A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO COVID-19: DR TERENCE ASCOTT REFLECTS
11 March 2021
As we mark one year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, life remains unrecognisable in much of the world. Dr Terence Ascott, Founder and President of SAT-7, reflects on how we should respond and maintain our spiritual and emotional health as followers of Christ.
I have been reading different theological reflections on the current pandemic, and I must confess I have been disappointed by the impracticality and inconclusiveness of this exercise.
Many Christians seem to fall into one or more of the following general categories:
• Those who see these days as the End-Times, with the pandemic being just another sign of the end and heralding the imminent return of Christ. The pandemic comes along with “wars and rumors of wars”, “the fall of Babylon”, the rise of Gog and Magog, the outpouring of the “Seven Bowls of God’s wrath” – which include diseases, fire, and intense heat on the earth (global warming, forest fires, etc) – and so on.
• Those who see the pandemic as a great opportunity to share the Gospel, as people thinking so much about death will be more open to our message. This was, in part, a position taken by the reformer Luther, who during one of the great plagues in Europe encouraged his followers to get out onto the front lines, help the sick and needy, and in the process witness to them.
• Those who take a purely Old Testament view and see the pandemic as God’s judgement on a sinful world – one that has lost all moral judgement, polluting God’s creation, oppressing the poor, allowing injustice, murdering unborn children, being sexually permissive, and so on. For them, this is God’s wake-up call, as was the exile of the Jews to Babylon in the 6th Century BC.
• Christians who reflect on and “lament” over the age-old problem of why bad things happen to good people, or why as Psalm 73 puts it, “The wicked flourish and the righteous are crushed under their feet.” There are many chapters in the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament that echo this concern.
If we step back and take a balanced look at the Bible and Christian history, we can see that each of these positions have their merits but that, even together, they certainly do not paint a complete picture.
When we look at Jesus’ teaching and life, it is clear that things were often not what they seemed to be for those around him. Jesus’ healing of the man born blind in John 9 is typical of this. The disciples brought to Jesus a blind man and asked, “Whose sin was it that caused this man to be born blind – his or his parents?” Jesus rejected the multiple-choice answer and replied, “Neither sinned. It happened so that God’s work could be seen in him.”
Similarly, the sad (including for Jesus, who wept) death and joyous subsequent resurrection of Lazarus was for God’s purposes.
And, in the Old Testament, the well-known story of Job is another example of a disaster befalling a good man – something allowed by God for reasons that no one else could see at the time.
In his 2020 book, God and the Pandemic, Tom Wright highlights the response of the early Church, not to a plague but to a regional famine that was foretold by the prophet Agabus (Acts 11). Their response was to:
• Decide who was most at risk (the poorer Christians in Jerusalem)
• Ask themselves what they could and should do to help (collecting funds)
• Decide who to send with the aid (Barnabas and Saul)
It is important to note that they did not go into discussions about the end times or how this might be an opportunity for witness, nor ask questions about who had sinned, nor lament why this was happening. Their response was simply to demonstrate love in action.
Now, what about us in lockdown today? Some of us are completely stressed out by:
• Being confined to home
• Not being able to travel locally or internationally to see family or friends
• Not being able to attend church or fellowship groups
• Trying to work remotely, sometimes while also homeschooling children
How are we to cope in these days? In Western countries, it is estimated that between 30-50 percent of the general population are suffering from emotional stress or illness and millions are seeking professional support for such.
You may have heard people say that in this situation, “It is OK not to feel OK!” And, while this may be true, we do not need to just roll over and take it. Since childhood, we have been taught to take care of our physical selves – but most of us have not been taught how to look after our emotional and spiritual lives in the same way.
So, what can we do, practically?
IF YOU ARE FEELING DOWN: Then you should praise God. Not for feeling low but to thank Him for all you may have, things which most of the world do not have:
• A warm home in which to shelter from the elements
• Peace and security on our streets
• Food, and appliances to preserve it and cook it
• Health services
• A job
• Friends and family
• A church, Bible, Christian books and websites
• Clothes for all seasons and weather
• Running water, a flushing toilet, and electricity
• Communication devices, information and entertainment systems
Also, take time to pray for others:
• Who may be grieving for loved ones lost to the pandemic
• The millions living miserable lives in camps for refugees and the internally displaced, especially those in northern Syria and Yemen
• Those in prison, especially if this is because of their Christian beliefs. (If we feel stressed by a lockdown, imagine how it must be to be locked up, never allowed to go where you please, when you please)
• Believers whose movement has been severely restricted by their non-believing families, especially in the Arabian Peninsula and Iran
• People with disabilities who cannot move around without the help of others
Perhaps neither of these activities, giving thanks for what you have or praying for others, will change your situation, but they will help bring you perspective and healing.
IF YOU ARE BORED and tired of being stuck at home: Ask God what you can do in service to Him!
When I was a child and complained to my mother that I was bored, instead of sympathy, I got a scolding. “It is because you are not thinking what you can do for others, that you are bored,” was the response. I did not make such a complaint a second time, at least not to my mum!
IF YOU ARE FEELING LONELY: Remember that God loves you and is at all times “closer than a brother”.
It is easy in this pandemic, especially for those of us who live alone, for feelings of loneliness to distort our whole perspective on life and to become an emotional wound. We may begin to believe that we have no one who really cares for us, and this can lead us to avoid reaching out to others, for fear of rejection. Medically, loneliness has been shown to cause high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and to shorten lives.
Do not allow being alone to cause you to feel lonely. Thank God for the people in your life, and reach out to others who may be even more alone than yourself.
IF YOU ARE FEELING THAT YOU HAVE FAILED: Everyone experiences feelings of failure at some time in their life. Maybe such feelings can be more acute in lockdown, especially when you are unable to do properly many of the things you should. Or maybe there is a big failure in your past that is still an open wound in your life? If you do not confront this, it can lead to pessimism, cynicism, and a destructive attitude that assumes everything will go wrong for you.
Remember, God is a God of forgiveness – total forgiveness! He is also a God of new beginnings. Your future does not have to be shaped by your past. Remember that tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life!
In all these situations, let us be sure not to let any spiritual or emotional wounds go unnoticed or untreated.
We must not let ourselves keep turning such things over in our minds, asking, “what if?” This will only allow the wounds to fester, robbing us of our Christian joy and our peace and spoiling our relationships with friends, family and work colleagues.
Deal with any pain.
Talk to others if it is helpful.
Pray about it.
Address these things in the way Jesus taught us to – and if that means studying the Gospels again or reading Christian books – do it.
But, above all, maintain your spiritual and emotional health.
DR TERENCE ASCOTT
SAT-7 Founder and President | Dr Terence Ascott has lived in the Middle East region for over 40 years. In 1973 he moved to Beirut, Lebanon but after the start of the Lebanese Civil War, Terence and his family evacuated to Egypt where he launched an Arabic youth magazine called "Magalla" - the first Christian magazine to be successfully distributed on the newsstands in more than a dozen Arab countries. In 1995 he, along with Middle Eastern Christian leaders and around 20 partner organisations working in the region, launched SAT-7 as the first Christian satellite television channel in Arabic. In December 2011, he was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Christian Ministries Degree from Belhaven University "for extraordinary work and achievements in promoting Christianity throughout the Middle East and North Africa."