It’s easy to appear righteous when things are going well. Difficult situations, however, have a way of revealing those parts of ourselves that we would prefer to keep hidden. These are stressful times, and stressful times are tempting times.
How should Christians live in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? I recently posted a prayer guide by my friend and colleague, Dr. Peter Bellini. Prayer, however, should come to bear on our character. The way we Christians behave in the midst of this pandemic will say something to the world about who we are. Put differently, the way we live in stressful times speaks to the authenticity of our witness. God did not cause COVID-19. God is not spreading it. And yet, now that it is here, God does call us to witness in the midst of it. In his sermon “Temptation and Deliverance,” the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote,
I said, that persons should avoid things that expose to sin, as far as may be; because it is possible that persons may be called to expose themselves to temptation; and when it is so, they may hope for divine strength and protection under temptation.
It may be a man’s indispensable duty to undertake an office, or a work, attended with a great deal of temptation. Thus ordinarily a man ought not to run into the temptation of being persecuted for the true religion; lest the temptation should be too hard for him; but should avoid it, as much as may be. Therefore Christ thus directs his disciples, Mat. 10:23, “When ye be persecuted in one city, flee to another.” Yet, the case may be so, that a man may be called not to flee from persecution; but to run the venture of such a trial, trusting in God to uphold him under it. Ministers and magistrates may be obliged to continue with their people in such circumstances; as Nehemiah says, Neh. 6:11, “Should such a man as I flee?” So the apostles. — Yea, they may be called to go into the midst of it; to those places where they cannot reasonably expect but to meet with such temptations. So Paul went up to Jerusalem, where he knew beforehand, that there bonds and affliction awaited him, Acts 20:23.
We can’t run away from the coronavirus. This is a global pandemic. The choice we have, however, is to accept the calling to a sanctified life amid chaos and uncertainty, or to abandon our principles in the interest of pragmatism and self-preservation. We can live as a peculiar people, or we can fade into the masses. We can bear witness to Christ, or we can bear witness to sin.
In other words, the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the coronavirus are not an excuse to engage in behavior we would otherwise avoid. We don’t get a free pass “because things are so hard.” Rather, these extraordinary circumstances provide the opportunity for extraordinary witness. In fact, they give us the opportunity to demonstrate what Christians call the Four Cardinal Virtues:
Prudence: When we are prudent, we demonstrate good judgment. We know what to do and when we should do it. We don’t make rash decisions, but well-considered ones.
Courage: Anyone can demonstrate composure when things are easy. It is much harder to do so in times of stress. As Christians, we face difficult circumstances with courage that comes from our faith in God. We trust in God’s purposes even when we are unable to perceive his work in the world.
Temperance: This is just another word for “self-control.” Because we are prudent, and because we have courage, we are able to exercise restraint when we are tempted to act rashly or selfishly.
Justice: We care about what is right not just for ourselves, but for others. We look out for the wellbeing of those in our community. We love our neighbors as ourselves. We seek the righteousness of God in all things.
These virtues have far-reaching implications in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, prudence suggests that we will want to abide by the widespread conventional wisdom of “social distancing.” We do this not because we ourselves are afraid (after all, we have eternal life, which gives us courage), but so that we might avoid spreading the virus to others (justice). We might also engage in the sharing of our resources (justice) and avoid hoarding (temperance). We can avoid panic (courage) because of our faith in Christ, and even when others are panicking, we can provide a calm witness by living in ways rooted in a Christian ethos. No doubt you can think of many other implications of these virtues in these difficult days.
The COVID-19 pandemic will test many things, including our healthcare systems, the capacities of our leaders, and the strength of our economy. It will also test the character of the church. The next several weeks will reveal a great deal about the depth of our convictions.