THE WORLD AND THE WORD AMIDST COVID-19
By Nelson T. Dy
As I write this, the world is still reeling from the covid-19 pandemic. There are now 596,021 cases, with 27,341 deaths1. That’s over 27,000 souls marching to an unknown eternity.
You may be reading this article long after it’s over. But as of this moment, I am writing at home due to the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) imposed all over Luzon. I am one of the blessed ones who work from home and still draw a paycheck. But there are the uncounted masses who are no-work, no-pay. Someone quipped that if the virus won’t kill you, starvation will.
Consider my friend who is a free-lance trainer. For obvious reasons, his clients have cancelled his workshops and seminars. Being the sole breadwinner of his family, he wrote on his FB post:
A tricycle driver just asked us for food earlier. He couldn’t take any fares because of government restrictions. This actually scared me. It’s as if this driver threw cold water in my face and reminded me of just how precarious our own situation is. I hope this crisis ends soon. I wonder how long we can hold out without food or a way to earn a living. I need to come up with some way to earn money fast. The well is almost dry.
Where can we find solace when emotions are getting on edge? What is the basis of our hope that “this too shall pass”? How can we sleep well at night, knowing that we will stare at an empty cupboard the following morning?
This trying period is when we can be encouraged by the Word of God more than ever. I write this with great care because I do not want to downplay the hardship. Pockets are hurting. Bodies are being cremated. Nations are in pain. The last thing I want to do is to toss out Bible verses glibly. Rather, we can turn to the Word with depth, balance, and hope.
First, go to the Word correctly.
One thing I notice during the ECQ is people invoking Psalm 91. On the surface, it looks appropriate, particularly these lines:
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. (v 3)
You will not fear… the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. (v 6)
While I appreciate the good intention, we must keep sound hermeneutics in mind. The danger is to make a passage mean what it does not mean, thereby giving false comfort.
Technically, Psalm 91 is a song of trust, not a promise of protection. David has gone through a lot of tough times, yet God delivered him through them all. Hence, he was expressing how God is good and trustworthy even when the situation looks dark. I doubt we can go on to claim, “Look, Psalm 91 says you won’t be hit by the pestilence. Covid-19 is a pestilence. Therefore, you won’t be hit by covid-19.” It’s almost like using Psalm 91 as a magical incantation.2
A telling lesson can be found in the temptation of Jesus. Recall that the devil brought Him to the highest point of the temple and dared Him to throw Himself down. The devil had the audacity to quote Psalm 91: 11-12:
He will command his angels concerning you
And they will lift you up in their hands.
So that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Of course, Jesus rebuked the devil. But it shows how subtly we can confuse a passage about God with a passage from God. Had Jesus took the challenge, I doubt that God will suspend the laws of gravity for Him. In the same way, if a Christian doctor fails to wash his hands and put on his face mask, can he invoke Psalm 91 to shield him from the virus as he treats a multitude of covid-stricken patients?
Second, go to the Word comprehensively.
Okay, so what do I propose? It’s not as simple as recommending what Bible verses to use. It is to address a struggle many people have. It is the gap between knowledge and faith. We ask “I know God can save us, but I’m not sure if He will.” There is an undercurrent of hopelessness, the very antithesis of encouragement.
The common flaw is to pour through the Bible and end up loading our brains with more information, but our emotions remain unchanged. We stay restless. We keep on fretting. That’s why we are to let the Word speak to us comprehensively, at the gut level as well as the high level. It is not an either/or. Rather, it must be both/and.
What kept me calm during this COVID crisis is based on another Psalm. Those familiar with the Navigators know that its founder, Dawson Trotman, died while saving a girl from drowning. Chuck Swindoll tells the story of how the widow coped with the loss.
The bitter news of Dawson Trotman’s drowning swept like cold wind across Schroon Lake to the shoreline. Eyewitnesses tell of the profound anxiety, the tears, the helpless disbelief in the faces of those who now looked out across the deep blue water. Everyone’s face except one—Lila Trotman. Dawson’s widow. As she suddenly walked upon the scene a close friend shouted, “Oh, Lila . . . he’s gone. Dawson’s gone!” To that she replied in calm assurance the words of Psalm 115:3:
But our God is in the heavens;
He does whatever He pleases.3
Rather than Psalm 91, Psalm 115:3 is the one I lean upon amidst the death counts and social isolation. I do not know if God will indeed make me immune from the virus; He made no such offer. But I do take solace that God remains on His throne.
To give you another example, recall the 1990 earthquake which levelled the Hyatt Terraces Hotel in Baguio City. I was at the 16th floor of a Makati office building when it happened. Our ground floor housed a bank that had a vault with a huge steel door. The tremor was so strong that the vault door was actually swinging from side to side!
As our building was swaying like a bamboo stick at the middle of a tempest, my officemates and I dove underneath our desks. I heard some of them crying “Lord… have mercy…”. But I felt no panic and I didn’t say anything. It was not because I was brave and certainly not because I was too stupid to see the danger. It was that Psalm 46 came to my mind:
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gave way
And the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
Though its waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging. (v 1-3)
Does the Psalm promise that the cement ceiling won’t collapse and grind my bones to fine dust? Not at all. Does the Psalm assure me that God is good even though He did not prevent the earthquake? Yes, it did. I know the Word (head) and it has comforted me deeply (heart). That’s being comprehensive.
Third, go to the Word Christ-centeredly.
The pandemic brings us to gratitude and grief. Gratitude for being healthy and having food to eat. Grief for those who lost a loved one to covid. A CNN news clip showed an Italian woman mourning for her father. She said “He was healthy, but he died like a dog.”
But where do we go from here? The answer is to choose to believe that, in the end, God will make everything right. Everything. If this is untrue, then someone explain to me how we get the notion of “life is unfair”? God is indeed all-good, although He doesn’t seem to be Who we think He should be. He is indeed all-powerful, although He doesn’t seem to do what we think He should do.
Gratitude and grief intersect at the goodness of God. The full manifestation of His goodness is in Jesus Christ. And that is what the Word is all about. It’s all about Jesus (Luke 24:27).
While deriving comfort from specific Bible passages, we are to keep the Big Story (meta-narrative) in mind. True, we live in a broken world; the ravaging coronavirus is but one evidence. However, all authority belongs to Christ (Matthew 28:18). He is victorious over death (1 Corinthians 15). He will return (1 Thessalonians 4:16). There will be no more death or mourning or pain (Revelation 21:4).
Yes, we are grateful. Yes, we grieve. But in the end, it will be Christ, not covid, who will have the last word.
We can be sure of that. The Bible says so. Thus, we are encouraged.
Bio: Nelson T. Dy is an author and speaker on career, relationship, and spirituality. He is a regular guest preacher at the Union Church of Manila and has published ten books to date. Visit his website www.nelsontdy.com or contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org
1 https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, accessed March 28, 2020
2 To learn more about the proper use of Psalms, I recommend chapter 11 of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.
3 Charles R. Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life. Zondervan, 1983, page 292.