Look at the nations and watch — and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.
— Habakkuk 1:5
Before COVID-19 struck, life was already hard for many. Inequality, growing. Laws, broken. Government, dysfunctional. Addictions, rampant. Walls, built. Injustices grew. The country, divided. People were getting shot because of the color of their skin. (They still do.) Lots of things weren’t right.
And personally, our lives were full, taking care of three young kids, a mother-in-law who has full-blown dementia, and a sister-in-law who has cancer again.
But then the coronavirus hit. And in the past eight weeks, my rhythms were completely upended, as have yours. My kids aren’t going back to school this academic year. Our work and faith communities went online. We’re still taking care of our parents and extended family. We’re in lockdown, and who knew that life could change so fast.
These are rough times.
In a time like this, selfishness, fear, anxiety, or despair creep up on us. But could it be possible, as God told Habakkuk, that he might be doing something in our days that we would not believe, a completely unexpected thing?
Pandemics have hit us before. In 165AD, the Plague of Galen ripped through the Roman Empire, possibly the first appearance of smallpox in the West. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor himself, fell to the plague. He spoke of “caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from cities.” It is estimated, that a quarter to a third of the Empire perished during this epidemic. Then less than a century later in 251AD, a measles outbreak — where at its height, 5,000 people were dying a day — ravaged the lands. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote, “out of the blue came this disease, a thing… more frightful than any disaster whatever.”
But Christians responded with love, hope and care. Rodney Stark, a sociologist and historian who wrote, The Rise of Christianity, put it this way: “Thus, at a time when all other faiths were called to question, Christianity offered explanation and comfort. Even more important, Christian doctrine provided a prescription for action. Whereas those of the dominant religion were terrified during the pandemic, Christians greeted the epidemic as merely “schooling and testing.” “
From these ashes, even with persecution along the way where Christians were being thrown to lions and burned at the stake, a quiet revival swept through the land — where the Christian faith moved from being a marginal Jewish sect into the majority faith of the Roman Empire. And Rodney Stark, who was not a Christian when he wrote that book, credits the epidemics for the revival: “had classical society not been disrupted and demoralized by these catastrophes, Christianity might never have become so dominant a faith.”
Now, I know I’m on shaky ground when I start talking like this. I’m not saying that this coronavirus is a good thing or a work of God. Don’t hear me that way. Evil and disaster is a part of this fallen world, but not the way God meant it to be. But I can say that God has love enough to redeem all of the craziness that this virus is causing for his good and beautiful purposes. Out of his great love for us, he can also bring good out of evil, beauty out of the ashes. That God, even when it seems like the sun goes pitch dark and the moon turns blood red, he can bring all of history to where it’s meant to go.
And even with pandemics in the way, God is eventually guiding all of history to its rightful end, where everything is made right again. Where injustice ceases. And he can release a new move of God where all is made good, beautiful, and whole. What if God wants to use this pandemic to wake us up, to show us again that there are more important things that what we had already been chasing? What if, like He has in the past, he might use times like these to start revival in our day?
And in this way, we have hope. This coronavirus cannot stand in the way of the Spirit of God. COVID can make life hard, even downright miserable, but it cannot thwart what God has in store. Even our selfishness, fear, anxiety and despair do not get the final say. Instead, we have hope, because that hoped-for future is based on something that has already happened: that God came to earth as Jesus, He died and rose again, and is ushering in a new Kingdom.
And in the end, it will all be made right.
James Choung (DMin, Fuller Theological Seminary) is vice president of strategy and innovation for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. He is the co-author of Longing for Revival (IVP) and author of True Story and Real Life. Ordained with the Association of Vineyard Churches, he previously served on the pastoral staff of a Boston-area urban church plant, a megachurch in Seoul, and a house church in Los Angeles.