A Viral Fear: Responding to the Coronavirus

Rachel Chimits

When worldwide issues begin to fill the news and rattle the public, how should Christians respond to these crises?

Fears have begun running rampant ever since the explosion of COVID-19 cases in China’s Hubei province.

News feeds have become clogged with articles about the quick spread of this new variety of human coronavirus. Photos and videos showing medical personnel in isolation hooded coveralls, masks and goggles have only heightened the general public’s alarm. 

The Economist reported on how people’s fears are beginning to drive them to unpleasant extremes. “On February 8th Hao Chunxiang, a Chinese university student in the Netherlands, complained on Facebook that the lift in his dormitory had been spray-painted with the words ‘DIE CHINESE’. In Japan the hashtag #ChineseDon’tCometoJapan has been trending on Twitter. Rhea Liang, a doctor in Australia, tweeted that one of her patients had refused to shake her hand because of her ethnicity.”

“The primary reason for the panic is because so much is unknown about Covid-19 itself,” wrote Allie Nawrat for the publication Pharmaceutical Technology. “Burton Paul, healthcare engagement specialist and author of ‘Is It Serious? How To Search For Health Information On The Internet’, explains this fear of the unknown has only been worsened by misinformation about Covid-19’s mortality rate.

“He has observed people on social media stating they disbelieve the official figures of a 1% death rate and think there must be more.”

In reality, many academics and medical professionals are beginning to speculate that the mortality rates may be even lower than official reports say. Many mild or asymptomatic cases aren’t being officially recorded by hospitals since these people simply need a few days of rest at home to recover or may not show any signs of being ill.

The panic and paranoia persist, though, which begs the question “Why?”

The Actions of Unbelief or Faith

While it is concerning that human coronaviruses may cause fibrosis in the lungs, interact unpleasantly with preexisting health problems and have a high transmission rate, these facts are rarely the core reason why people are so afraid.

Serious diseases like this one and worse have spread across the globe in the past. Pandemics and quarantines are an accepted part of modern medical studies and care. There has been and always will be a certain level of uncertainty about our lives, how long we’ll live and how we’ll die. None of these things are new or, frankly, that surprising.

We are rarely reminded of these issues so poignantly, though, until we witness the frailty of our bodies in real time.

Fear often puts its roots down the moment we’re forced to confront human fragility and powerlessness in the face of great dangers. The alarm almost always takes one of two forms. The person becomes hysterical, frantically doing everything they can to protect themselves, often at the expense of others as they snatch away resources that other people may need or push others away so that they won’t have to share any of their stockpile.

The other form is just as insidious. A person may deny the problem’s existence, claiming that everyone who is concerned is an alarmist, that science and technology will take care of the issue or even that God won’t allow the “truly faithful” to be impacted in any way as some kind of reward for their superior spirituality.

Both of these reactions are a refusal to face the problem squarely and then lean on God for provision and protection. In short, they’re both forms of unbelief.

In a devotional, David Wilkerson pointed out, “Unbelief always hinders the fullness of God’s revelation and blessing, and Scripture makes it clear that God does not take it lightly. He gives us an example of this in the story of King Asa, a righteous king and descendant of David who ruled over Judah (read the account in 2 Chronicles 14 through 16).

“King Asa panicked and instead of trusting the Lord, he turned to an enemy, the king of Syria, for help. Unbelievably, Asa stripped Judah’s treasury of all its wealth and offered it to the Syrians to deliver Judah, an act of absolute unbelief. God had in motion his plan to deliver Judah, but Asa aborted it by acting in fear. Because Asa did not trust the Lord, from then on Judah had wars.

“Acting in unbelief always brings turmoil and confusion. No exceptions. Trusting God’s Word, though, will enable you to stand firm in the face of any challenge and let God bring victory.”

Truly having faith may well require action on our part, but it will be orderly and a sober following of God’s direction, not a frantic act of self-preservation or denial.

Check Engine Light for Faith

Moving toward a calm heart of faith is life-long work.

We’ll constantly be faced with new challenges and special situations while we’re in different stages of life ourselves. Our relationship with God, which gives us that faith we need, should be growing and changing as well.

How then do we define fear and respond to it?

“Faith and fear are often described as opposites. But in reality, that’s not how it works,” Jon Bloom writes on Desiring God. “The kind of fear the Bible most often addresses, whether positively (Deuteronomy 6:13) or negatively (Luke 12:4), is actually born out of faith. It results from a promise or threat we believe.

“So it is not so much faithless fear that inhibits a more radical life of Christlike love, but rather misplaced fear — fear of the wrong thing.”

If our faith is in our own goodness or spirituality, our fear often, ironically, becomes facing facts that might rattle us and make us feel anxious. If our faith is in our own provision, our fear rears its head when circumstances spin out of our control.

If our greatest fear is dishonoring God or missing his directions, we will seek his will first and foremost and make faith-based choices accordingly.

“That’s why there is no such thing as a fearless Christian,” Jon Bloom explained. “God designed us to experience fear, in some measure, because he designed us to live by faith (Romans 1:17). And the object of our faith is revealed in what fears most motivate us.”

When we are hit by fears, we have a simple way of testing which type of fear it is and realigning ourselves if we suspect it’s not the healthy sort.

"When our fear becomes overwhelming, we must remind ourselves of how great our God is,” David Wilkerson instructed. “We need to recall all his great deliverances for those who have trusted in him, and claim the same majestic power for our present trial. Fear cannot get a stranglehold on any servant who has a vision of God’s greatness and majesty.”

Fear itself isn’t evil. It’s a useful check-engine light for our faith.

Triple Point of Fear, Faith and Action

Once our fears and faith are properly aligned and God’s will has been sought, it’s appropriate to remain informed and take necessary precautions.  

World Challenge regional missions directors are regularly faced with outbreaks and epidemics in various nations where we work. When this comes up, they gather to pray about the situation and discuss what action should be taken. Since these directors would inevitably being traveling through major international hubs, their heart is to avoid bringing any illnesses into remote, uninfected areas or alternatively carrying sickness back to airports or their homes.

For some, this may entail canceling or delaying trips that would take them and training teams through hot zones like sub-Saharan Africa with the Ebola outbreak or Asia with this current COVID-19 epidemic.

In the meantime, our missions directors build seminars to inform locals about the details of the disease and also offer guidelines for prevention. They send these to local leaders who can then offer their churches and communities vital information to help protect them.

God’s work may involve stepping out into dangerous situations with the faith that he will guide and protect us, but it also frequently involves using common sense to protect and help others. Both faith and practical action are needed.

As the author of Bridge to Terabithia and one-time missionary Katherine Paterson said, “To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”

Living is sometimes a frightful thing. Good thing we have a God who loves us and is always in control.