by Michael Horton
According to Wall Street’s “Fear-Greed Index,” it is “Extreme Fear” that is driving the market right now in the wake of COVID-19. It’s not just the coronavirus. Everybody seems to be anxious, checking the 24-hour news cycles for the next jolt to our insecurity. Besides their health, many are afraid of losing their job or personal freedom. Many are gripped by the fear of economic collapse, while others are anxious about environmental collapse. Many Christians are fearful of the collapse of a thinly-veiled Christian order. Others worship security and therefore are fearful of anyone and anything that leaders or the media construct as threatening it. You get my point. It’s all about control. What we’re most afraid of losing tells us who or what we worship, where we place our trust.
It’s not that people don’t believe in God anymore, just that it doesn’t seem to matter. And that suggests that there is little knowledge of the “God” to whom a majority (though declining) number of fellow Americans tip their hat. The first test of whether we are actually worshipping the right God is fear. That’s right: Fear. While being afraid of all sorts of things is a sign of sanity these days, the fear of God seems quite insane not only to unbelieving neighbors but even in the church. It’s s not surprising that the God of the Bible is increasingly rejected in wider American society, since in even evangelical circles he is frequently reduced to a supporting actor in our life movie: a means to the end of our own health, wealth and happiness. In ordinary conversations, even among Christians, we express fear of just about any threat to our well-being, but meet stares or raised eyebrows if we mention fearing God.
We worship most what we fear most. So, for some right now, the fear of catching COVID-19 dominates the headlines. People don’t worship a virus, of course, but many do worship health—physical and mental well-being. Fear is an index of the object of our worship, the one ultimately in whom we place our trust.
Personal peace and well-being or political and social utopia become the “heaven on earth,” here and now, that we demand. If God can help with that, great. The philosopher William James said that in America, “God is not worshipped, he is used.”
Jesus has become a mascot for our cause, party or nation, rather than the mediator apart from whom we face God only as “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Instead of witnessing to the redeeming God of history, public pronouncements from some evangelical leaders give the impression that Christians are fearful, resentful and anxious. Looking to powerful leaders for security, we often seem to be telling our neighbors that we don’t really trust the one who said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). We imagine that we are not a little flock, certain to be wiped out were it not for God’s grace and mercy, much less that we’ve been given a kingdom. Instead, we seem to be fixated on the one we’re building. When Jesus warns of coming persecution, it’s not to stir his disciples to fear but to hope in him alone, based on his victory: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
It’s not just the coronavirus. It has already caused great harm and will do greater before it has run its course. Other calamities will come and go, claiming lives. They make us feel small, helpless. But the real question is whether it turns out hearts to fear the one who holds the keys of death and hell.
We don’t really fear the coronavirus. It’s just a symptom of our deeper disease. What we fear most is losing imaginary control over our lives. Building its technological towers reaching to the heavens, humanity ascends in promethean defiance of God’s sovereignty. But then appears a microscopic agent for which we have yet no vaccine, capable of copying itself. We become anxious, not just because we may know people who are infected or even perhaps may die from it, but ultimately because it dispels the illusion of sovereignty. It doesn’t make sense, especially in 2020. Who’s in charge? How did this happen? Someone must be blamed for failing to prop up the tower.
To protect the illusion of sovereignty, some will see COVID-19 as a random accident. There is no one above us who permitted it as part of a meaningful plan to bring him glory by raising our eyes to him. We’re still in charge. It will be over soon. We will contain it.
Others will see it as a business opportunity, like the disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker selling his snake-oil or Kenneth Copeland, as he invites viewers to touch the TV screen for protection and healing—for a “seed gift,” of course.
Still others will cower in fear, ransacking the stores and trembling in their bunkers.
But everyone is afraid. Mainly, of death.
It seems that over the last few generations there has been a shift, away from “the fear of God” being something positive to a condition ranging from inappropriate to a troubling neurosis. In churches where sentimentality reigns and each of us gets to decide who “our god” is, the assumption seems to be that “a nice God wouldn’t allow this to happen to nice people like us.” After all, God exists for our happiness. That’s the sort of thing we hear on the street and also from many popular preachers.
Even in more conservative contexts, the reading of a “fear of God” passage is often followed up quickly with explanation, dying the death of a thousand qualifications. The upshot is that fear doesn’t really mean fear. It means something more like respect. But respect may be registered in no more than a polite gesture. No, fear means fear. It means that God alone is terrifying in his glory, righteous in his judgments, and merciful to all who call on his name. The right kind of fear, godly fear, “casts out fear” and leads to trust and love (1 Jn 4:18). The downgrading of the fear of God is misguided for at least two reasons.
