You Cannot Keep Your Life
Courageous Stories for Coronavirus Days
Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because . . . it is the quality which guarantees all others. —Winston Churchill
A few weeks after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, I was in Washington for meetings at the Capitol. At the end of the day, I stepped out onto one of its ornate porticos to watch the sunset. The western sky was ablaze. It lit the Washington Monument like a candle and filled the Mall with golden light. Above me, the Capitol rotunda — this towering symbol of our republic — was grand and strong. It had been the intended target of the fourth plane.
I’ll never forget that as I gazed up at the rotunda in wonder and pride and relief, without warning the words of Jesus echoed in my ears. They were words that caught his disciples off guard as they pointed out the wonders of the temple to their Master. He said, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).
Suddenly all the strength of that great crown of Capitol Hill seemed to drain away. Something about the pale marble suddenly seemed vulnerable and strikingly fragile. The Capitol came so close to being a scene of blackened, tangled death and destruction, just like the one rescue workers were still picking through at Ground Zero in New York City. The difference between our majestic Capitol and a bomb crater was only about twenty minutes and the courage of the passengers and crew of Flight 93.
Our Current Crisis
While there are many differences between the crisis in 2001 and ours today, the same swiftness of change and the long-range impact on daily life will be felt for years to come.
Unlike the 9/11 attack, 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, canceled 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.
Courage Is Contagious
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. So let’s answer Cowper’s call to arms — “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take” — by remembering truths that defy the darkness, showing love to others, and giving glory to God.
You Cannot Keep Your Life
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.
“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms,” G.K. Chesterton wrote.
It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. . . . This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. . . . A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. (Orthodoxy, 89)
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.”
Who Might Need You Now?
“Who is my neighbor?” (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 neighbor 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 motion, this can be very frustrating. My calendar says that today I am to cross the border from Greece into North Macedonia and take the mountain pass to Skopje. Instead, the only thing I’ve crossed today is the street in front of my house.
As hard as it is for me to adjust, in this sudden standstill I’ve found flashes of a silver lining in the smiles of my 94-year-old neighbor when I brought him meals, and in the face of a friend in a heroic fight with cancer who needed groceries and coffee and conversation to break the weary hours.
What need, what opportunity will you see on the Jericho road? It may be a stranded traveler, childcare for kids suddenly out of school whose parents still have a job, or an older neighbor in need. My friend Rosaria Butterfield has said, “Text frequently and 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.”
Something Worse Than Death
“In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). This is a good time to speak of the hope that we have in Christ. This is why my friend and his wife (I’ll call them Sam and Leah) with their children returned to China at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.
It was a difficult, thought-out, prayed-out decision. At a time when most everyone who could get out of China were doing just that — and for good reason — Sam and Leah made a different decision. In the midst of rampant fear, they could show and tell their Chinese neighbors and colleagues that there is living, lasting hope in Jesus. It was also important to demonstrate this truth to their Chinese brothers and sisters as they stood and served shoulder to shoulder with them in this crisis.
Sam, in his last message to me before flying back into China, told of how the Scripture had shaped their decision. He said,
Second Timothy chapter 1 has really come into my mind several times, especially that call to gather with his people to fan into flame the gift of God, because he “has not given us the spirit of fear and timidity but of power, love, and self-control.” Paul goes on to say the way you fan into flame the gift of God is by sharing in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.
Sam went on to describe an obscure Christian in that chapter named Onesiphorus, whose courageous act was simply to be there for Paul the prisoner:
When everyone abandoned Paul, Onesiphorus was the guy who was not ashamed of his chains and stood with him and sought him out and refreshed him. Even though we will be locked in our house for at least a period of time — and maybe more than that 14-day quarantine — we feel like this is a really important time to be standing with our Chinese brothers and sisters and to be living out what we believe Luke 12 says — that there is something much worse than the coronavirus and that there’s something much better than health.
My friend is another Onesiphorus. He and his family’s step of faith and love and risk has strengthened my own heart during these daunting days — because courage, too, is contagious.
Dear Jesus, our brave Captain, please speak through your people and act through your people, even as you steady our fearful hearts by your presence. Give us work to do. Raise up an army of Onesiphoruses, who will reflect the power of your rising in this present darkness. Amen.