We saw for weeks how the “coronavirus” appeared to be a tidal wave in the distance. Unsure of its size and power, we waited, until finally it hit our shores. First the President declared COVID-19 a national emergency on March 13. Then our state (California) and local government (LA County) issued stay-home or “safer at home” orders for its residents on March 19th. In the meantime, there seemed to be pandemonium in grocery stores and Wal-marts where residents are trying to stock up on supplies that are thought to become scarce and in order to survive the stay-home orders.
There is fear about the economy, about education, and even about rising crime. All added on top of the danger that the actual virus is posing around the world.
Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, the modern Christian may look to God and ask, “why?”. This is because we Moderns see trials as a sign of God’s disfavor, or punishment, or abandonment. But maintaining our faith in God’s sovereignty does not force us to conclude that COVID is a sign of God’s disfavor. Let us suppose that God allowed the coronavirus to persist to accomplish something in the hearts of men and women around the world.
Perhaps its no coincidence that the outbreak hit a global full stride around the same time as the season of Lent. Lent, if you’ll remember, is the season of preparation for Easter. And while Easter is a joyous occasion that brings to heart and mind Christ’s triumph over Death, Lent reminds us that we are a race of broken people in a broken world. We remind ourselves of our sin and our need for forgiveness and how our world and humanity is in constant struggle with God’s will and righteousness.
The Church has (historically) enhanced these reminders with spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, and contemplation. We do these things because they not only enhance the joy of Easter, but more importantly, because they strengthen our faith.
It has long been known that perseverance through trials has a way of building and strengthening the faith of individuals and communities.
Therefore, we stand to benefit greatly by seeing our current predicament as a God-ordained opportunity to strengthen our faith.
The Desert Wilderness
The Lord Jesus is our first clue that COVID-19 may be an ordained trial meant to bolster faith. After Jesus was baptized, the New Testament says that He was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted”1. St. Thomas defends the notion that Jesus wanted to be tempted2 to strengthen us in our temptation, and so shows that God would see fit to permit the suffering of His own for spiritual benefit. It should not be unbelievable to think that Christ’s humiliation in the desert was of immense value: as St. Gregory explains, “by His temptations He might conquer our temptations, just as by His death He overcame our death.”
Our time of pandemic wrapped in economic and social uncertainty are real trials, just as Christ’s were. His suffering and temptation in the desert is a model to us; that when we suffer we experience the reality of our fallenness and broken world.
The desert has often been seen as a place where evil dwells, and in our dark times, it may seem that we are in the middle of a barren wilderness. We are not only lacking some essentials (food, medicine, toilet paper!), but we are also told to stay away from just about everyone else.
We are told it’s a dangerous world out there; now face it alone!
The desert has come to us. And we may be tempted to give up faith. We may be tempted to live in anxiety. We may be tempted to sin in order to ensure we maintain a comfortable life. But this temptation that the Lord allows is not to be avoided, as St. Thomas reminds us:
Not only Christ was led into the desert by the Spirit, but all God’s children that have the Holy Ghost. For it is not enough for them to sit idle; the Holy Ghost urges them to endeavor to do something great…
Again, every good work, compared to the flesh and the world, is the desert; because it is not according to the will of the flesh and of the world.3
Every good work is the desert! Our life should be one of constant battle with our Adversary, with rulers and principalities of this world, and with the sinful nature that resides in all of us.
This time of global crisis simply gives us a heightened awareness of the spiritual realities around us; that we can see our sufferings in one of two ways. Either our faith fails and we believe God has abandoned us, or we believe that Christ will always be with us, even to the end of the age.4.
If God did not spare His son suffering and temptation in the wilderness, but in fact, led Him their as an opportunity to benefit His people, we ought to expect the same.
I pray that we use this time of suffering (to whatever degree it is experienced) as an opportunity to walk with Christ in the desert, to be like him and “well-acquainted with grief”5.
The spiritual discipline of fasting is meant to strengthen our dependence on Christ as we deprive ourselves of our dependence on all else. As the pandemic worsens and our reactions grow more intense, the deprivations may be thrust upon us. Rather than berate God, let us depend on Him with greater strength.
Christ’s suffering through the wilderness is meant to teach us the need to tame our flesh, as St. Paul says he would “discipline my body and make it my slave”6.
As our routines and normalcy gets turned upside-down, we can use this opportunity to break from bad habits, which is often times thoughtless decisions stuck in the memory of our flesh.
We can use this time to form new habits. As kids are locked up in homes all day, perhaps we can strive for deeper relationships. As we are deprived from our normal social interactions, perhaps we can see where we might have ignored people who could use friendship. As we are deprived of a lot of entertainment and leisurely activities, let us reevaluate where are time is spent and dedicate our moments to God and the pursuit of righteousness and servitude.
Perhaps in all of this, we can come face to face with the truth that there are lots of things we don’t “need”. And that Christ is the only need, and our commitment to the People of God is our priority.