You Can Run Toward the Fire!

by John Beeson

How do you quantify fear? How do you measure anxiety?

None of us knows what lies ahead of us with the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation. When scientists’ predictions range from tens of thousands to 10 million deaths worldwide,[i] you realize that it is impossible to gauge what the impact will be.

That uncertainty is fuel for fear; it fans the anxieties of our hearts.

Fear Not

But, dear Christian, we are not called to fear. We are not called to anxiety.

“[W]hich of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Jesus asks in Matthew 6:27. We know Jesus is right, but how do we stop the cycle of anxiety in our hearts?

John reminds us that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Where do we find the answer to anxiety? In love. God’s love, to be specific.

“Fear not,” God says to us, “for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10). God doesn’t promise us that our circumstances will change. He promises himself. In the midst of crises he’s still God and he’s still with us. What more could we ask for? In Hebrews we are reminded again of this beautiful promise, “[W]e can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6).

In Philippians 4:6, Paul exhorts us, [D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Take captive anxious thoughts and give them to God in prayer. They are his, not yours.

Courage in Crisis

What if we could re-frame a crisis and see opportunity instead?

These are days of opportunity and we are called to courage. When tragedy strikes, Christians lean in. When natural disasters hit, the church is mobilized. When a crisis sweeps through a nation, it is Christians who are the first responders.

Consider the early church. In 165 AD, a devastating epidemic known as the Plague of Galen (also known as the Antonine Plague) swept through the Roman Empire. The plague lasted an fifteen years. More than a quarter of the population was killed. One generation after the Plague of Galen abated, The Plague of Cyprian (251-266 AD) spread from Africa through the West. Half of those who came in contact with the plague died.[ii] The two plagues flattened the empire.

During both of these plagues, many of those who had the financial means to flee, did so. Cities were abandoned by government officials. Dead family members were left on the roads, untreated and unburied.

Christians, however, stayed and cared for their sick neighbors. In 260 AD, Bishop Dionysius of Corinth spoke of the horrors of the encroaching plague. He shared that “out of the blue came this disease, a thing…more frightful than any disaster…”

But, for Bishop Dionysius, the plague was an opportunity for Christians to pass through God’s “schooling and testing.” And indeed, most Christians passed the test with flying colors. Dionysius praised the church, “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves, and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.” Dionysius continued, reflecting that the death of those who died as a result of nursing their sick neighbors, “seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

The Christians reputation for running into the fire was so well known, that the pagan emperor Julian in 362 AD wrote the high priest in Galatia, saying that those leaving paganism for Christianity were doing so because of the Christians’ “moral character, even if pretended,” and by their “benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.”

Tertullian, whose early life was lived under the veil of the Plague of Galen wrote, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another.’”

Jesus, Paul, and Crisis

Jesus would not have been surprised. He was the one who reminded his followers that loving your neighbor looked like picking up the stripped, bloody, and half-dead stranger and caring for him (Luke 10:29-37). And it was Jesus, who, the night before he died told his disciples that their love for one another would be a witness to the world (John 17:20-21).

Paul framed the threat of death that hung over his life with an eternal perspective. It was the promise of eternal life with Christ that gave Paul courage. In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul reminds the church:

So, we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Paul spoke these same words to himself. He begins his letter to the church at Philippi, encouraging them that, while he is imprisoned under the threat of death, he takes courage in looking to eternity with Christ and the proclamation of the gospel through his death. He says,

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:18b-21).

Eternity frames our perspective. We know Christ is with us today, and we will be face to face with him in the new heavens and the new earth. And that changes everything.

Not Foolishness, but Courage

A family friend of ours once packed his bags in the midst of a dangerous crisis across the world to go help. His heart ached for the suffering they were enduring, and he wanted to help rescue those in need. While his intentions were predominantly good, he was also motivated by the adrenaline rush (and a desire for a little limelight was likely in his heart as well). Most importantly, his presence didn’t actually help anyone in need. He did not demonstrate the gospel in his heroic act. He demonstrated foolishness.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic please do not be foolish. Make choices that promote your own health and the public’s welfare. Help slow the advance of coronavirus. Don’t minimize what is a serious global threat. Wash your hands. Sanitize surfaces. Limit physical contact. As the CDC has recommended, avoid gatherings. Help protect the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised.

I’m proud of how our country has responded. Let us heed the wisdom of the experts.

But in addition to wise living, we ought to also demonstrate faith and courage. Don’t obsess over COVID-19 coverage. Don’t make choices that are driven purely by self-preservation.

Speak hope. Speak courage. Speak faith. Care for those in need. Pray to the Creator and Savior of all.

And act courageously. Not foolishly. But courageously. This will look different for every person depending on their age, health, and situation. For all of us it means that we ought to lean in to our family, friends, and neighbors who are fearful and need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ who brings peace in anxious times.

When God calls you, run toward the fire.

Christians run toward the fire.

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