Thinking Biblically About the Role of Faith Amid Suffering and the Coronavirus
Bishop Gerald Glenn faithfully pastored his flock for many years. On Sunday, March 22, 2020, he spoke to a few dozen souls in congregation, New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, Virginia: “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that.”
The bishop assured his flock that he would continue to preach “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.” As he spoke, he was defying Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s March 12 request that public meetings be no larger than ten people due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
It was announced on April 12, that Bishop Glenn, 66, had died from COVID-19. (We don’t know when he contracted it.) The bishop’s wife, Mother Marcietia Glenn, 65, has tested positive. Many are now suffering his loss, including Senator Tim Caine of Virginia, who tweeted: “My heart sinks as I learn this morning that Bishop Gerald Glenn … died yesterday from COVID-19. He was a friend and pillar of Richmond faith community. May all do as much for so many.”
On March 29, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne defied lockdown orders and held services at his megachurch, River at Tampa Bay Church, claiming that faith would protect him and all the faithful. He was arrested after the service. On Easter Sunday, Howard-Browne preached from his home and said, “This is not about a virus. This is about shutting down the gospel of Jesus Christ. And all these pastors that say, ‘Well, we should just roll over and comply,’ you don’t understand.”
Christian faith is in the news during this pandemic. What better time to consult the Bible and think theologically about faith and suffering, healing and dying, truth and error? How does faith bear on Christian conduct when the world seems to be falling apart?
Faith in God
The faith of the follower of Jesus should be rooted in the Bible and led by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit inspires us in virtue and knowledge. He will not contradict Scripture, since it is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:15-16). Christian faith is neither the opposite of knowledge nor is it irrational, but rather grounded in God’s rational-verbal revelation. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Thus, every word from every preacher and every word of every book should be tested against the Bible as the final and true authority. As David wrote, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). Sadly, there are shepherds with good hearts who preach bad things. And there are false shepherds (see Ezekiel 34; 2 Peter 2:1).
God In Control
Pandemic or not, Scripture assures us that the Creator has not lost control over his good creation. The divine plan will be accomplished, come what may. The Apostle Paul assures Christians that their salvation is secure because their loving God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). Isaiah speaks the word of God to a troubled people:
Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak. (Isaiah 40:27-29)
Thus, our faith is rooted in the character of our sovereign and holy God, who is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Faith in God is what God calls for: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
But what is faith?
Two Meanings of Faith
The word faith can mean the faith — as in the Christian worldview, our theology, or our confession of faith, such as the Apostle’s Creed. So, Paul writes: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7, KJV).
Faith can also mean exercising a belief that God will do something in a particular situation. When Paul was preaching in Lystra, he saw a man who had never walked who was listening to him. “Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, ‘Stand up on your feet!’ At that, the man jumped up and began to walk” (Acts 14:9-10).
Jesus also responded to a number of people like this. When Jesus saw his faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He went on to supernaturally heal the man of his infirmity to demonstrate that he had the authority of forgive sins (Mark 2:5-12).
Since God can heal and can supernaturally protect us, should every follower of Jesus have faith that he or she can supernaturally resist a deadly virus or pray that someone will supernaturally recover from it? The answer is: yes and no.
Believing, But not Presuming
Yes, God can, and does, protect and heal people today. Jesus, who was raised from the dead, can touch people today as no one else can. Miracles have happened and still happen, as Lee Strobel argues convincingly in The Case for Miracles. As Francis Schaeffer wrote in True Spirituality, we live in a “supernatural universe.” The eyes of faith see more than the material world and its limits.
Paul teaches that some have special gifts for faith and for healing that other Christians do not possess (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-11). Some believers have more faith for healing and miracles than I do. Still, however much faith we have, we should pray “in Jesus’ name.” We pray, as best we understand, in accordance with his teachings and for the furtherance of his Kingdom (Matthew 6:33).
Faith is no panacea for a pandemic. Nor is “putting God to the test” an exercise in biblical faith.
Faith is not presumption, however. When we can avoid danger to our health or that of others through natural means, we must do so for the sake of love. Paul told Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23). When the Devil was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, he bid Jesus to throw himself off the top of the temple because God’s angels would catch him. He even quoted Psalm 91 to make his point! But “Jesus replied, ‘It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:5-7; see Deuteronomy 6:16). Failing to take precautions against this deadly virus is just like foolishly jumping off the temple.
Living With Wisdom and Faith
In a pandemic, it is wise to minimize and mitigate the chance of infection through public health measures. Since we are under the authority of the civil government (unless it compels us to sin), we ought to follow its restrictions in a crisis (Romans 13:1-7). When the state forbids public meetings in general, it is not trying to “shut down the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” as Howard-Browne said. It is trying to save lives, and we as Christian citizens should comply since we ought to seek the good of our cities (see Jeremiah 29:7; Matthew 5:13-16).
Faith is no panacea for a pandemic. Nor is “putting God to the test” an exercise in biblical faith. Faith is, rather, a tough and gritty way to live and to die — to hope and be blessed and to hope and be disappointed in this groaning world (see Romans 8:16-24). But whatever happens, we are in God’s hands and we should seek to please our Lord through our faith in what he has revealed in the Bible.
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary where he heads the apologetics and ethics masters degree program. He is the author of 12 books, including Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith.