Right now, fear of COVID-19, the coronavirus that the World Health Organization has just this week declared to be a global pandemic, is sweeping our nation. The newness of the virus, its rapid expansion across the globe, and the relatively small amount of information we have about it has generated much anxiety and uncertainty in the past month. The effects of the outbreak have been numerous. This past Monday was referred to by some as a “black Monday,” a term historically associated with stock market crashes, and stocks have continued to suffer through the week. Institutions and businesses across the country are encouraging their employees to work from home and to avoid congregating. Entire countries have closed access through international travel, and some have mandated self-quarantine before permission will be granted to enter. Sports games have been cancelled and large events postponed indefinitely.
In the uncharted waters of this global crisis, Christians and church leaders are left wondering how best to respond. There have been many good pieces written on appropriate measures to take, answering questions on the spectrum from “how can I individually avoid the virus?” to “should believers continue to meet publicly during this crisis?” Here we’re not looking to address the practical and pragmatic concerns surrounding the virus, but rather the internal panic that tempts our souls to sink into despair, fear, worry, and hopelessness. These should not be the dispositions of believers whose minds are to be preoccupied with our Savior. When crisis befalls us, we must determine to steel our nerves and fix our gaze all the more on Jesus Christ.
Into the Storm
In Mark 4:35-41 Jesus asks his disciples to travel with him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They leave the crowd, collect Jesus, and depart in their boat for the eastern side of the lake. Jesus, likely exhausted from his public ministry thus far, had found himself a soft cushion and fallen asleep. While he slept, a fierce windstorm arose and caused the waves on the sea to crash over the boat onto the deck. The disciples wake Jesus in fear for their lives. They say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
Put yourself in the place of the disciples. It should not be hard in our current environment. Just a short while before they had been enjoying Jesus’ teaching, completely unaware that their lives would be in danger that day. The storm had come upon them so suddenly that these experienced fishermen were taken by surprise and afraid for their lives! What seemed to them as a normal task of sailing across the lake turned out to be a life-threatening crisis that they were powerless to control.
Who would have thought two weeks ago that we would be where we are today? And in another two weeks, how will the outbreak have progressed? How bad will COVID-19 prove to be for those in our local communities? How long will the pandemic last? These questions have answers that are unknown to us at present. It makes us feel like we’re in the middle of a storm on Galilee, being rocked to and fro, helpless to do anything about our situation.
Except there is something we can do.
Calming the Storm
The disciples did the one thing that was in their power to do. They went to Jesus for help. What happened next was beyond their imagination and their expectations. Jesus woke up. Jesus rebuked the storm, the wind, the waves, the chaos, the panic, the confusion, the turmoil, all of it. With just two Greek words he undid the undoing of the disciples and gave them back their lives. After the miracle Jesus addresses the disciples’ fear directly: “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). When we read this passage, we often emphasize the wonder that Jesus could calm creation through a word, and his rebuke of the disciples’ lack of faith. But think of the relief the disciples must have felt as they saw the natural world obey Jesus and realized they were safe. Jesus not only calmed the seas, he brought peace to his followers’ hearts.
In our present crisis, we should turn to Jesus as well. In a world of sudden uncertainty, Jesus is not caught off guard. He is not alarmed by this outbreak. It is not a wrinkle in his plan. Our Savior is God himself, absolutely sovereign over this created universe. He is not surprised by sin nor its effects in the world, and neither will his purposes fail to be accomplished because of it. He has the power to do the impossible in any and all situations, even this current epidemic.
Jesus is present with us through this storm. He hears our prayers. He calms our fears. He stills our nerves. He speaks to our hearts, “Peace, be still.”
The Storm in Retrospect
The outcome of this account is that the reader is left to wonder with the disciples, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41). The answer to this question is the focus of the author, and really the focus of the Scriptures. Jesus is God himself, the only one capable of calming wind and waves, controlling creation. The story of Jesus calming the sea, then, is not really about the miracle at all. Instead it is about the unveiling of the person of Christ. In the sovereign plan and purpose of God, the storm was necessary for the disciples to understand more about Jesus’ identity and mission.
We cannot say with certainty why God is allowing the spread of this novel coronavirus. From our limited perspective we might guess at some reasons, but our knowledge is far from comprehensive. In the eye of the storm we tend to focus on ourselves, our worries and fears, our suffering. It is hard for us to consider that God might be doing something greater and more magnificent than we can presently grasp. Perhaps this current crisis is part of the Lord’s design to bring about the powerful advance of the gospel into hearts that were formerly hardened. Is it beyond the capacity of our Savior to work even through this awful epidemic to stir up his church from its current condition toward the fire of revival? Who can predict how God will be glorified even through this pandemic?
Peace, Be Still
Christ’s calming of the windstorm on Galilee demonstrates that in the crises of this life Christians must avoid the temptation to focus on self and instead focus on their Savior. In our media-saturated society feelings of nervousness, fear, and anxiety about the future threaten to pull us under the waves and into the depths of hopelessness and despair. We possess nothing in ourselves that can still the storm. Instead we must turn to Christ, meditation on his perfections, holding fast to his promises, delighting in his presence. He is with us and has promised not to leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We can be confident that his purposes in the pandemic, though unknown to us at present, will ultimately bring glory to his great name.
The old hymn by Edward Henry Bickersteth is like a breath of fresh air, a soothing aroma in these uncertain days:
Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
The blood of Jesus whispers peace within.
Peace, perfect peace, by thronging duties pressed?
To do the will of Jesus, this is rest.
Peace, perfect peace, with sorrows surging round?
On Jesus’ bosom naught but calm is found.
Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away?
In Jesus’ keeping we are safe, and they.
Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown?
Jesus we know, and He is on the throne.
Jonathan J. Routley (JJ) serves as Professor of Bible and Theology at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. JJ also serves on the Board of Directors for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He holds a ThM in Theology from Western Seminary (Portland, OR), and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theological Studies from Columbia International University. JJ and his family reside in Dubuque, Iowa.