It has been over a century since a great pandemic caused the sort of social and economic disruption as has the recent Chinese Coronavirus. In 1918, during the difficult days of World War I, the Spanish Flu infected an estimated one fourth of the world’s population, with a death toll reaching tens of millions. In spite of the level of fear being generated by news reports and social media, the present crisis pales in comparison to earlier epidemics such as this.
However, efforts to put things in proportion do not seem to alleviate the current panic. Is the reasonable response to an epidemic really to cash in all investments, hoard bathroom tissue, and refuse to venture out of doors? Sometimes the sense that something needs to be done leads people to do the ridiculous.
How should the child of God respond to this health emergency? As with any trial, we respond in faith.
In 1527, a decade after he posted his famous 95 Theses, Martin Luther’s life was threatened. But the danger came not from violent persecution for his beliefs. In the summer of that year the infamous Black Plague descended on Wittenberg where Luther lived and ministered. In the 16th century, the mortality rate for those who contracted this plague was over fifty percent. Many people fled town to escape infection. Luther and his wife, Katherine, chose to stay. In spite of the facts that most of his students fled, the elector (as the prince was called) urged Luther to leave, and although his wife was pregnant, Luther decided to remain.
Luther was not in denial regarding this menace. He did not think himself somehow immune from infection. Nor did he boldly profess to be fearless. He wrote at the time, “Not that I do not fear death (for I am not the apostle Paul. I am only his commentator), but I hope that the Lord will deliver me from fear.”
He stayed in Wittenberg and placed himself in immediate contact with the infected by caring for many that were sick and suffering. He even took some into his home.
Luther’s reasons for staying were not medical, but spiritual. He actually expressed his rationale in a brief tract entitled, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. He stated that it was not a sin to leave. He acknowledged that to attempt to preserve one’s life is biblical and reasonable. However, there was for the Christian an obligation to care for people who had contracted the plague and had no one else to care for them. The commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself meant that it would be wrong to abandon others to suffer alone with none to provide help or comfort.
Luther determined that in addition to giving people food, drink, and medicine, people who were facing death also needed to be given the Word of God. The unbelieving needed to be urged to repent while there was opportunity, and the child of God needed to be encouraged in his faith as he passed into the Lord’s presence.
Luther also believed that the Christian should not surrender to fear. To do so would be to yield to the devil’s work. Love and faith ought to be greater motivators.
Luther and his wife survived the plague of 1527. Some historians and biographers believe that the experience left a profound impact on the reformer’s life. Sometime during the years 1527 to 1529 Luther composed the great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. It was not only against the political and religious forces aligned against him that Luther saw God protecting him. It was against all perils – including the plague – he found the Lord to be “a bulwark never failing.”
I suspect that the present Chinese Coronavirus panic will soon fade away. International travel will resume, markets will rebound, and we will all but forget about these events. But we should never forget in any trying circumstance to be concerned with the well being of others and to keep our trusting gaze on the Lord, “our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”