We have all shared in the event, right? And the event will not last forever; there will come a time soon when it is ensconced in the history books. In the course of this event, there were dislocations, there were debates, and there was disease. Taking the large view, there was also the debacle, so there’s that. But in the aftermath of the event, there needs to be measured discussion.
What exactly just happened? What do we need to learn from it? Put another way, is this what has to happen whenever God sends this kind of virus our way? In other words, was this “a thing” with its own immovable characteristics, like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption? Or was the event largely made up of our all-too-human reactions to the potential of a pandemic?
When an actual pandemic sweeps through a population that has no health care defenses whatever, that pandemic is just like a hurricane, an earthquake, or a volcano. The disaster is the event, and the disaster just does what a disaster does. Think of the Black Death in the middle ages. But when a false report circulates, and everyone flees when no man pursues, all the significant detrimental consequences are downstream from the panic, not the pandemic. If we remember that demos is the Greek word for the people, which was the true contagious agent here, we might be encouraged to coin a new word, which would be dempanic.
But This Too Is From the Hand of God
We know that God is sovereign over all events in history, and this includes the choices that men make, whether or not those choices are rational or irrational. Whenever disaster befalls a city, God is the one who is behind it (Amos 3:6). That would include economic disasters brought on by boneheaded leadership. God is sovereign over all. When Job was brought low by Satan, he attributed the ultimate causation just where he ought to have placed it. Satan was the direct actor in all his calamity, but what he said was “the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
This includes the destructive results wrought by panics. God is the one who gives strength and courage, and God is the one who sends panic. The cities that did not pursue the sons of Jacob did not do so because “the terror of God” was upon them (Gen. 35:5). After their great deliverance at the Red Sea, the children of Israel sang about the dread that was going to come upon the Canaanites: “fear and dread shall fall upon them” (Ex. 15:14-16). When Gideon’s men blew their trumpets, the Lord set “every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host” (Judg. 7:22). Jonathan knew that the Lord was against the Philistines, and he stepped out in faith. As a result, “there was trembling in the host” (1 Sam. 14:15-20). When God sent a panic among the Syrians, He did so by making them hear the noise of chariots, horses, and a great army (2 Kings 7:6-7). And as a consequence of Jehoshaphat’s faith, the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir turned on one another in a mindless slaughter (2 Chron. 20:22-23).
I say all this so that we may fix in our minds that God is the Lord of panic. He is the one who set this particular panic loose among the Americans. I know, the panic was largely global, but I think it is fair to say that most of the economic debris field is here.
“The wicked flee when no man pursueth: But the righteous are bold as a lion.”
Proverbs 28:1 (KJV)
“And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.”
Lev. 26:36 (KJV)
The thing that is really interesting about this last passage from Leviticus is the broader context. If they were unfaithful to Him, God is promising Israel a whole slew of devastating calamities. He promises to respond to their unfaithfulness and idolatry with famine, with plague, with invasions, with the horrors of siege warfare, and all of it terrible. God will walk “contrary to” them, and He would do so “in fury” (v. 28). And as the crowning indignity, He will give them faintness of heart. A scraping leaf will send them all into flight pell mell. They will run like the wind when only the wind is pursuing.
Now one might think that after such a long series of disasters that the children of Israel would have sort of a right to run away. But no, not really — that fearfulness is a judgment from God also. Panic is one of the judgments. When God judges a nation for their idolatry, He takes away things like good harvests, and military victories, and prosperous health. But He also takes away courage. He takes away sensible rulers, and He takes away stouthearted resistance to danger. And the spiritual lesson that must be learned from this is the same lesson that attaches to all the other calamities — and that would be the deep need for repentance.
Life in the Herd
We are starting to hear a lot about herd immunity. We are hearing about it way too late, but we are now at least hearing about it.
Man is a social being, designed to live in community. We are gregarious beings. This means that epidemics are possible, and it also means that there is a built-in corporate defense against them — when a disease starts to work through the herd, antibodies develop, and as a whole the herd develops immunity.
But in the nature of the case, herds can also be spooked. And one particular cow in the back of the stampede might not have any idea why he is running at all. In short, life in the herd has its advantages and disadvantages.
So because we live in herds, it is also possible for God to send something else that spreads though our ranks. That something else is fear. That something else is panic. And God is the one who sends it. But why would He do this? All such judgments and chastisements can have only one sensible meaning for a sin-riddled people, and that is the clear and obvious summons to repentance.