First, sanity requires that we live with the grain of reality and the sovereign God is more real than we are. In fact, he is life and gives life—creaturely life—to us and to everything he has made. Like the visible sun, God exists and sends forth his rays of goodness regardless of whether we acknowledge him. Even when the clouds of his inscrutable providence obscure his presence, he is there, drawing our eyes to him.
Remember Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Strolling on his palace rooftop, he marveled at “this great Babylon which I have built,” and God drove him into the desert, living like a wild animal. Happily, that wasn’t the end of the story. God used it to show the king that he was insane, not living in reality.
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done? At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me (Dan 4:34-36).
Second, the good fear of God dispels the bad fear of anyone or anything else. Downplaying the fear of God, we are not only failing to give God his due but are depriving ourselves and each other of the only antidote to the crippling fears that haunt us. Fearing God extinguishes paralyzing fear of anyone or anything else.
There are many Christians who are finding their ultimate comfort in life and in death in Christ our Savior, just as those in similar circumstances have done in the past. Asked in a letter how to respond during the Plague, Martin Luther replied,
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. (1)
As Harry Reeder III reminds us, the plague visited Geneva five times during Calvin’s ministry:
During the first outbreak, in 1542, Calvin personally led visitations into plague-infected homes. Knowing that this effort likely carried a death sentence, the city fathers intervened to stop him because of their conviction that his leadership was indispensable. The pastors continued this heroic effort under Calvin’s guidance, and they recounted the joy of multiple conversions. Many pastors lost their lives in this cause. Unknown to many, Calvin privately continued his own pastoral care in Geneva and other cities where the plague raged. Calvin’s pastoral heart, already evidenced by the provision of hospitals for both citizens and immigrants, was further revealed as he collected the necessary resources to establish a separate hospital for plague victims. When believers died, he preached poignant funeral homilies with passion and personal concern. (2)
If we replace the atomic bomb with the coronavirus, C. S. Lewis’ counsel in 1948 hits home as yet another reminder of how differently the sanity of God’s Word shapes our discipleship in tough times:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us are going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes to find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. (3)
As Nebuchadnezzar discovered, we recover our sanity when we lift our eyes to heaven. We’re back in line with reality. We’re not in charge, and never have been. We can’t create or save ourselves. But we have been created and saved by God in Jesus Christ! Now we can see the needs all around us, our own and those of our neighbors and the creation, as opportunities rather than threats. We want to play our part in curbing the spread of the virus. We are called to defend the life of our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable: the unborn, our aging elders, the poor, orphans, widows and all victims of injustice. We are called to be good stewards of God’s creation. But this is because we fear God rather than anyone or anything else.
Not even death threatens us because it is the “last enemy” whose claim on believers in Christ has been rendered null and void (1 Cor 15:50-57). We care for this world not because it will be destroyed but because it will be restored (Rom 8:18-25). Our lives are now driven outward to our neighbors instead of being turned in on ourselves. We are fueled by freedom, not fear, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7). The real headline should be, “It’s Easter!” Indeed, each Lord’s Day we gather to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
When we fear God, all other fears become not manageable by human pride but subdued by the God of promise and deliverance. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we sometimes need to learn it the hard way. But since we’re made for communion with God, the outcome justifies the hard providences. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10) and the wisdom of God is Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
The fear of God leads to trust and trust bears the fruit of the Spirit, for a harvest of blessings for ourselves and for others. If God uses difficult providences to cure us of our insanity and to bring us to rest in him, what outcome could be better? It’s not just “Keep Calm and Carry On,” but
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones (Prov. 3:5-8).
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of Theology & Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, and the co-host of Core Christianity. He is the author of numerous books, including Christless Christianity, The Gospel-Driven Life, and A Place for Weakness.
(1) Luther’s Works 43:132
(2) Harry L. Reeder III, “Calvin and the Plague,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Discipleship, ed. Burk Parsons (Lake Mary, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2008), 65.
(3) C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age,”in Present Concerns (Harvest Books, 2002), 78-80.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION…
Coronavirus: A Pastor’s Report from Italy, a special bonus edition of the White Horse Inn
Five Ways to Bless the Church During Coronavirus, by Adriel Sanchez
COVID-19: How Christians Should Respond, by Simonetta Carr