COVID-19: PANDEMIC, PESTILENCE OR PROVING GROUND?

by Remco Brommet

As of this writing, the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is still a daily developing story. The World Health Organization has declared it a pandemic, which means it has grown far beyond an epidemic and spans the globe. Whole countries are on lock-down, the US is implementing more and more stringent measures state by state as cases and deaths rapidly mount, and the world is in the grip of panic, fear, draconian measures and resolve. Public reactions are mixed, and the internet is abuzz with somber messages, angry rants, fake news, feel-good reports of communities coming together, and humor.

My wife and I are sitting at home, going out as little as possible, following the government guidelines for social distancing and disinfecting as much as possible, using our work-from-home-stay-at-home seclusion to commune deeply with God, to think, and help others connect with the Father as much as we can.

Despite all the medical research done so far, and all the measures in place to halt the spread of the virus, still very little seems to be known about COVID-19. We know some of the symptoms, but there is disagreement on how long it takes to manifest itself, how to distinguish it from a cold or a flu, and no one has discovered exactly where it came from.

Medically, at least.

Christ-followers who know their Bible well may be less mystified about its origin. The word “pandemic” doesn’t occur in Scripture. The word “pestilence” does.  Frequently.  It occurs 25 times in Jeremiah and Ezekiel alone, and then we come across it in 2 Chronicles 6 and 7, Amos, as well as Habakkuk. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to pestilences as a sign of the End Times (Matthew 24:7, Luke 21:11), and they are mentioned again as the work of the pale rider, Death, under the opening of the fourth seal in Revelation 6. Very often, pestilence is mentioned alongside sword and famine as interconnected scourges that visit mankind from time to time.

The word “pestilence” or “plague” is translated from the Greek word loimos, which was used as a catch-all word for any sort of disease regardless of how widespread it was. No specific clues there.

There are numerous examples of pestilences throughout history:

– Plague of Justinian in AD 541 (estimated death toll 25 million)
– Plague of Antonine in AD 165 (estimated death toll 5 million)
– the bubonic plague, also known as the black death, in 14th century Europe (estimated
toll between 75-200 million)
– glandular plague in 14th century Eastern Europe (estimated death toll 25 million)
– several influenza pandemics in the last 200 years (estimated death toll 50-60 million)    including Asian and Bird flu
– six cholera pandemics in the last 400 years (estimated death toll of several million)
– HIV/AIDS (estimated death toll of 36 million)

Most of these pandemics were limited to particular regions, with the exception of certain flus and the HIV virus. Most experts agree that the COVID-19 pandemic is of historic proportions and has thrust the world into things it has never experienced before.

Its sheer epic scale is itself a suggestion that this is an unprecedented global shaking of far greater significance than a medical issue. But there is more. Because it arrived so suddenly, is from an unknown origin, and spreads so secretively – before symptoms manifest themselves –  it fits the description of pestilence in Psalm 91: 6 “…the pestilence that stalks in darkness.”

The evidence that is unfolding before us leaves very little doubt in my mind that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the shakings foretold by the prophets of old, by Jesus Himself, who knew the mind and ways of God like no other, and by the apostle John in Revelation 6.

But to what end? We could write a whole book about that, but let me summarize:

Almost all the pestilences visited upon humanity, in conjunction with sword (wars) and famine, serve a dual purpose:

  • Temporary judgement for turning away from God and living in sin (Rev. 9:20), with the final judgement of all the nations still to come (Rev. 20:11-12)
  • A wake-up call to repent.

This is the righteousness of God demanding holiness exercised in love, providing wake-up calls again and again to repent and get right with Him. And the closer we get to the end of the world as God has planned it, the more frequent and intense these “shakings” become. God doing due diligence to provide mankind with plenty of opportunity to see His power and repent, giving chance after chance, before final judgement when it’s too late.

For the “people of God,” which I take to mean the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the Body of Christ in the New Testament, there are three additional purposes:

  1. Pray and seek God’s face (2 Chron. 7:14)
  2. Examine your ways and repent from all that is not right in the sight of God (2 Chron. 7: 14; Haggai 1:5)
  3. Faith test, leading to a deeper connection with Him, to steadfastness and resilience (Hebr. 12:5-11, James 1:2-4)

That brings me to the proving ground. A proving ground is a place where people or products are tested for strength and endurance by purposely putting them under some sort of duress. For people, such proving grounds don’t just test a person’s strength, it increases it as well. A proving ground is more or less the same as a training ground. Painful? Absolutely. Hebrews 12: 11 even acknowledges that: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” In other words, no pain no gain.

