It has been said that faith is like a muscle – it gets stronger with exercise. If this is true, then trials are the Planet Fitness of the Christian faith. They are resistance training – resistance makes us stronger. With the coronavirus pandemic, God is taking us to the gym for a faith workout. Facing and overcoming trials is an indispensable tool God uses to make us more like Jesus. It shows how much Jesus means to us – or how little.
James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Trials may be hard but the benefits are worth the cost. There’s growth to anticipate on the other side.
There are two contagions in the world right now that are a trial for Christians. One of them is the coronavirus. The other one is fear. Both can be deadly. The coronavirus outbreak has caused degrees of uncertainty that most of us have never faced before. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know how who or how many will be infected. We don’t know how bad the economic impact will be.
Uncertainty is part of the trial, because people tend to fear the unknown. In ancient times, God used high levels of uncertainty to test and strengthen believer’s faith. In modern times, we have grown accustomed to the illusion of control and predictability. When we realize how little control we truly have, newly discovered uncertainty provokes new levels of fear. None of us have ever trusted God through the uncertainty of a global pandemic before. It’s is a spiritual muscle we’ve never exercised.
In CS Lewis’ book, “The Screwtape Letters,” Screwtape is a demon who gives advice to the his nephew, Wormwood, who is learning how to deceive and tempt his human “patient.” In chapter six, Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to use uncertainty against his patient:
We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them…
Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him… It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Screwtape’s advice is to get his patient to succumb to the fears of all the terrible things that could happen, rather than exercise trust in God in the things that actually do happen. In other words, “use the fear of the unknown against him. Cripple him with fear of innumerable ‘worst case scenarios’ to keep him enslaved.” Put simply, as far as Screwtape is concerned, the fear that a terrible thing might happen is just as destructive as when a terrible thing does happen. It matters little whether or not it actually does happen, so long as the patient is in constant dread of the possibility.
Christians Do Not Fear Death
The coronavirus has brought human mortality into sharp focus, and with it stratospheric levels of fear and anxiety. People don’t want to die and the coronavirus is deadly. Christians know that, because of sin, everyone will die, either from the coronavirus or something else. Natural death is the great enemy of the human race. But we also believe that God created as eternal beings, and therein lies the real thing to fear.
Jesus tells us there is actually only one thing to fear: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Dying apart from Christ is truly the most terrifying thing that could happen to anyone. For Christians, the matter is already settled. Jesus faced the reality of hell on our behalf, so nothing remains that can ultimately harm us. The Apostle Paul said, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) and also “the last enemy to be destroyed it death” (1 Cor 15:26). Hebrews 2:15 tells us that Jesus destroyed “the one who has the power of death,” and also delivered “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In other words, Jesus saved us from death and also from the fear of death. Death has been defeated already. Why fear it?
The Test of Faith
Christians, the test of our faith right now is how we will respond to a world that is afraid. Afraid of dying, economic collapse, or any number of other things. Satan can use our fear of what might happen just as easily as the things that do happen. But fear is the opposite of faith. It is irrational. It doesn’t care about what’s true, only what’s scary. So, right now, the most Christian thing you can do is trust God, rebuke your fear, and walk by faith.
If the gospel is true and Jesus rose from the dead, then death no longer has dominion over him nor us (Rom 6:9, 1 Cor 15:55). Death is not our master. Christ is. The coronavirus will test how deeply we believe this to be true. Will we live in fear? Will we panic like so many others? Or will we live with the confidence and hope our faith provides?
This is an opportunity to exercise our faith and refuse to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Tim 1:9). We are not ruled by fear of the coronavirus, or economic collapse, or anything else. They cannot take from us anything that truly matters.