A wave of panic over COVID-19 (AKA coronavirus) seems to have swept through my city. One intriguing element of this pandemic–and epidemics in modern history in general–is the shift from seeing outbreaks as a natural disaster to seeing them as a failure of policies and prevention measures.
In history, when people had no understanding of bacteria, viruses, or “germs,” plagues were often understood simply as acts of God, usually as a divine punishment against which humans had little defence. People saw themselves as helpless, aside from divine mercy.
Today, this is not at all the case. Amid all the dialogue around COVID-19, its spread is traced back not to God but to human error: government mismanagement, public health policies, the ease of international travel, and all the people who don’t cover their sneezes.
The commentary sometimes makes it seem like, if only humans had acted differently, we would not be in this situation. Which on some level is true: choosing to wash your hands and to cover your coughs–or better yet, to stay home if you are coughing–is good and important.
Yet at the same time, viruses are ultimately out of our control. Despite conspiracy theories, this virus is not a human invention. And despite the promises of politicians, an effective vaccine is not just around the corner; currently, humans do not have mastery over this disease. Even so, the word “helpless” does not ring true the way it might have in dark ages past. People are able to help each other and themselves. Individuals and organizations can make wise decisions. There is help to be had both in preventing the spread of the disease as well as in the healing of it.
Where does that leave God? Is divine help out of business, now that the market is flooded with alternative options? It certainly seems out of style to claim God’s special protection. Especially since being a Christian doesn’t make you immune to COVID-19, or any other health problem.
However, God does offer help, even if it is not the kind that instantly removes COVID-19 from all surfaces, cures all patients overnight, and restores tumbling stock markets. No, to look for that sort of help would be to look for an outside force to absolve humans of the roles in which they can help each other. God is not looking to become a public health official or a nurse. Rather, God offers an inside help; he works from within individuals who acknowledge that they need inner help.
As always, an internal pursuit of help and wellness is more effective than help being externally applied to those who don’t want it. It is the same with God’s help. Until someone acknowledges their need, God isn’t going to force his help on them. And even when help is requested, be aware that God doesn’t always solve issues with an outside force. We are always invited to pray to God for help and healing, and to leave the results in his hands. Regardless of how he responds, his help is always transformative, changing people from the inside out.
What can God offer? What do we need?
As people panic over supplies, I see a need for security and peace.
As I see racism and fear of others grow, I see a need for love and trust.
As I see people mourning the growing number of fatalities, I see a need for hope and confidence in the face of death.
Security and peace, love and trust, hope and confidence–these are the needs that God does meet and provide for.
God offers an inside help; he works from within individuals who acknowledge that they need inner help.
God ultimately met our needs as an insider, through the person of Jesus Christ. His rescue plan unfolded not externally from on high, but through sneaking into the world as a human himself. Jesus offers help to humanity from within, as one of us, modelling a life of service.
But more than that, because God has come, his Holy Spirit remains within and among those who want him to provide radical inner transformation. History has confirmed this witness: in plagues past, Christians would care for the sick and dying at risk to themselves, following the example of Jesus while empowered by the Holy Spirit within.
The Holy Spirit grants us a supernatural ability to love others, instead of fearing them. To sacrificially care for the needs of others, instead of selfishly stockpiling our own resources. The Holy Spirit also empowers us to walk with courage and resilience, even with an unknown future.
Relative to epidemics in history, humans will likely survive COVID-19 very well. But while this situation highlights humanity’s need for help, our helplessness relative to what God offers will not subside as this virus fades. God will continue to offer inner help, and humans will continue to need it.
May this disruption in life be an opportunity to acknowledge the help that humans are able to give, while also embracing the divine and transformative help that only God can offer.
Let us place our trust and faith in the God who holds all things together.