So while the unbelieving world is being shaken as a wake-up call to repent and turn to God, the Body of Christ, which consists of all those who walk daily in surrender to Him, is being disciplined. And it is clear from what we read in 2 Chron.7:13, 14 what response God desires from us on the proving ground:
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among the people, if my people, who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

From that weighty passage in 2 Chronicles, which came directly from the mouth of God at the dedication of Solomon’s temple, it becomes crystal clear that God desires from us a four-fold response in order for a pandemic such as COVID-19 to end, and life to be healed and restored:

  1. Humble yourself: That can mean different things to different people, but it seems to me that it is first and foremost the acknowledgement of the crisis being a shaking from God to get our attention. That it is an act of tough love, not of hate, and certainly not an attack aimed at disrupting the status-quo. If anything, it is intended to upend the status-quo because the status-quo is not pleasing to God.
  2. Pray: The antithesis to running around developing action plans to mitigate the crisis as our first impulse, is to pray first. It is lumped together with the next two as in interconnected 3-faceted response that comes after humility. “Pray” means to cease our striving and be still (Psalm 46:10). It means to take our eyes off the crisis so we can see God better. It means involving and even intentional dependence on God rather than working in our own strength and according to our own insight.
  3. Seek His face: This takes us a step beyond just praying. When you hear “just pray” it generally means asking God for things. Seeking the hand of God to act on your behalf. Not wrong in and of itself. But God wants more from us. Seeking His face means to seek His immediate, abiding Presence. It requires intentionality (1 Chronicles 22:19 “Now set your heart and mind to seek the Lord your God.”). When we seek His face, we listen to Him. We want to know His mind, His thoughts, His perspective. We want to receive His marching orders, pray and act as directed by His Holy Spirit. The beauty is that when you seek His face, you get both His face (His revelation) and His hand (His actions on your behalf). If you only seek His hand, you miss His face. Think about that.
  4. Turn from wicked ways: Hardship and discipline are usually intended to upend our comfort zones, our status quo, and bring us to a place of examining our ways to see if we have become too comfortable with the world, and with sin. As we seek God’s face, we may ask the Holy Spirit to reveal anything in us we need to turn away from. Anything that God considers wicked. So God desires from us a Spirit-directed and empowered purging and reordering of our lives.
    Usually these are things that hinder our communion with Him, pollute our fellowship with each other, and undermine our mission to the world.

This four-fold response returns us to giving God His rightful place in our daily lives, in our minds and our affections, and purifies our motives and intentions for ministry, work and social interaction.

It needs to happen at a personal as well as a corporate level.

At a personal level, we would seek God’s help in removing anything from our lives that is a distraction. Too much smartphone time? Too much TV? Too much sports and entertainment? Too much chasing of money and success? Too little prayer and listening to God? Too little generosity? Too little involvement in ministry?

Just to name a few areas He might like to address. I know I have to.

At the corporate, church-wide, city-wide, nation-wide level within the Body of Christ the indefinite shut-down of our campuses and assemblies is equally forcing us to re-think the way we have been doing church. Too campus-oriented? Too much program and entertainment focused? Too superficial? Too little community impact? No corporate prayer?

The list could go on.

The beauty of the proving ground is the outcome. The peaceful fruit of righteousness. A greater devotion to God, a deeper holiness, that brings peace. Not just to ourselves, but to the restless world around us that longs for peace and finds none.

So this pandemic, this pestilence, is a reset, a sabbath, a slowing down for the people of God. God slamming the breaks on ev-ry-thing. A proving ground. An opportunity to examine ourselves, purge our lives, get more deeply connected with the Father, become more acutely aware of His daily presence, more open to His impartation, more dependent on Him, and more deeply and genuinely connected to one another as we go through this proving ground together.

Let’s not miss it.

The biggest word in the passage from 1 Chronicles 7:14 is the first one.

If.

If my people will humble themselves when I send a pestilence.

So if we don’t, no forgiveness will come, no healing will come.

If we turn to self-sufficiency to “beat this thing”, or if we stick our head in the sand or worse, if we shake our fist at God in anger because we think that causing this is not “loving”, we miss it. We miss the opportunity to change our ways and be brought into deeper friendship with Him. We miss the opportunity to experience His presence at a deeper level. We miss the opportunity to bring about a reversal of the situation by responding as God desires. We miss the opportunity to purge our personal and church lives from stuff that doesn’t belong there.

No matter what noble a response to a global pandemic we can think of and do, if we miss this, we miss it all.