Daily we scour the internet for answers. Symptoms of the Coronavirus? How do I properly wash my hands? How do I make a mask? What constitutes social distancing? How do I apply for unemployment? When will this all be over? We click on links to listen to leading immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci offer insight with his now-famous graveled voice — and we hang on his every word.
And yet, with all of our modern advantages and advanced search engines, is it possible that we are missing something? As Christians, might our fixation on modern voices deafen us to the wisdom of the past? Could an ancient letter provide us insight for modern struggles?
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In a letter written to the Church at Rome, the apostle Paul provides a perspective that can help us not only through this current challenge, but also through ones to follow. How might the apostle Paul advise us in these uncertain times? While Paul has much to say, we need some background information to put his words into context.
Preparing for hardship
When Paul writes his letter in A.D. 58, a 16-year-old Nero has ascended to the throne of the Roman Empire. As Caesar, he is treated like a god. He rules over the ancient world, and his word is not to be questioned. However, this boy-king is powerless to prevent tragedy from hitting Rome. Nine years after he ascends to the throne, the city of Rome is engulfed in a fire that lasts three days and leaves one-third of the city in ash and rubble. Rome’s economy is devastated, and confidence in Nero is shaken. As a response, he desperately places the blame on the shoulders of Christians. Rome has suffered because these Christ-worshippers have failed to give allegiance to Roman gods. In brutal fashion, Christians are punished as a desperate form of divine appeasement.
Long before the fire and Nero’s persecution, Paul pens what we call the Book of Romans. Yet, as we shall see, the Spirit—who foresees all— is guiding his words to prepare the church for both Nero’s persecution and our challenge of COVID-19. Be warned: His counsel is both comforting and disconcerting.
Is God for us?
“If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31) Paul writes to a young church soon to be facing persecution. How these early Christians answer this question will be of great importance once Nero’s wrath is felt. Perhaps they made connections like these: We know that God is for us because we are not currently facing persecution. God is for us because our families are safe. God is for us because our young church is growing, slowly but still growing. Before we look at Paul’s response, how might we answer his question today? In the midst of a pandemic, how do you know God is for you?
- You’re healthy
- You didn't lose your job
- Your loved ones are safe
- Your savings haven’t been dramatically touched
- Your university will honor your sports scholarship
While those answers are certainly understandable, they do open the door to another question: Is God still for us if we contract COVID-19, if our finances hit bottom, or if our entire sports season is cancelled? What then?
Paul’s answer is rooted in asking a different question: “He who did not spare His own son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) Paul is utilizing a teaching strategy called the principle of the greater to the lesser. If someone is willing to provide you with the greater, then that same commitment can reasonably apply to the lesser.
On the day I married my wife, I publicly pledged to give her my full love and commitment. Imagine how odd it would be if later, Noreen asked if that commitment included providing her with food, taking out the trash, and being a companion. If I pledged my full love and commitment (the greater thing), then she can be assured that I care about such issues as food and splitting up household chores (the lesser things).
Paul gives the ultimate expression of this principle when he argues that if God gave us Jesus to meet our greatest need (salvation), then He’ll also be attentive to lesser needs—health, finances, career. Great news! So I not only get salvation, but also health, wealth, and protection from COVID-19! God is good!
Wait. Not so fast.
We know from this passage and countless others that Paul’s phrase, “freely give us all things” does not necessarily entail providing all we ask for or want. This will become painfully obvious to a young church facing persecution and a modern church wrestling with COVID-19. Just as Paul didn’t get the thorn removed from his flesh — though he passionately asked for it to be (2 Cor. 12:7-10) — he was able to be assured that Jesus’ death for him meant that God cared about his predicament. The same is true for us. Our assurance of God’s love needs to be rooted in Christ’s sacrifice (the greater thing), not on how lesser needs — though important—are being met.
How often do we judge God on the lesser? If my parents are healthy, if my scholarship is secure, if I’m not laid off, then I can know that God is for me. In the end, with such an approach, our view of God’s goodness rises and falls like today’s turbulent stock market. Paul, however, asserts that we can be assured of the greater truth (Jesus’s death for us), even if the lesser things are not happening as soon as we’d like.
Paul’s not finished asking questions: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:35). He then lists off possibilities such as tribulation, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril, or the sword. Remember, persecution was still nine years away when he posed this question. Yet, distress, persecution, nakedness and sword are on his list of potential experiences, an eerie foreshadowing of things to come.
Notice where Paul encourages us to place our focus. In a world of turmoil, our focus should not be on lesser things that can be compromised. When COVID-19 hits, Paul is not promising that our health, finances, or careers will be off limits or that Christians won’t suffer. Keep in mind, this is being written by a man who has suffered much and will eventually himself be martyred.
Paul’s letter forces us to ask some powerful questions as we face COVID-19.
What are the criteria I use to judge whether or not God is on my side?
Is the criteria focused on lesser things such as health or my 401k?
Can anything separate me from the love of Jesus?
In a world of uncertainty, is Jesus’ love enough?
In one of the most puzzling parts of his letter, Paul seemingly offers two contradictory statements. He begins by quoting Psalm 44:22 where the psalmist observes, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” This is a hard truth for a church heading toward persecution. Yet before despair takes hold, he asserts, “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer” (Rom. 8:37). What? How can both be true? Can you or a family member contract COVID-19 and still feel victorious?
Yes, if our focus is in the right place. Paul concludes by again affirming that no lesser thing—persecution, pandemics, or the next big trial—can separate us from the love of God which is rooted in one unshakable source, Christ Jesus our Lord the greater.