What amazes me most when I read of the lives of Christians who lived before the 1950’s is their positive attitude to suffering, disease, and death. They expected to suffer, they were willing to suffer, and welcomed it as God’s gift. They expected to have diseases, and could welcome them as God’s gifts. And they could welcome death, knowing that ‘to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:22), and looking forward to the joys of eternal life with Christ.
We have been brainwashed by our Western society to think that we can live our invincible lives in health, wealth, and happiness, that suffering and sacrifice must be avoided, and that death must be hidden and hushed up: it has become the great unmentionable.
We have been brainwashed by our Western society to think that we can live our invincible lives … suffering and sacrifice must be avoided, and that death must be hidden and hushed up.
COVID-19 is such a challenge to our comfortable Western lives. We are suffering two Pandemics at the same time: the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the Panic Pandemic!
Everything is in flux: our daily lives, human contact, care of children, family life, work, employment, shopping, availability of products, medical care, communication, eating and drinking out, access to people in Aged Care, sport, schools, universities, travel, the economies of nations and of the world, church life and community, and the ways in which we can do ministry.
What a shock to our society, which has learnt to expect a high level of comfort, good health, a good standard of living, and trusts so deeply in the power of money and of science to deliver ‘the good life’ in ‘the lucky country’. We live in an age which has lived as if ‘luxuries are necessities’: and we are now paying the price of this self-indulgence.
Death terrifies people for whom this life is the only life, and who think it is their moral duty to find as much happiness as they can before they die. The ‘bucket list of things to do before I die’ becomes a negative, because it reminds us of what we have not achieved, and may never achieve, of happiness which may escape us for ever.
Death terrifies people for whom this life is the only life, and who think it is their moral duty to find as much happiness as they can before they die.
We see the results of this in our news media—so obsessed with COVID-19, and so massively increasing our own obsessions, fears, anxiety, and distress.
Not only have we believers absorbed these powerful and assumptions, but we have also taken on their consequences: suffering, disease and death become greater threats than they need to be, or should be.
A Deeper Problem
Actually, COVID-19 has just brought to the surface a problem and a sin that lies deep within us. Our panic is the symptom, not the disease.
I remember speaking at a village evangelists’ conference in Chennai in India. (Village evangelists are on the lowest rung of ministry). One asked me, ‘why do we suffer for our faith, and you Christians in the West do not suffer?’ I replied that suffering is part of the normal Christian life according to the Bible, and that we in the West were in an exceptional situation which would not last. It has not lasted. Global problems have increased in severity and now affect us all. At the same time, opposition to the church has increased.
Learning from Past Believers
Meet some of my favourite fellow-believers from times past, who also lived with suffering, disease, and death, but without our late Western standard of living, medical care, and wealth. They were not controlled by fear and anxiety, they expected good outcomes of suffering, and showed trust and confidence in God, his sovereign rule, his gospel promises, and the certainty and attractiveness of eternal life.
Let’s be encouraged and challenged by their examples.
(Let me also encourage you to say the words I quote from these people out loud, perhaps several times. Saying them, and hearing yourself say them, will help you appropriate them.)
Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna in the 2nd century. Some say he had been taught by the apostle John. When he was facing execution, and the Proconsul tried to persuade him to deny the faith, Polycarp said: ‘Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’
George Whitefield, who became a great evangelist in Britain and North America, came to Oxford as a recently converted 17-year-old. Here is his account of his first trials as a believer.
But when religion began to take root in my heart, and I was fully convinced my soul must totally be renewed … I was visited with outward and inward trials … I incurred the displeasure of the Master of the College … who threatened to expel me, if I ever visited the poor again … I said, if it displeased him, I would not … I immediately repented, and visited the poor at the first opportunity.
My relations … counted my life madness.
I daily underwent some contempt at college. Some have thrown dirt at me … two friends forsook me.
He then evaluated the benefits:
‘These, though little, were useful trials. They inured me to contempt, lessened self-love and taught me to die daily’.
What a remarkable response!
Henry Venn was vicar of Huddersfield when his wife died in 1767. He raised his five children, and one day promised to show them ‘one of the most interesting sights in the world’.
He took them, by arrangement, to a miserable hovel, in which young Abraham Midwood was soon to die in great pain. He took his children into the hovel, and said:
Abraham Midwood, I have brought my children here, to shew them that it is possible to be happy in a state of disease and poverty and want; and now, tell them if it is not so.
Oh yes, Sir: I would not change my state with that of the richest person upon earth, who was destitute of those views which I possess … This is nothing to bear, whilst the presence of God cheers my soul, and whilst I can have access to Him, by constant prayer, through faith in Jesus. Indeed, Sir, I am truly happy: and I trust to be happy and blessed through eternity; and I every hour thank God, who has brought me from a state of darkness into His marvellous light, and has given me to enjoy the unsearchable riches of His grace.
What a remarkable lesson for a father to teach his children!
John Fletcher, vicar of Madeley, from 1760-85, was a friend of John Wesley. On one occasion when he was ill, Henry Venn visited him, and said. ‘I am sorry to find you so ill.’ Mr Fletcher answered with great sweetness and energy:
Sorry, sir! Why are you sorry? It is the chastisement of my heavenly Father, and I rejoice in it. I love the rod of my God, and rejoice therein, as an expression of his love and affection towards me.
