Courage in times of the Pandemic
Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because . . . it is the quality which guarantees all others. —Winston Churchill
The coronavirus pandemic is truly global, and the fear and sense of vulnerability far more pervasive, open-ended, and oppressive. The virus of fear has spread further and faster than the Wuhan version. Though fear is amorphous, it has hard-edged consequences that everyone reading this has felt in some way — closed borders, businesses, and schools, cancelled flights, quarantines, and a daily downpour of bad news from jobs lost to lives lost.
We grapple with a whole range of emotions in this current crisis: fear, anger, frustration, and a creeping sense that something has suddenly slipped from our hands that we may never have again. This is the first truly global pandemic that has come with a smartphone and its built-in engine for instant global communications — some of it helpful, some of it quite harmful, especially when media becomes a feed trough for fear.
Fear is contagious. But thankfully, so is courage. Both are cultivated in the company we keep and the truths that dominate our thinking. For the Christian, the guardrails for our fear in any situation are God’s presence and his promises, which will never fail his people. Because of that, we are stronger than we think we are because Jesus, who is in us, with us, and for us, is stronger even than death.
How do we fight the fear? How do we act with courage in this present crisis? In a thousand little ways — none of which will likely win a medal or make headlines, but which can and will make a difference in people’s lives and in their view of our God.
Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Ironically, courage starts here. You can eat healthy, exercise, wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing, look both ways before crossing a street, and do any number of other prudent practices. But the one thing you can’t do is save your own life. You can’t keep it. You can only spend it — so spend it well for as long as God gives it.
There is a long history of Christian courage during times of plagues and epidemics. In the middle of the third century, Alexandria, Egypt, was struck with a horrific plague. Eusebius records that the pagans “thrust from them those that showed the symptoms of plague and fled from their nearest and dearest. They would throw them into the streets half dead, or cast out their corpses without burial” (The Spreading Flame, 191). Despite being a persecuted people, the Christians in the city cared for the sick and buried the dead — even at their own peril. Their courage was rooted in the grace and compassion of Christ and in the certain hope of the resurrection.
This is the same resurrection confidence that sustains Christians in every kind of danger. In one of her last letters home before being killed in an anti-Christian uprising in China, missionary Dr. Eleanor Chestnut wrote, “I don’t think we are in any danger, and if we are, we might as well die suddenly in God’s work as by some long, drawn-out illness at home” (Servants of the King, 99). Dr. Eleanor could write this because she had lost her life long before, when she believed on Jesus. In his sovereign, saving love, she found unending life and joy that could not be taken away, not even by the hateful blows of her killers.
And so, in Christ there is freedom to live — freedom to act, freedom to risk, freedom to “desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”
If we consider all the things we could be afraid of, we can quickly see why don’t be afraid, in one form or another, is one of the most repeated commands in Scripture. Put positively, God calls us to “be strong and of good courage” (Daniel 10:19).
Fear is often our natural response. We don’t have to think of all our reasons to be afraid; fear comes unbidden. But being strong and courageous doesn’t come naturally. Often, we have to think through different reasons why we ought to overcome our fears with courage. God calls us to take courage because it doesn’t just come naturally; we have to fight for it. Confronted with fears on every side and even from within, courage must be seized.
Scripture is full of men and women of remarkable courage.
Abraham showed courage in obeying God’s directive to leave Haran for a land he would show him (Genesis 12:1). He left all that he knew, “and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Later, he shows more strength on the side of Mount Moriah as he obediently prepares to sacrifice his only son, the son of God’s promise (Genesis 22; Hebrews 11:17–19).
Jacob showed courage while facing a brother who had vowed to kill him (Genesis 32–33). Joseph displayed courage while enduring prison for a false charge (Genesis 39–40), then facing Pharaoh who wanted him to interpret his dreams (Genesis 41).
Then there’s Moses who repeatedly faced a hostile Pharaoh (Exodus 5–12) and later led the newly-liberated Hebrews through the Red Sea “as on dry land” (Hebrews 11:29). There’s Joshua leading one military campaign after another against entrenched foes. There’s Rahab risking everything on Yahweh being the true God (Hebrews 11:31).
There’s Gideon facing an overwhelming Midianite army (Judges 7). There’s David facing an overwhelming Goliath (1 Samuel 17). There’s Joab and Abishai facing overwhelming Syrian and Ammonite armies (2 Samuel 10:11–12). There’s Esther facing a royal husband with the power and proven precedent of punishing a queen unwilling to follow protocol (Esther 4:13–5:2). There’s Daniel facing a den of lions (Daniel 6).
Then there’s Jesus, who faced a terrible force far greater than all of the dangers above combined, indeed greater than all of the combined mortal dangers ever faced by every person who has ever lived: the wrath of God against the sin of mankind (Romans 1:18). For him to live with the knowledge of this approaching event (John 12:27), to deliberately walk into it (Luke 9:51), and to willingly and faithfully endure its horrors (Hebrews 12:2), even when he had the power to stop it at any moment (Matthew 26:53), required unfathomable courage.
Each of these biblical saints had to take the courage their actions required. They took the action they believed was right, in spite of the fear they experienced at the thought of taking it.
What fuelled their courage? Faith. Courage is an act of faith, because the courageous person acts on what he believes to be right despite the threat of real or apparent danger.
“Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). The lawyer’s question for Jesus was answered with an example of quiet, costly, compassionate courage from the least likely.
A man lay on the side of the road to Jericho. Robbers had beaten and stripped him, leaving him half dead. He was a bloody mess. Two religious leaders — a priest and a Levite — passed by the dying man. When they saw him, perhaps they prayed a little prayer. Perhaps they scrolled Facebook to avoid eye contact, or turned up their worship music a little louder as they hurried on. Wherever the priest and the Levite were going that day, they made it on time — punctual and presentable. But one man missed his appointments that day.
He is called the “Good Samaritan,” although no Jew at the time would ever have thought to put those two words together. Samaritans were despised — and the feeling was mutual. Yet it was a Samaritan who was a loving neighbour to a complete stranger.
I like to think I am the Samaritan in the story, but far too often I am the Levite instead — too busy to stop, too afraid to get involved, too hurried. But the coronavirus has forced most of us to slow down, to slow way down. For someone whose life is built around travelling, this can be very frustrating. My father is a tour operator who travels all over the world and his calendar says that today he should be on a tour in Israel. Instead, the only thing he has done today is crossed the street in front of his house.
As hard as it is for him to adjust, in this sudden standstill he has found flashes of a silver lining in the smiles of helping my mum at home, in the face of talking to friends and family and learning to be more technologically savvy.
What need, what opportunity will you see on the Jericho road? It may be a stranded traveller, childcare for kids suddenly out of school whose parents still have a job, or an older neighbour in need. I think we should pray daily for people whose health or age makes them most vulnerable both to COVID-19 and to gripping fear. Make their comfort your priority.
Courage is always fuelled by faith. Good courage is fuelled by faith in the ultimate good of the real God and all he promises to be for us in Jesus. Therefore, good courage must be taken — we must take hold of real promises given by the real God so that having done all, we can stand firm in the evil day (Ephesians 6:13). Come what may, we know that we “shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the [eternal] land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).
Since all the promises of God are yes to us in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20), we must not be cowards but let our hearts take courage by believing that what God has already promised is yes to us.
Orthodoxy: Illustrated Centennial Edition (G. K. Chesterton Book 2) Kindle Edition
The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from Its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English Paperback – April 20, 2004
Eusebius: The Church History Paperback – Illustrated, 1 Jan. 2007