It would be terrible to have the coronavirus pandemic end without leaving us any lessons for the future. Although a variety of lessons could already be cited, here are just a few that are on my heart today. Some are controversial, so fasten your seatbelt!
Most American churches have followed government edicts to either shut down entirely or limit gatherings to 10 people or less. However, some prominent churches have refused to comply. A few weeks ago, Rodney Howard-Browne’s church in Tampa chose to hold its regular services – and Howard-Browne was arrested for doing so.
Meanwhile, the news media seemed to delight in announcing that a Virginia pastor who ignored social distancing warnings had died from COVID-19. On Easter Sunday, the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church announced that their pastor, Bishop Gerald O. Glenn, had died from the virus. Perhaps even more disturbing, four of his family members have contracted the disease.
What are we to make of these stories? Hasn’t God promised us His protection in Psalm 91 and countless other Bible passages?
It’s understandable that many believers are quoting Psalm 91 these days. Some of its fantastic promises speak directly to the question of the Lord’s protection from plagues and diseases:
Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
nor the disaster that strikes at midday.
Though a thousand fall at your side,
though ten thousand are dying around you,
these evils will not touch you…
If you make the Lord your refuge,
if you make the Most High your shelter,
no evil will conquer you;
no plague will come near your home (Psalm 91:6-10 NLT).
Hallelujah! No plagues will ever come near our homes!
But hold on a moment. The promises of Scripture must be read in context. Psalm 91 specifically addresses its promises to “those who live in the shelter of the Most High” and who “find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” The blessings are promised to us as we actively trust the Lord as our refuge and our “place of safety” (vs. 1-2).
When seen in context, the promises of Psalm 91 are similar to God’s promised protection at Passover (Exodus 12). Yes, the Israelites were guaranteed protection from the deadly plague that killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. However, there were conditions to this promise: They must place the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes and then remain inside until the death angel had passed by. The Lord’s protection was dependent on their obedience to these simple instructions.
Faith vs. Presumption
Even the devil can quote Scriptures! During Jesus’ 40 days of temptation, the devil took Him to the highest point of the Temple and made a tantalizing suggestion based on part of Psalm 91:
If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say,
“He will order his angels to protect you.
And they will hold you up with their hands
so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.”
Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God” (Matthew 4:5-7 NLT).
What would have happened if Jesus had decided to act on this promise from Psalm 91? What if He had jumped off the roof of the Temple, trusting that angels would catch Him before He splattered on the ground? We can only imagine…
Fortunately, Jesus understood some things we too often forget: First of all, He knew that God’s promises are meant to be claimed through an obedient relationship with Him. In this case, to jump off the Temple would have been obedience to Satan rather than to the Father.
Second, Jesus wasn’t going to be tricked into claiming one Scripture passage while ignoring others. In response to the devil’s quote from Psalm 91, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:16. Notice: Scripture must interpret Scripture – and we need the Holy Spirit to guide our interpretations. That’s why it’s dangerous to base our conduct on just a few of our favorite Bible quotes.
You see, for Jesus to jump off the Temple would have looked like faith, but actually would have been presumption. True faith is incomplete unless it is based on present-tense obedience to the voice of God.
Too often, we share the story of Peter walking on water without pointing out that Jesus had first invited him to come (Matthew 14:24-33). Was this a blanket promise that Peter could now walk on water anytime he desired? I don’t think so! Peter’s initial success in walking on water came as His eyes were on Jesus and as he responded to the divine invitation to “Come.”
These are great lessons for us as we seek to apply God’s promises to the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember: 2 Chronicles 7:14 gives us conditions for the Lord to heal our land. We can’t skip over the conditions if we’re desiring to claim the promises! And even as we’re seeking to apply God’s written Word, we must keep our ears attuned to His voice and the present-tense instructions of His Spirit.
From my perspective, some believers have acted presumptuously in the face of the coronavirus. In an attempt to show off their great faith, they’ve intentionally flaunted any precautions. This proud presumption seems akin to people who purposely handle deadly snakes. While such people boast that they’re demonstrating faith to claim a Biblical promise (Mark 16:18), it’s actually foolhardy presumption.
However, there’s something that bothers me even more than the spectacle of believers whose faith sometimes becomes presumption. I’m concerned that many church leaders have communicated an incorrect view of our responsibility to obey civil authorities.
Over the past several weeks, countless pastors across America have cited passages like Romans 13 to explain why they are shutting down their Sunday services. While I think it has probably been wise to suspend our Sunday gatherings for a while, it’s extremely DANGEROUS to overly rely upon the “submission to authority” argument.
Let me explain…
Yes, wisdom would instruct us be careful about promoting large gatherings while the nation is experiencing a pandemic. And love should motivate us to do whatever we can to avoid activities that could potentially spread the deadly virus.
But BE CAREFUL, my friend! Submission to authority is not an absolute principle. Governments do not have the authority to close down churches.
We are blessed to live in a country where freedom of speech, religion, and assembly are guaranteed by our Constitution. Shouldn’t we be concerned when people are arrested just for peacefully praying or protesting? If we don’t value our freedoms, we will surely lose them.
Yes, today the government may seem to have a benevolent purpose in forbidding believers to gather. But what about oppressive countries where Christian services are forbidden just because the Gospel is a threat to the ruling regime? There comes a point when believers must disobey illegitimate government decrees!
In our compliant willingness to shut down our gatherings because of the coronavirus, it’s possible that American churches have shown a dangerous readiness to listen to government edicts rather than the Holy Spirit. In our eagerness to show our submission to government authorities, we’ve overlooked a long list of other Biblical principles.
Yes, as ambassadors of heaven, the Bible encourages us to have a humble and submissive attitude toward governmental leaders whenever possible (2 Corinthians 5:20, 1 Peter 2:11-17). Yet it also warns us about the importance of our public assemblies (Hebrews 10:24-25). And it also provides illustrations about how the early church responded when forbidden by religious or government leaders to preach the Gospel. Rather than complying, the apostles boldly declared, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NLT).
Perhaps you think I’m an alarmist, but I believe we are rapidly approaching a “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” moment in our country (Daniel 3). Believers who refuse to bow down to political correctness and embrace the warped morality of our culture will risk being thrown into a fiery furnace of persecution. On that day, I pray we will boldly tell our leaders, as the three Hebrew men told King Nebuchadnezzar…
If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18 NLT).
Notice that these men maintained a respectful attitude toward the king, even calling him “Your Majesty.” This is important, because some Christians and conspiracy theorists today dishonor God by having a haughty, rebellious attitude toward anything done by civil government.
Yet despite showing ample respect to Nebuchadnezzar, the three Hebrew men also knew where to draw a line in the sand. They made it clear they would never bow down and worship the idols of the Babylonian culture.
Friends, in our eagerness to show our compliance as American citizens, may we never forget our ultimate citizenship in a higher Kingdom (Philippians 3:20). In the days ahead, our loyalty to the values of that Kingdom will be greatly tested.
COVID-19 is not the end of the story. It’s just another birth pang, getting us ready for even harder tests ahead. Will we learn its lessons and be ready?