Thinking Wisely about Sickness and Disease: A Biblical and Pastoral Response to COVID by Brian Tabb

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In preparation for Sunday School this week, I have been reading various articles and books on COVID-19 and how churches should think about the pandemic and respond to it. This week I will try to share a few of these resources that I have found helpful.

The first article to mention is Brian Tabb’s “Theological Reflection on the Pandemic.” In his article, he surveys what Scripture says about sickness. And most importantly he draws the connection between sickness and sin. Eschewing a mechanical connection between sin and sickness, i.e., that sickness is always a result of sin, he rightly avoids the other error—that sickness has nothing to do with sin. He writes,

Thus, the Scriptures do not present disease as morally neutral or “indifferent” like the philosophers.9 Rather, disease and other causes of pain and suffering are part of this broken world infected with sin, and these terrors have no place in the new creation, when God will roll back the curse, wipe away every tear, and make all things new (Rev 21:4–4; 22:3; cf. Isa 25:8). (p. 3)

From this biblical-theological foundation, he shows how Scripture uses sickness as a parable for sin and how disease is iconoclastic by nature. In particular, when we are confronted with sickness—ours or someone we love—sin has a way of resetting our world and smashing our idols. Tabb notes three particular idols that disease smashes: (1) security, (2) prosperity, and (3) wellness. Concluding his last point, he writes,

Disease offers us a healthy reminder of our weakness and limitations. We do not have bionic bodies. The psalmist reflects on the human life span as seventy or eighty years, which are full of “toil and trouble” (Ps 90:10). We are not promised four-score years but should “number our days” (Ps 90:12). Even with an optimal regiment of diet, exercise, and sleep, our bodies slow down and break down until eventually we die. Disease may rapidly accelerate this process of dying, but each one of us lives within divinely-imposed limits, even as we long for God to make all things well in the resurrection. (p. 5)

Finally, Tabb notes three ways Christians can respond to his current pandemic. Take note, his biblical counsel, which was offered in April, and which still stands as biblical and necessary, has been hindered by the on-going “Mao-style social controls” that have been imposed across the country. In other words, his pastoral counsel has not aged well in world that has continued to clamp down on citizens and churches. Nonetheless, consider his three responses to COVID.

First, public health crises force us to face our fears. Fear is a natural reaction to danger, death, and uncertain times. What shall we do with our fears? Fear leads some people to minimize the threat, while others magnify the danger as all-consuming. Some have responded to the COVID-19 outbreak by caring for the vulnerable, while others express their fears by threatening or ostracizing Chinese people in their communities. For Christians, fear can prompt us to “return to obedience and charity,” loosening our grip on the world’s toys and reminding us that our “true good is in another world” and our “only real treasure is Christ.” Many Chinese Christians in Wuhan responded to the terrifying coronavirus outbreak by calling for prayer and passing out face masks, food, and gospel tracts. Andy Crouch wisely writes, “We need to redirect social energy from anxiety and panic to love and preparation.” When we remember that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1), we can overcome debilitating fears and respond to crises with courage and compassion for our neighbors in need.

Second, sickness is an occasion to seek the Lord. Consider the contrasting responses of Asa and Hezekiah to their severe sickness:

In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek Yahweh, but sought help from physicians. (2 Chr 16:12)

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death, and he prayed to Yahweh, and he answered him and gave him a sign. (2 Chr 32:24)

The Chronicler’s point is not to criticize the work of physicians, but to stress the fundamental need to “seek the Lord” in sickness. While earlier in his life, Asa commendably led his people to seek God with their whole heart and soul (2 Chron 15:12), he relies only on human experts in his time of personal need rather than prayerfully turning to his God. In contrast, Yahweh answers tearful deathbed prayer, restoring the king’s health and prolonging his life another fifteen years (2 Kgs 20:1–7).

Third, sickness and other forms of suffering also test our faith and reveal our hope. Consider Peter’s words: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:6–7). The apostle helps believers recognize that their present sufferings and struggles—whether due to social ostracism, threats, sickness, etc.—are not random blows of Fate but a divinely designed test to prove their faith and prepare them for glory. One Wuhan pastor similarly reflected, “It is readily apparent that we are facing a test of our faith.” He reminds believers that “Christ has already given us his peace, but his peace is not to remove us from disaster and death, but rather to have peace in the midst of disaster and death, because Christ has already overcome these things.” Our present peace and future hope should move us to respond to crises like the coronavirus outbreak with Christ-exalting good works. (pp. 5–7)

While many in April might have supposed that the severe responses to COVID would not continue or increase in 2020, it is clear that they have. And after 9 months of this pandemic, it is vital to make sure we do not take all of our cues from unbelieving politicians and secular media. Rather, we must let the word of God continue to renew our minds. On that point, Brian Tabb’s article is worth reading and applying, especially as it calls us to think biblically about disease, death, and devotion to Christ.

To read the whole article, you can find it here.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds