The Humbling of Civilization: Praying for the Mercy of God

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
March 16, 2020

An unforeseen global crisis forces the entire world to learn a new vocabulary, set of habits, set of rules, and a new set of expectations—all of this by a tiny, invisible coronavirus known as COVID-19. Indeed, this virus has reshaped the social, moral, political, and economic landscape not just of one or two nations, but the entire planet. Our vocabulary now includes “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.” More will come.

A historic event of such proportions naturally leads us to reconsider social reality and everything in our day to day life that we took for granted—and of course, theological issues are right under the surface as we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic. We are, after all, talking about matters of life and death, the gift of human life, and what it means to care for our neighbors. We are confronted with difference between selfishness and altruism. Indeed, the coronavirus raises just about every question imaginable given its unsurpassed urgency.

Of course, throughout history, there have been times of plague and pestilence—some that exacted enormous death and cultural destruction. During those moments, much like our own time, everyone asked the most basic, fundamental questions. Christians understand why – it is because each and every one of us, in every generation, is made in the image of God. Thus, we all have the same fundamental questions and are driven by the same impulses.

As image bearers of the living God, even the most hardened secularists among us must deal with the most ultimate issues and questions—especially when faced by this kind of life and death challenge.

The urgency and desperation of this present global crisis is precipitated by the sheer issue of time and the contagion of this highly infectious virus. Indeed, just a week ago it seemed implausible that the United States would face an entire shutdown of almost every sector of our society—we now face a complete halt of travel between the United States and Europe, the cessation of school attendance from kindergarten all the way through college, with many universities and institutions moving to entirely online instruction. Restaurants are closing, major sporting events are canceled, and all of that was made necessary in the matter of a few days, or even just a few hours. What was last week’s implausible hypothesis is now today’s reality.

Who would have ever expected a headline like “The Day Sports Stopped in America?”

A week ago, it seemed like the coronavirus was manageable. The façade of control eroded as the days continued. Just consider the fact that on Sunday, Italy reported 3,590 new cases of the virus and 368 deaths in the same twenty-four-hour time span.

This virus has gripped every contour of society. On Sunday across the United States, thousands of churches did not meet, either taking their services online or suspending services altogether. The Centers for Disease Control issued an official advisory that called for the cancelation of any gathering over fifty people for at least the next eight weeks. The guidance from the CDC stated, “Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travelers who attended these events, and introduced the virus to new communities. Examples of large events and mass gatherings include conferences, festivals, parades, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next eight weeks, organizers cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of fifty people or more throughout the United States.”

The only people who might be able to relate to the extreme nature of these instructions are those who lived through World War II. That generation may remember similar kinds of immediate depravations and cancellations that the condition of total war required. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the declaration of war by Germany, and the fact that the United States found itself fighting a war in two different arenas of the world simultaneously, brought the nation and its normalcy to a sudden and violent stop.

Christians are driven by the reminder that when Jesus was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” [Matthew 22: 36-40] he responded with Deuteronomy 6:4, repeating the commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and soul, and mind. Jesus went on to say that the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which was a quotation from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus, therefore, argued that all the law and prophets hung on these two commandments—love God and love your neighbor are summaries of the entire law.

For Christians, the command to love our neighbor now looks very different given the realities of the coronavirus. In the matter of a few days, Christians could no longer gather in large assemblies for corporate worship. We cannot meet where we would otherwise meet; we cannot go where we would otherwise go—and we acknowledge all of this in order to try and slow down the spread of COVID-19.

But the church of Jesus Christ has been here before. Christians throughout church history have faced the challenge of plague. Our circumstances and situations are different, but the theology and our commitment as Christians remains the same. Today, we know more about the existence of germs and how viruses are spread from one individual to the next. As different as March 2020 might be from the plagues of the 16th century, our calling to love neighbor remains unchanged.

Today, most school children are not in class. Most colleges and seminary students are not in the classroom. Campus have been evacuated. Playgrounds are empty. None of us can fully predict the ultimate economic and political effects of COVID-19.

We are witnessing at this very moment the humbling of a civilization that believed itself to be in control of the world—impervious to this kind of threat.

When the headlines first appeared about the coronavirus, most of us never considered that we would face such a time as this. We thought humanity was merely facing just another close call.

But this is no close call. This is a full-on pandemic of epic proportions. We do not know how the story will be recorded. But we do know this: All of us must think about things we don’t want to think about; to consider realities we fundamentally don’t want to consider.

For Christians, this becomes an opportunity to translate some of the proximate questions into ultimate questions. True, we do not know exactly how far the virus will spread or how the history will be recorded. We do not know what kind of announcements will come in the days and weeks ahead. We pray, by God’s common grace through modern medicine, that an effective vaccine will eventually be used to restrain the virus and even conquer it, but we have no clue when that day will come.

The reality is that no vaccine nor human ingenuity will ever overcome the problem of human sinfulness. With all the uncertainty in these troubling times, Christians know that hope, refuge, and peace is found in Christ and in Christ alone. At this time, love for neighbor is pointing a world in chaos to the God who loved us so much that he gave his only Son to die for us.

Our ultimate refuge is only in the true and living God. We must remind ourselves of that now. We must pray fervently for God’s grace and mercy. And we must share that love to our neighbors and point them to Christ alone as our hope—even if we now share at some distance.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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