A preacher promises immunity from Covid-19. He says, “If you are born again, read your Bible, and tithe, you have the Ps. 91 protection policy!” Another defies social distancing to prove his faith in the midst of fear. What are we to make of this? At first glance, you can see why such preachers urge us to say and do likewise.
He will deliver you . . . from the deadly pestilence. (Ps. 91:3)
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. (Ps. 91:7)
No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. (Ps. 91:10)
I do not doubt the earnestness of such preachers. But unwittingly, such preachers expose us to a different kind of infection; a spiritual kind with damaging physical consequences; the kind that community-spreads through a naive use of the Bible and brings harm to ordinary people.
We Try Not to Test God
Notice that the psalmist writes these promises because they happened. In Israel’s history, plagues touched the tent of Egypt, but not the tents of those who believed in this God of the Bible. Contrary to our skepticism, it is a fact that God can and has kept his people from harm at times. But contrary to our romanticism this fact is not a norm. It reveals the character of God, not a coupon from God. How do we know?
First, the context of this Psalm. Even a king in Israel is not immune to the harm that trolls the fallen world. Stick your hand where a serpent is known to dwell and it will bite you, no matter who you are (Eccl. 10:5-8). Israel’s proverbs say it twice: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it” (Proverbs 22:3).
If we don’t know whether or not the plant in front of us is poison Ivy, it is unwise to find out by rubbing it, no matter how true or strong our faith.
Second, and most importantly, Jesus tells us how to interpret the promises of Psalm 91. The devil took Jesus to the top of a building, quoted promises from Psalm 91 and dared Jesus, saying: “Throw yourself down” God will protect you. Jesus responded plainly. “It is written. You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt. 4:5-7). By his response, Jesus makes it plain. Psalm 91 promises are not immunity passes.
If we find ourselves following an interpretation of the Bible favored by the devil and dismissed by Jesus, we are errant preachers no matter how earnest.
A married man who begins texting another woman after-hours tests rather than trusts his covenant vows. Such a man challenges rather than cherishes his wife. A woman, who is two-years sober walks into a bar. Her actions test rather than trust the sobriety that she and her family have fought for. A child runs out into the street yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, because you love me, I know you’ll stop this car from hitting me! Catch me if you can!” The child demands the right to act recklessly rather than rely on good reasons for relational trust.
- Some Christians and Christian Institutions, urge us to show the world our faith by resisting social-distancing. But I suggest that what this shows the world is not our faith, but our naivete. We cannot use God’s promises to justify doing what that same God says is unwise. It is tragic to think that we can do something in God’s name and at the same time violate the love for neighbor God commands.
- Other earnest Christians point to how Christians in earlier eras responded to plagues and disease. “They gathered together, in the midst of the very worst of it, so should we.” Yes, but what about what love for a sick neighbor requires? I suggest we are failing to make an important distinction–a distinction necessary for discerning the difference between testing God and trusting God in a pandemic.
What we as Christians do by faith before a pandemic peaks, must differ from what we do by faith after a pandemic reveals its wreckage.
We Seek to Trust God
If we find ourselves like those early Christians on the other side of the peak in the Black Plague, our sense of what wise love demands changes. With doctors and nurses dying, with people abandoned in their disease, and with clergy performing multiple funerals every day, these Psalm 91 promises find their proper role. They rouse the courage necessary to love our neighbor, even our enemy, even if they are contagious.
We don’t prove our faith by defying orders in order to shake the hand of another Christian. We prove our faith by denying ourselves so that we can clear the throat of a neighbor who can’t breathe.
In 1527, Martin and Katherina Luther stayed behind to aid the sick and dying in their city. Katherina was pregnant. Earlier, the Luthers freed the consciences of fellow Christians to leave the city for safety. But later, the devastation ransacked medical aid, medical professionals died, help was scarce and over-run. People needed help and had little. Martin and Katherina took up their Savior’s call to visit and care for the sick even at risk to their own lives. If we defy social distancing let it be because a sick or dying neighbor needs help and has none.
Why? Because Jesus teaches his followers that love for neighbor out of love for God includes care for the sick and not leaving the sick untended. (Matt. 25:36-40; Lk. 10:9) No wonder the first public hospital was started by a follower of Jesus and 9 of the top 10 American hospitals today were founded by Christians. No wonder, so many Christians have died throughout history because they would not leave the sick unattended in a plague. In a 3rd-century pandemic in which 5000 died each day it was said of Christians: “Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ . . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”
As a pandemic begins, ordinary Christians care for the sick by sacrifically limiting themselves. As a pandemic rolls on, ordinary Christians care for the sick by sacrificially spending themselves.
An Italian priest sick with Covid-19 gave his ventilator to another. The priest died. The other lived.
We Find Hope and Help in the Promises
In 1854, a young pastor named Charles Spurgeon, found himself amid a Cholera outbreak. Daily he visited those under his care and gradually the funerals and death-bed scenes overloaded his mental and physical strength. A shoemaker posted Psalm 91 in his business window. The young pastor saw the promise and the God who made it. He said:
“The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvelous power, I adore the Lord my God.”
Charles died, not then of Cholera, but later, by other means. The promises of Psalm 91 did not empower him to test God. Rather the promises enabled this weary and worn lover of neighbor, who was stricken with grief and exhaustion, to keep on with such love. He saw afresh that his work was done within the shade of the Almighty. He saw afresh that his life was in the hands of God. God could keep him safe. God could take him home. Either way, he was in the shelter of the Almighty. With this kind of shelter, we see more clearly that death itself will die, and we are freed beneath that shade, to unhide ourselves when a suffering neighbor needs us. His promises pave the way.