The Church has a vast wealth of wisdom in its history, which modern-day Christians can draw on for inspiration and even models for action. So what does it have to say about facing pandemics like COVID-19? A lot, as it turns out. Prior to the invention of antibiotics and vaccinations, plagues were distressingly common throughout history. As a result, Christians have faced them many times, and learned some things along the way. Here are three examples, taken from three different times and places.
Church Growth, Plague Edition
Sociologist Rodney Stark published a book in 1996 called The Rise of Christianity, wherein he developed some theories about how Christianity grew from modest beginnings to dominate the Roman Empire over a three century period. One of the factors, he theorized, was the difference in how Christians faced epidemics compared to their pagan neighbors. The Roman Empire’s excellent transportation network was established to facilitate the movement of armies throughout the empire but also greatly assisted with trade. Unfortunately, it was also very good at propagating diseases.
Starks notes an interesting trend. When an epidemic would pass through an area, Christianity would grow rapidly. He attributed this to one simple but powerful fact: supportive care. Even in the classic era, people understood that you got sick by being around people who are sick (explained by the miasma theory, which was replaced in modern times by the germ theory). So when a pagan became sick, their friends and even family members would abandon them. But Christians saw it as their duty to care for others, despite the risk to themselves. The lack of supportive care resulted in much higher death rates among pagans than among Christians. What’s more, Christians would often extend that duty to their pagan neighbors. Biblical passages such as “I am my brother’s keeper,” “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you,” and “It is more blessed to give than to receive” led Christians to care for sick pagans as they did their own. The predictable result was that those pagans who recovered often became Christians themselves. Thus, through both a higher survival rate and care-inspired conversions, Christianity grew when plagues came to town.
This Doesn’t Mean That God Hates Us
Jumping forward a millenium, we come to the greatest plague of all: the Black Death. Over the period of a few years, a third of all people died from India to England. People would go to bed feeling well and die in the night. Things were even worse in port cities, where the flow of trade brought the flow of disease, resulting in deaths up to three quarters of the population. Port cities like Norwich, where a woman by the name of Julian had several visions of Jesus in 1373. She recorded these visions and her decades of reflections on them in a book called Revelations of Divine Love, the first book published in English by a woman, the most famous line of which is “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
It’s hard to imagine that Julian concluded that God loves His people in the midst of such great suffering. Most preachers of the day interpreted this as a “time of Noah”, where God was punishing humanity because of their sin. In the face of this view of God as vengeful and dangerous Julian rang her note of love. Of course, this wasn’t easy for her to accept at first, either. Historians theorize that she had lost her husband and children to the plague. So it is not surprising that when Jesus told her that “all shall be well,” her initial response was, “Well, Lord, you must not be paying attention!”
Jesus tells her that he did not send the plague. He reminded her that he suffered greatly to save her, and that all the divine wrath being preached about in her day had been absorbed by Him on the Cross. Julian again objects, “But it hasn’t been taken care of – look at where we are!” The rest of the book is about how Jesus slowly pulls Julian out of the dump of her despair, despite her trying to draw Him back into that dump.
His first illustration is from His death on the Cross: “You’re living in hell right now. But I’ve been there, too. I’m not discounting it. But I’m tell you there is something bigger that surrounds that reality that is going to change it forever.” Next, he directs her to pick up a hazelnut and hold it in her hand. “This is how I hold all of creation. I’ve got you. Sin is inevitable, but it doesn’t have the last word – all will be well.” Then, Jesus tells her a story about a master and his servant who love one another. One day, as the servant eagerly rushes to complete a task for his master, he falls into a deep hole in his hurry. He then rolls up into a ball and starts berating himself for not seeing the hole and avoiding it, telling himself that a better servant would never have fallen in to the whole. In his preoccupation, however, he fails to notice that his master has run to the scene and is reaching into the hole to extend his hand for the fallen servant to grasp. But the servant can’t hear it because his head is full of self-condemnation.
Julian learned that when we are disappointed with ourselves, it is easy to project that disappointment heavenward. “Well, if I were God, I would be very disappointed with me. So He must be. And this sickness must therefore be His judgement against us.” The solution is to be gentle with ourselves, not to excuse our sin, but to accept the forgiveness the Bible explains is God’s very purpose (John 3:16).
For more on Julian’s visions and her book, listen to this great podcast.
What To Watch Out For When You’re Sick
Finally, we turn to the writings of Jeremy Taylor. In 1650 he wrote The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, which was very well received at the time. However, in one of those cases where the sequel was even more popular than the first installment, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying was a blockbuster. Chapter 3 of that book covers “The state of sickness and the temptations incident to it, with their proper remedies.” Of these temptations, I’ll focus on complaining.
Taylor acknowledges that “Sighs and groans, sorrow and prayers, humble complaints and painful expressions” are all part of being unwell, and does not expect “silence and still composure, and not complaining” from the sick. Furthermore, he notes that not everyone has the same temperament, and so “the same load is double upon them to what it is to another person.” Therefore, one must not compare the complaints of one person to the silence of another.
However, Taylor warns that while complaining is not always bad, some complaining can be. First, our complaints should be without despair. Despair “sins against the reputation of God’s goodness”, “destroys the greatest comfort of our sorrows”, and “turns a natural evil into an intolerable” one. In addition to adding suffering to our pain, despair also undercuts the very things that might relieve that suffering. Despair “hinders prayers”, “makes all spiritual [disciplines] useless” and renders the help of “spiritual comforters and guides” fruitless. The remedies involve leaning in to these very three acts:
- Praying to God for help and remedy
- Sending for the guides of souls
- Using all holy exercises and acts of grace suitable to your sickness
Second, complaints while we’re sick should be without murmuring. Murmuring objects to God’s providence and how He governs the world. It is pride, elevating one’s own opinions over that of God. The remedies are to trust God with our fate, saying with old Eli, “It is the Lord, let him do what he will,” and, “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” We do this by:
- Confessing our sins
- Practicing humility
- Singing praises to God, even from the lowest abyss of human misery
Finally, our complaints must not be peevish, or irritable and rude. Peevishness increases our own sorrows, and makes us troublesome to those who seek to ease our troubles. Opposed to this are the attitudes of “obedience, tractability, easiness of persuasion, aptness to take counsel.” Practically, this means:
- To obey our physicians
- To treat ourselves carefully, in keeping with our present necessities
- Not to be rude to the ministers and nurses that attend us, but to take their diligent and kind offices as patiently as we can, and to bear their mistakes without agitation within or angry words without
- Not to use unlawful means for our recovery