I am about to write about the need for careful analysis of what just happened to us, and I want to make a special point of saying that the repentance needs to happen now.
“Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness.”
Psalm 95:7–8 (KJV)
The reason for this should be obvious. If lack of repentance wrecked our peace and prosperity, it is certainly capable of wrecking our analysis of what on earth happened to our peace and prosperity. Sin is spiritual stupidity, and there is nothing that it cannot ruin. As soon set a cow to fold the linen as watch unrepentant sinners try to analyze their disasters with a clear eye. The remnant from Jerusalem who wanted to take refuge in Egypt had the gall to tell Jeremiah — after all his hard prophecies had come true — that this disaster had befallen them because they hadn’t worshiped the queen of heaven enough (Jer. 44:18) Just watch — there will be many who will want to crown this Harpy of Folly as though she were the Goddess of Reason.
So why repentance now?
The alternative to fear is courage. And if we want to learn anything valuable from this whole episode at all, we are going to have to find some. If fear did not work as the problem was unfolding, then fear is certainly not going to work as we seek to understand the problem afterwards. This is because learning from this mess is going to require cool analysis, and to offer cool analysis over against hot passion requires . . . courage.
A large mass of the people were afraid of the virus. An even larger group of people were afraid of public opinion, once the official line was established and the dogma was being enforced with a club. As Chesterton once noted, “public opinion can be a prairie fire.” And then a small handful of people were afraid of legal consequences if they disregarded what the authorities said to do. They were worried about the misdemeanor fine.
This is quite different than taking something “into account.” If you live in New York City or Wuhan, it would have been folly not to take the deadly nature of the coronavirus into account. If you are an ER nurse working in a hot spot, it would be folly not to take COVID-19 into account. Prudence is not cowardice.
Second, if you live in a place where everybody is wearing masks, and you are going to go ride the subway, it is not fear to take a mask along and wear it because you are taking public opinion into account. You are wanting to be a good neighbor, and so you wear the mask under those circumstances even though you think you don’t need to. You are not worried about the virus, but you don’t want to spend your morning provoking angry stares.
And third, if cops are arresting folks, then feel free to take that into account. Factor it into your plans.
So sure, depending on your circumstances, take the virus into account, take public opinion into account, and take into account the fact that the cops might show up.
“A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: But the simple pass on, and are punished.”
Prov. 22:3 (KJV)
But here is something else to take into account. Fear is a vice that virtually no one is proud of. Men can be proud of their lust, or their greed, or even of their cruelty, but virtually no one is proud of their cowardice. And that means, in the aftermath of an event where fear was greatly in evidence, there will be a huge temptation for the fearful to explain to themselves that they were just “taking things into account.” They were simply measuring their their risk factors, or the opinion of the mob, or the likely civil consequences. Prudence really is prudent, but also remember that fear will want to disguise itself after the fact as having been merely prudent.
That is why courage is always needed in the moment. Courage is a present virtue. Looking at past instances of courage is boasting, and looking at how courageous you will be in the future is daydreaming. Courage is now. Courage brings liberty, and liberty, to summarize Orwell, means the right to tell people things that they don’t want to hear.
And what our leaders and rulers and thought-mongers don’t want to hear right now is the message that they mishandled this thing from stem to stern. They did it all wrong, from soup to nuts. In addition to this, they are still in power, and they have every incentive in the world to refuse to admit that they were wrong, and that they destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people for no other reason than that they panicked.
Courage and Faith
But there is one other thing for God’s servants to remember. I said that they are “still in power,” but if you remember what I said earlier, this is not strictly speaking true. God is still in power. God is the one who sent this panic. He sent the virus, and He sent the response to the virus, and He sends the dark clouds of stupidity in the aftermath that will build stirring memorials to our wisdom and courage.
Remember that Jesus Christ was crucified, and that He rose again from the dead. That stark fact, set in the middle of human history, is our indication that Jesus is the judge and ruler over all human history. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead in history means that He is owner and proprietor of history. He will judge the world in righteousness at the end of history, and God has given us an assurance of this by raising Him from the dead.
“Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”
Acts 17:31 (KJV)
So we are not steering this thing. We are being steered. God is shaking those things that can be shaken, so that the kingdom we are inheriting, the kingdom that cannot be shaken, may remain (Heb. 12:27).
Take courage then. Christians are servants of the one who is the Truth, and so we ought to be able to muster up the courage to speak the truth. And the message is a simple one — repentance now, faith now. And a refusal to repent will only make everything worse.