As most of you are no doubt aware, this week for many people across the world was dominated by endless talk about the coronavirus.
Grocery store shelves were empty, our greatest commodity—toilet paper—became alarmingly scarce, and media outlets ran a non-stop cycle of headlines foretelling the sure and sudden destruction of the world. Schools across the country were shut down, work was cancelled, many churches put a temporary end to services, people were sent into self-imposed quarantine, and major sporting events, from the NBA to NCAA March Madness, were cancelled.
In times like this, with news feeds broadcasting doomsday reports ad nauseum—most of which range from unhelpful to shamefully misleading—it’s easy to see why the situation for many is best described by three words: anxiety, panic, and fear.
But I want to make the case that for the Christian, we shouldn’t be ruled by any of these things. Instead, we should be filled with joy, thanksgiving, and prayer.
These are the words Paul wrote to a suffering Philippian church, one that faced martyrdom, persecution, and didn’t know a thing about modern medicine, anesthesia, respirators, or viruses. Paul himself wrote from a prison cell as he awaited his own sure death:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7)
First, Paul commanded us to rejoice.
Paul commands our joy in all things, which necessarily includes when coronavirus is causing so much heartburn for public officials, healthcare administrators, and citizens alike.
The Greek word Paul uses here literally means, “to be glad for God’s grace,” something that remains constant whether we face pandemic viruses or not. It’s not a feeling, but a settled commitment to recognize the myriad ways in which God’s grace has been and is being displayed in your life.
Instead of focusing on our constantly changing, mystifying circumstances, we can rejoice because of the unchanging, immovable grace of God. Obedience to this passage means committing ourselves to think more about God’s gracious action in our life—the fact that our redemption is sure in Christ, our Father supplies our every need, or that we ate breakfast this morning under a stable roof—than what’s scrolling across our newsfeed.
Second, Paul tells us that anxiety is never the acceptable Christian disposition.
Before you start thinking our situation is a rare exception, keep in mind that Paul was speaking to a church facing impending martyrdom and through the centuries would face things like the plague, which in the 1300s killed roughly 200 million people, or 60 percent of Europe’s population.
Hundreds of millions of people died in the 20th Century, 50 million to influenza around WWI.
The Christian witness has always been about maintaining hope while the world around us despairs. That remains the case today: the world will know us by our joy.
Third, and most practically, Paul tells us to turn our anxious thoughts into prayer.
Your Father numbered your days before you were born, knows what you need before you ask, is sovereignly powerful over every molecule, and numbers all the hairs of your head, so let us be a people who models faith in the way we pray during this difficult season.
Fathers and mothers, model it for your families. More than you read headlines from your smartphones as you walk around the house, fill your homes with the aroma of grateful prayer.
Finally, we must recognize that what we cry out for during times of suffering reveals what we really worship. As the pagan nation cries out for the government to do more, we rather confess Christ as Lord by crying out to Him. Instead of crying out for the government to do more, the church ought to be collectively falling to our knees in prayer for our communities.
Yes, we will take the danger seriously, we will take the necessary precautions, we will wash our hands, but above all, we will pray and we will rejoice. And then we will go on faithfully with our lives.
The above was an exhortation given at Providence Reformed Church on March 15, 2020.