It’s here! Covid-19, coronavirus, is here. We wondered what would fill the headlines and column inches after Brexit – now we know. Seemingly out of nowhere – in fact probably out of a market in China selling wild animals for meat – a new plague is sweeping the world. It has moved on from China to its neighbours, especially South Korea, and on to Europe, with Italy worst affected so far, and that hasn’t been the end of the spread. In many parts of the world, precautions are being taken, and multitudes are taking to wearing (largely ineffective) masks in an attempt to avoid infection. Who knows where it will appear next or what the consequences will be?
Already in parts of Europe radical steps are being taken. Badly affected areas such as Italy and neighbouring countries are in virtual ‘lockdown’. Many sporting and other events are postponed to unspecified future dates. Anyone who returns from a trip to any infected area who thinks he or she may have been affected is to ‘self-quarantine’ – whatever precisely that means. Airlines are already being hit by the vast reduction in numbers willing to fly. Predictions of greater restrictions to come are everywhere, as governments prepare for the ‘worst-case scenario’. Swathes of the UK population are being confined to their own homes except in very limited circumstances. Will the infection ‘peak’ in the UK in two or three months, or will coronavirus turn out to be a seasonally recurring infection? Who can tell? The production of an effective vaccine by the beginning of next year, it seems, would be a triumph of speed and ingenuity.
As various events are called off, limitations on large gatherings are imposed and other restrictions are put in place, it is clear that not only is the coronavirus a powerful factor – the fear of the coronavirus is equally powerful. Some international events are being cancelled less because the virus poses a threat and more because fear of the virus makes people unwilling to travel or assemble. We are living in a climate of fear, fed by daily updates on the number of coronavirus infections in our locality. Suppose we had similar daily updates on all kinds of other diseases – flu, heart attacks, various cancers? Could a panic epidemic be far away?
Not all fear is bad, of course. It can be a valuable motivator to take sensible precautions for ourselves and others. Those with no fear can be highly dangerous. We do have to ensure, however, that our fears are directed at appropriate objects. Notice the Lord’s words in Matthew 10:28 ‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ Crucial for every man and woman is the ‘fear of the Lord’ that is the fruit of his grace and is also ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Psalm 111:10), the fear that recognises who the Lord is and submits to him in the repentance and faith that embrace salvation. In the context of that godly fear, all other fears are to be evaluated.
Even the greatest saints experience a measure of fear on occasion. Recalling his initial ministry in Corinth Paul can write that ‘I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling’ (1 Corinthians 2:3) – an encouraging thought for any Christian seeking to share the gospel. Fear, however, is certainly not the dominant force in the life of a child of God.
Notice Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:6, where he says that believers are children of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, ‘if you do good and do not give way to fear’. He is not denying for a moment that there are frightening things in the world – there is no naïve ‘let’s pretend’ in Peter’s outlook – and Christians know that in addition to all the perils that every human being faces, they are in the midst of spiritual warfare with an enemy who longs to destroy them. Nevertheless, we may be delivered from fear if our attention is focussed on the Lord who is almighty, the Lord who loves us with infinite love, the Lord who has promised, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5).
It is in the light of that promise that the writer to the Hebrews continues, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’ (v.6, an allusion to Psalm 118:6). We know that, in one sense, man (and disease, and many other things) can do a lot to us. Christians die as martyrs, Christians die of coronavirus. We do not live in some protective bubble that others do not have. Nevertheless, nothing comes to us, whether it is the attacks of Satan or the onslaught of coronavirus, that is outside the control of our sovereign God, whose providence governs all things. Thus we have a peace that passes human understanding (Philippians 4:7) and are set free from fear. We are, in truth, ready for anything.