message of ultimate hope and peace. As people around us are in panic, we must adopt the same attitude Jesus had, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:37). We should use these circumstances to share the good news of the gospel with those around us who are looking for answers.