Adoniram Judson was one of the first missionaries to Burma (Myanmar), arriving with his wife in 1812. Adoniram and Anne learnt the language, and then Adoniram began his work of Bible translation. Here is a list of some of his sufferings and his achievements.
- He wanted to do lots of personal evangelism, but decided instead to commit to translating the Bible for the long-term benefit of the yet to be born Burmese church.
- His first convert came to faith in 1819. It took 12 years to make 18 converts.
- He completed the New Testament in 1823.
- He spent 20 months in prison, in chains.
- In 1826 his wife died, then their daughter died.
- He completed the Old Testament in 1835, and that year his second wife died.
- By 1849 he had completed the Burmese-English Dictionary.
- He died in 1850.
Here are some of his words:
If I had not felt certain that every additional trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated sufferings.
There is no success without sacrifice. If you succeed without sacrifice it is because someone has suffered before you. If you sacrifice without success it is because someone will succeed after.
When facing execution, he was asked what he thought about his future, His reply:
The future is a bright as the promises of God.
Nellie and Topsy Saunders
Nellie and Topsy Saunders, were trained up at St Mary’s Caulfield and St Hilary’s Kew, and served in China with CMS from 1893 until 95, when they were martyred. Then their mother went to China to continue their ministry. Here are two of their comments when asked about their sufferings.
The highest of all honours … that which Paul prayed for, to know the fellowship of his sufferings. It is only in this life that we shall have the privilege of being partakers in Christ’s sufferings, and the priceless honour of glorifying him in suffering.
And as for talking about the self-denial and discomfort, my experience is that God is never our debtor, and we would jump around this little boat, we are so overflowing with joy, only there is not room, for thing, and besides, it would shock the boatman.
A few years ago, I read Philippians 1 and realised how far I was from the apostle Paul, when he wrote:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain … I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far (Philippians 1:21,23).
I thought of death in terms of loss, not gain! This just showed how attached I was to this world, and how I loved God’s gifts more than God the giver. So I began to meditate on Paul’s words, and pray every day that God would transform me, so that I could echo Paul’s words. After about 18 months, God answered my prayers: suddenly I thought, ‘I am ready to die now, and be with Christ’. What a wonderful experience that was! May God keep those words part of my experience until I die, and especially when I am dying!
I thought of death in terms of loss, not gain! This just showed how attached I was to this world, and how I loved God’s gifts more than God the giver. So I began to meditate on Paul’s words, and pray every day that God would transform me
How can the Bible save us from the Panic Pandemic?
Consider this Bible teaching on how God uses our suffering for our good and his glory.
(Please, again, say these words out loud and slowly several times as you read through the list, to make them your own.)
When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of his hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man … So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip (Gen 32:25,30,31).
(Joseph said,) You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen 50:20).
Before I was humbled I went astray, but now I keep your word (Ps 119:67).
Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands give me delight (Ps 119:143).
Then Jesus said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose … (Nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:28,39).
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).
I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21).
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10,11).
God, for whom and through whom everything exists, (made) the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered … Because Christ himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted … For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin … Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered (Heb 2:10,18, 4:15, 5:8).
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children … God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:7-11).
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (Jas 1:2).
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith … may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Pet 1:6,7).
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you (1 Pet 5:6,7).
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death” (Rev 12: 10,11).
If we run away from pain and suffering and sorrow and death, it increases their power over us. Face them and embrace them for the glory of God!
If you face and embrace them, their power is reduced, and we can then form a new habit, trusting in the good purposes of God. Truly those who fear God have nothing else to fear.
What to do?
If these Bible verses are not yet part of your automatic response to the current Pandemics, then try the following treatment:
- Choose five or six of these quotations which are most relevant to you, and make your heart flutter with hope.
- Repeat these quotations every day out loud, and take time to meditate on one of them deeply.
- Turn another of these quotations into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving every day.
- Turn another of these quotations into a prayer each day, asking God to change you and make it part of your experience and expectation.
- Memorise these quotations, and use them when encouraging others.
- Repent of your practical atheism whenever it emerges. Then rejoice in the power of the blood of Christ to forgive us and cleanse us of our sins.
- Every time they emerge, turn your worries, stresses, and anxieties into prayers of trust, praise, and thanksgiving.
- When you become aware of common temptations, rehearse beforehand how you will react when they happen. ‘When that happens, this is how I will respond, this is what I will do.
- Tell other people what you are trying to learn and make your own, and ask them to pray for you.
- Make yourself accountable to someone, and invite them to ask you about your progress regularly.
- Trust that God is able to transform your deepest assumptions and feelings and habits and actions, and tell him that you trust him to achieve these changes.
- Let others know of your progress, and encourage them with what God has done in your life.
- Remember that every time you reject sin, and embrace godliness, you are forming healthy new habits, as God is transforming you by his grace and mercy.
Continue this treatment as long as is needed! (It is not addictive, and there are no bad side-effects!)
 These quotations are reduced and modified from George Whitefield, Whitefield Journals, London, Banner of Truth, 1960, pp. 50,51.
 Henry Venn, The Letters of Henry Venn, with a Memoir by John Venn, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh/Carlisle, 1993, pp. 39.40.
 J. C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh/Carlisle, 1997, p. 425.
 EK Cole, Letters from China, 1893-95, pp. 54, 60.
 Bible verses NIV11