“Aren’t you sick of this?” Yes! I think we all are.
Some are sick with it nowadays. It used to be that we might personally know only a few with COVID-19, but it appears that now almost everybody is testing positive. Just within the last week, I have had appointments canceled because of COVID-19 positivity or coming down with symptoms. My wife and children, who are physicians, have to take extra calls to cover for colleagues who are symptomatic or positive with COVID-19.
Talking about this with friends, I mentioned that the pandemic now feels more like a plague. Yes! they said, exactly!
To those of us who have read our Bibles for years, the word plague is familiar. From Genesis to Revelation, it is mentioned about 100 times, and it never seems to be positive. Some think that this pandemic is an act of God and therefore blame God for it. Others link it to prophetic fulfillment and are concerned with the civil liberties that they perceive have been compromised in the name of public health. Whether for these reasons or others, people’s nerves are on edge.
Could we, believing whatever we believe, still find peace and joy as we start a new year? Well, not necessarily. Let me briefly share how two exemplars describe their experience with a plague and then offer a few suggestions that could be helpful as we face it.
Albert Camus did not live through a plague but wrote a classic novel with the title, The Plague. Camus himself was an atheist, as was his main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who expressed this worldview. In the book, Dr. Rieux works tirelessly to care for those infected and sees the world as absurd and meaningless, and life as fleeting and ephemeral. The response to the plague reveals Dr. Rieux’s beliefs: work hard for the common good, but in the end, “It is in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth — in other words, to silence.” Silence. Nothing beyond. No meaning. No hope.
Now contrast Camus with renowned English poet John Donne. Donne, born in 1572, was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, through the plague of his time. He himself got infected and was gravely ill. He wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions while bedridden. In it, he was searingly honest about his emotional and faith struggles, yet he held on to Christ. In Philip Yancey’s paraphrase,2 Donne says, “Trembling, I ask, ‘My God, my God, why have you thrown your anger so quickly upon me?’ ” (p. 26), and prays, “As my body continues to deteriorate, O Lord, I only ask that you speed up the pace and lift my soul toward you” (p. 27). It is similar to the suffering of those Dr. Rieux worked for. Donne continued working for the common good from his position until the illness took its toll on him. His response to the plague: meaning, hope, connection through faith.
What we believe makes a difference in how we transition through this current “plague.” The Psalmist offers a direction in Psalm 91:
“Whoever rests in the shadow of the Most High God will be kept safe by the Mighty One. I will say about the Lord, ‘He is my place of safety. He is like a fort to me. He is my God. I trust in him.’… You won’t have to be afraid of the sickness that attacks in the darkness. You won’t have to fear the plague that destroys at noon” (NIRV).3
While the psalm offers full protection in verses 7 to 13, we know this is not always the case. But we can always find refuge in Him and not “fear the plague.”
The Gospel of John, chapter 15, offers spiritual and psychological clues. We feel safe when we feel connected, like the branches to the vine. You would not trust someone you do not know well and have not experienced as trustworthy. This type of intimate relationship is not the result of a passing thought, but it is cultivated, just as you would any other relationship you deem important. You would not trust someone you barely know and hardly talk to.
Furthermore, this is the kind of Vine that bears fruit. The fruit it bears is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25). Research from the field of positive psychology identifies love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control as contributing to our being resilient. As with any other fruit, it needs to be cultivated — the ground needs to be worked on, and the plant needs to be watered and cleared of weeds over time. Undoubtedly, we need to attend to what we cultivate. No fruit can make us resilient, however, unless connected to the Vine.
1. Philip Yancey, A Companion in Crisis; A Modern Paraphrase of John Donne’s Devotions (Littleton, CO: Illumify Media Global, 2021).
2. Psalm 91:1, 2, 6. New International Reader’s Version (NIRV). Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1998, 2014 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.