Most Christians know that the most frequently-repeated command in Scripture is “Fear not.” It doesn’t mean that it’s a sin to feel afraid. After all, Jesus clearly expressed fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. God knows we can’t control how we feel, but we are responsible for how we act when we are afraid. “Fear not” means we can’t let fear control us. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in these days when coronavirus dominates the news. One of the main reasons the Gospel spread so fast in the ancient world is that those first Christians refused to be overcome by fear. The sociologist Rodney Stark wrote a book called The Rise of Christianity, in which he sought to understand how the Jesus movement, lacking in resources, social standing or religious freedom, and in spite of periods of intense official persecution, became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by the Fourth Century. One reason the Church grew was that, during the great epidemics that would sweep through ancient cities, Christians stayed, tending to the sick, while the rest of the populace fled for the hills. Why would they do this? Two reasons: First, they took seriously the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves. They couldn’t consider themselves true Christ-followers if they didn’t step up when their neighbors were dying. Another was that they did not fear death; in fact, they welcomed it as a promotion to a better world, where they would be face-to-face with their Savior. As Paul wrote from literal death row, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. In a time when Christianity was known as a religion for slaves, the courageous faith of those ordinary believers opened a door for millions of Roman citizens to encounter the Gospel.
I am not saying the coronavirus is going to be anything like those epidemics of old; I certainly hope it won’t be. But I am praying that, no matter what happens, we modern-day Christians would not driven by fear. Can we be honest? In my lifetime, we haven’t done so well at this. In the early 1980s, for example, when most Americans first became aware of the existence and rapid spread of AIDS, when no one knew what caused the illness, and people who had contracted it were treated as lepers by most, American Christians, by and large, were just as fearful as the rest of the country. What if we had behaved like those early Christians instead? What if we had been the ones to minister to AIDS patients, in spite of the risk, driving them to doctors’ appointments, tending to them in their beds, weeping with them and holding their hands as they died? Don’t you think our ability today to share the Gospel of Jesus with homosexual men and women would be different? Don’t you think our cultural credibility in speaking truth in love would be enhanced? We had an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and we blew it.
For another, much less serious example: When people were in a panic over the so-called Y2K crisis, when some speculated that power grids would shut down at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, leading to the collapse of world economies and rioting in the streets, were we the voice of reason? Did we exhibit calm in the midst of anxiety? Not exactly. I knew some Christians who preached that everyone should buy their own cow so that they would have a source of dairy products when all the grocery stores were no more. Once again, too many of us were driven by fear.
Let me say it once more: I don’t know what will happen with this disease. I have great hope that bright scientific minds will find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment very soon. I am praying toward that end, and so should all Christians. But don’t stop there. Pray that we would not let fear control us. That means we will not pass along hysterical rumors. We won’t obsessively watch the news, and we won’t believe everything we read on the internet. Factcheck.org is among many great websites to use in checking rumors you hear, or just call your local doctor’s office. Heed the instructions we receive from medical authorities. Right now, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control recommend good handwashing, and seeking treatment if you feel sick. Most of all, pray along with me that God would allow us to rise to the challenge of whatever comes, that this time we would be the people of God that our community needs. Pray that, if our worst fears about this disease are realized, we will act like those early Christians, loving our neighbors and refusing to fear death. Pray, and wait for an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus.