“Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
When you woke up this morning, did you for a second stop to think that there was the possibility that you could slip on the mat by your bed or in your bathroom, fall, hit your head off something, snap your neck and die? Did you think that as you closed the door behind you and got into your car that there was the possibility that you could drive down the road and be hit by another car or hit a patch of oil and spin off the road and end up in hospital that afternoon? Did you think that as you ate your lunch that there may have already been going on inside your body a mutation of cells that one day would be diagnosed as cancer?
I would say that most of us have learnt to put thoughts like these into perspective despite the times when fears and worries have maybe consumed some of our thoughts. Yet with the current climate of Coronavirus we have been thrust into a thought pattern process in which our mortality and frailty have been put before our eyes in a way that has caused panic beyond what many of us have ever known or seen before.
My question in the midst of all the chaos and confusion is the big question of ‘why?’ Not the big theological and emotional ‘why?’ that we ask when trouble enters into our lives and we wonder ‘why this and why me?’ but the why as in ‘why has such panic and fear gripped us?’ As I try to think about that, I try to think theologically and as I do that I’m reminded and confronted by some very pertinent problems within our hearts that are perhaps more deadly than the health issues facing us.
One is that we are witnessing the destruction of an idol that most of us have taken for granted and have assumed as a right for so long, maybe even too long. We are all guilty of saying the phrase, ‘your health is your wealth’ like some sort of mantra that has become gospel truth to us. But stop and take some time to honestly look at your health. I’m only coming 31 and I feel the frailty of my own body already. This body is weak, it is vulnerable, it is dying and yet because I’ve grown up in this blessed time of medical advances I’ve been sheltered and able to mitigate so many things that would have been disastrous only a century ago. You and I enjoy a level of health the likes of which some of our most recent ancestors could only have dreamed of and maybe that comfort has turned into a curse as much as being a great blessing.
With the Coronavirus outbreak we are witnessing the crumbling of our most closely guarded and protected idol in our health, and we having to face our frailty and mortality and we are finding it terrifying. It is exposing to the world their misplaced faith and their own selfish desires of ‘look after number one,’ ‘batten down the hatches’, and ‘close the gates’ as shelves are emptied of supplies and any spare space in a home is stocked with toilet roll. Yet perhaps the sadder reality is that it is also exposing the functional and foundational faith of disciples of Jesus and showing many of us that we have placed and place more hope in our health than in our hearts being united to Jesus.
We have to face the fact that our health was never on sure footing before the Coronavirus and if and when the Coronavirus passes, or is added to a list of things with a vaccination, it will still not be on a sure footing. To put it bluntly death loomed over us before Coronavirus and after coronavirus death will still loom over as large, as real and as inevitable and unavoidable as it ever did.
The second heart problem being exposed is our outlook on death. Maybe it is the jovial Calvinist in me that in a caricature chants “Die is gain; die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) but isn’t that the Biblical reality for those of us in Christ? You see before us is not only the idol of health crumbling, but also our belief in the sufficiency of Scripture. We may with our mouths firmly believe that the Bible is God’s breathed out word and that is it inerrant and infallible, sufficient and necessary for all of life (2nd Timothy 3:16-17) but our hearts and lives tell a different truth. Each of us is waiting on the next Facebook post about whether church services will go ahead or whether the schools will close, whether that concert will be cancelled, whether a new medical professional who really knows what is going on will step forward like a knight in shining armour or whether our politicians will ever make the right call for a time like this. Yet where is God’s word in this? God’s people have always lived in uncertain times with uncertain prospects and but they have faced it with the promises of God as the only real, true and firm foundation under their feet on which they can stand. It is those promises that enable God’s people in days like these to say “I will not be greatly shaken” Psalm 62:2. So in all of the thoughts running through our minds, I wonder where is the measure of stopping and seeing what God has said in both the challenge and comfort of His Word.
You and I need to ask ourselves some searching and deep questions about our faith: Do I believe in the Godly character of God, His holiness, His justice, His mercy, His grace, His goodness? Do I believe that whatever my God ordains is right? Do I believe in His sovereignty and control? Do I believe that death is the last great enemy but that it will be a doorway to life and into the presence of my God? Do I see it as better by far to go and be with Him? Those are hard-hitting questions but they are good questions that this outbreak is causing us to stop and ask and they need to be asked to see whether our heart holds on the One who is holding on to us or whether we cling far too tightly to this life and the things of this world.
Our Church history should help grant us some perspective in things like this, whether that is considering Luther and the Black Death, or the Puritans and the grief that they faced in their high infant mortality rate and their short life expectancy. I think particularly of the Puritans and the the phrase that they coined in ‘memento mori’, ‘remember death’ which should lead us all to consider and pray the words of the psalmist, “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
The third and last thing thing to consider is that we as Christians have been made and called for days like these. We have a great hope, a living hope in Christ (1st Peter 1:3) and in the panic, confusion and chaos of the world crumbling before us (which is happening constantly anyway without Coronavirus) can we maybe with directness and grace ask the question of the Heidelberg Catechism to the people around us:
What is your only comfort in life and death?
And then give them our great answer:
That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
For the first time in a long time the world is being confronted with the reality of its mortality and frailty as it watches the things in which it has placed its faith come crumbling down. Within these moments there are opportunities in the ground that is being cleared to see the Kingdom grow and the Gospel spread as the hope of Jesus in this life and for the life to come can be presented as the beautiful grace filled message that it is of life in the face of death and hope in the midst of despair.
And to borrow a phrase from Sinclair Ferguson, even for Christians and the church we can experience the great grace of having God ‘divinely deconstruct us’ as we have our own hearts revealed to us with some confronting clarity. In these moments there is a great need to look to Jesus “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Jesus is always the double edge sword of comfort and challenge to us and to the world, and that sword is needed to sever our umbilical cord-like ties to the world, a world in which we are only strangers passing through. Christ’s comfort and challenge is what we need to be confronted with, not only in the days of Coronavirus chaos but every day until Christ comes again or calls us home.
Let us remember who we are and what we have been called to do in our all too short time here on this earth. We have been made and called for days like these in which our faith is grounded in God’s Word in a way that it has never been before as all the other idols we have come to cling to come crumbling down. We have been made and called for days like these in which we step out to love our neighbour as Christ called us to with the sacrificial love of the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us. We have been made and called for days like these in which we will proclaim Christ with no fear of the future because it is held in the hands of our Sovereign Lord and because the Father and the Son both hold us in their hands (John 10) and the Spirit is in us and with us every step of the way.
Here are some articles for further reading which you may find helpful:
C.S Lewis on the Coronavirus:
How Being Honest about Death brings Hope:
8 Reminders in the Face of the Coronavirus: