Every day, red circles on the map widen as the coronavirus swallows countries whole. The worldwide tally of cases now exceeds three million. At points over the last weeks, the virus claimed the lives of up to two thousand people a day in Italy, Spain, and the United States, and in total it has killed over two hundred thousand people. Each of those data points represents a mother or father, a daughter or son. Over two hundred thousand image-bearers of God, each with dreams, ambitions, loves, and hopes, now gone.
Like many retired healthcare professionals, I’ve rejoined the workforce to assist as coronavirus cases surge. As I transition from days immersed in books with my kids to nights helping people cling to life, I agonize about the faces and names behind the numbers. How many will draw their last breath on my watch? How many of them will be alone when they do? ICUs house the sickest people in the hospital, but even in the worst circumstances loved ones usually hover at the bedside, often talking, sometimes singing, always holding a hand as life winds down. Now, as the coronavirus forges unprecedented barriers, the rooms are eerily empty.
I also worry about the people I’ll crush with horrible news delivered over the phone. Each number in the death tally also signifies loved ones in mourning. Even when the tide of cases ebbs, their grief will linger. For months, perhaps for years, they’ll hear a familiar song, walk along a favorite street, and struggle to breathe through the heartache as the memories rush back.
Then there are the multitudes that statistics don’t capture: those fearful for their homes and families as the economy crumbles. People worry about paying for electricity and water as their weekly income dries up. Others trouble about their children falling behind if they can’t access online learning. Still more dutifully work their jobs at the grocery store or pharmacy, all the while fearful of bringing the virus home to their families. And there are multitudes of us, isolated, perhaps self-quarantined, who daily sink into loneliness.
However you analyze the data, few of us will emerge from this crisis unscathed. Lord, have mercy.
Faithful in Calamity
We know that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). But I’ll admit that in my fallenness, as I concentrate on how best to care for these patients while also protecting my own family, I sometimes struggle to grasp his mercy. My vision of his steadfast love fogs when everything in life we know as good seems to unravel.
I’m not alone. Throughout the Bible, those who love God endure suffering, cower in fear, and with pleading hearts and clasped hands cry out, “How long, Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17). David lamented through harrowing imagery. Job scraped himself with shards of pottery. Mary, grief-stricken over Lazarus’s death, fell to Jesus’s feet and cried, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).
In this world, we weep. Our understanding has limits. We reel in our grief. Yet over and over, the Bible reveals that even in our most desperate moments, God remains faithful. He abounds in steadfast love even when sin bears down and defies our comprehension. In ways more spectacular than we can fathom, he works through the calamities that ravage this world to bring us into his glory.
God’s Hidden Purposes
The example of Martha and Mary strikingly illustrates this point. In John 11:3, the sisters urged Jesus to rescue their dying brother, Lazarus. They had witnessed Jesus heal throngs: paralytics and lepers, blind men and epileptics. Surely, he would rush to save his beloved friend Lazarus as well.
But instead of racing to Lazarus’s side, Jesus delayed for two full days. In that interval, Lazarus succumbed to his illness and died. Imagine the sisters’ confusion and heartbreak. Jesus wielded the power to save their brother, so why didn’t he? Why would he allow such horror?
The answer we read in John 11 is stunning. “This illness does not lead to death,” Jesus explained. “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Then at the gravesite, Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43–44).
Even when Martha and Mary couldn’t discern his purposes, God was at work, covering them with his grace and his glory. In allowing death to take hold of Lazarus transiently, Jesus revealed the power and glory of God. He also pointed to God’s ultimate gift to humankind: forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, and life everlasting in the presence of our Lord.
Sin infects the heart of every creature on earth. But in Christ, this sickness does not lead to death. Out of love for the world, God has defeated death (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:55), so that no disease, not even a pandemic that has swallowed the world, can wrench us from his love (Romans 8:38–39).
Hope to Endure
As the wages of sin, death tears those we love from our midst and corrupts all that is good and lovely. The gospel is good news precisely because death is so awful. In the coming weeks and months, we will cry for our departed friends. The numbers will rise. The tears will flow. I will make my rounds in the dead of night and choke back pangs of agony. Jesus never promised us freedom from pain while we await his return (John 15:18).
Yet he does offer us a hope to endure. The empty tomb reminds us that God is greater than any packet of nucleic acids tunneling into the lungs. The coronavirus spreads in silent malice, but God’s sovereign hand covers us, and his glory knows no bounds. Like Martha and Mary, we may only perceive our Lord’s absence, his delays, and his silence. But in the words of Paul, “This light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18).
I’ve ventured back into the ICU to love my neighbors in crisis, because Jesus loved me first. The nights are long and hard. The tears will flow. But as I aim to care for the growing numbers, I can rejoice that our God, who gave his beloved Son so we might have eternal life, knows each and every one by name (Psalm 139:1–2). He has numbered each hair on our heads (Luke 12:7). While for now we groan, he has already defeated death out of love for us, and secured for us a home in heaven.
Whatever calamities await us, when Christ returns he will chase away the pestilence. He will sort our wayward molecules aright, wipe every tear from every eye, and make all things new.
For now, we groan. For now, we weep. But the tomb is empty. Christ is risen. And in Christ, we cling to the promise that no virus, no illness, no unseen enemy can ever tear us from his love.