History, for one thing. We haven't been exactly here before, but we've been in places a lot like it. Between 165 - 180 A.D., a plague swept Asia Minor, Greece and Italy. The Antonine plague, so named for the emperor at the time, Marcus Aurelias Antoninus, probably originated in China. Historians suspect the plague was either smallpox or measles. At its worst, it was killing 2,000 citizens a day just in the city of Rome itself. Up to 10 percent of the empire's population perished. The Roman military, which had carried the disease back from its campaigns, was devastated.
Rome was rich with diverse religions, but none of them had a response to human suffering. Christians, having been schooled by Jesus on the Golden Rule, did. They countered human suffering with compassion; caring for those who had been abandoned, nursing the sick and burying the dead. Rich or poor, slave or free, pagan or disciple, Christians practiced non-partisan kindness.
Other than, "The gods are punishing us," religious Romans had no answer for why the plague had fallen on the world. Christians, having believed the Gospel, had a different answer. This pandemic was not sent by an angry god; it was the backwash of a broken creation. When sin entered the world, it brought with it suffering, sickness and death. In Christ, God was redeeming humanity and restoring creation to its intended beauty, health and life.
The Christians' offer of practical compassion amid such suffering and their message of persistent hope in that dark season were two reasons the message of Christ spread quickly throughout the Roman empire in the ensuing decades.
That same narrative – compassion and confidence in the face of suffering and fear – is repeated throughout history. In the third century, an Ebola-like plague again swept the Roman empire. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in northern Africa, urged Christians to care for the living. They did. The Bubonic Plague struck Wittenberg, Germany in 1527. Led by their pastor Martin Luther, Christians again leaned in to provide help and hope. In 1854, London was ravaged by Cholera. Charles Spurgeon, just 20 years old, noted "how anxiously people listened to the Gospel."
The church, and yes, the world itself, not only survived those pandemics, but has continued to thrive. But it isn't just history that gives me the confidence to say we're going to be OK.
In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul bluntly described his circumstances: "We are afflicted . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down." But his gruff honesty did not give way to gloom. "We are . . . not crushed . . . not driven to despair . . . not forsaken . . . not destroyed." How was he able to find hope?
Just before he writes of affliction, perplexity and persecution, he speaks of a treasure that has been stored in jars of clay. The treasure is "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." The jars of clay are . . . us. God has poured the light of Jesus into human hearts. Close your eyes and imagine how that might look – a fragile jar brimming over with brilliant light!
Everyone on the planet is now more keenly aware of how very brittle we are. Like ancient clay jars we are easily broken. But you and I know more. If the jar is shattered, the light breaks out and shines more brightly.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:16 – 18 NIV
That doesn't mean that you can stop social distancing or washing your hands or doing everything else you're doing to keep you and others safe. But it does mean that we're going to be OK.