Puzzles and Promise amid a Pandemic

by Dr. Bill Maynard

Part 1          HOW LONG?

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.
 My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O Lord—how long?        (Psalm 6:2,3)


Today marks the fourth week of Sarah’s COVID-19 infection.   As the video connects for our telehealth consultation, all I see initially is a blurred commotion.  A few seconds later the reason becomes obvious, as the audio kicks in, and I am greeted with a hail of coughing.

Once the paroxysm subsides and the image steadies, I can see Sarah sitting in her living room.  The previously healthy school teacher looks exhausted and haunted.  And little wonder – she has had fever, cough, and aches for over twenty days.

Have you noticed how virtual meetings have redefined our conversational etiquette overnight?  She skips the social niceties – the “how do you dos” – that usually start a doctor visit and comes right to the point:

“How long is this going to last?”

Ever-present Unknowns

How long?  That is the perpetual question of the pandemic.  Most of us are not used to this degree of uncertainty.  The constant guesswork related to the coronavirus goes deeper than just trivial curiosities about popular culture or our individual lives.  We used to ask “How long?” while awaiting ordinary events, like a change of seasons or job transition.  But that is not really the same question we are asking now.

The coronavirus tore away our entertainment, choked our livelihoods, clouded our futures, and stripped us of our illusion of control.  With breathtaking speed it toppled our national idols.  Now the question “How long?” is a riddle that none of us can escape.  It is the enigma behind every graph, the insistent inquiry of each news piece.

We are all waiting for something, every one of us – from the critically ill patient at the brink of death to the robust teen, untouched by medical or financial worry.  In one way or another we are all asking, “How long?”

-How long until my breathing tires and they connect me to a machine?

-How long before I can hug my grandchild?

-How long can I keep my job?

-How long before I go back to a movie, concert, or sports event? 

-How long until we get the world back?

In Good Company

Amid a pandemic we find ourselves not just idly wondering, but pleading, “How long?”  But we should not fret or be surprised.  Instead, let us rejoice!  In taking up this lament we are joining good company.  For “How long?” has been an essential prayer of the people of God through all generations. That plea has been uttered by many whom we would do well to imitate. Here are some examples:

– Ethan the Ezrahite laments the unfaithfulness of his own Jewish nation.  He ends with the familiar entreaty:

“How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46a)

-Habakkuk, deeply troubled by the injustice around him, starts his prophetic book with the same inquiry:

“Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (Habakkuk 1:2a)

-Moses contrasts the unchanging nature of God with the fleeting place of man, taking up the same supplication:

“Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”  (Psalm 90:13,14)

How long?  Formerly that soul-searing question was the propriety of martyrs, saints, and the suffering.  At last our generation is taking up this prayer in unison with them.   So let’s pay attention.  Let’s not waste this opportunity.  Surely in their company God can teach us many things to make us more like them.  Amid uncertainty and fear I believe he can teach us how to ask better questions.

Whom To Ask

Most of our current inquiries are directed at scientific authorities or government officials.  The Bible commands us to pray for them.  We are also right to hold them accountable.  As we pepper them with questions, the lack of definitive answers is providing a humbling lesson about the limitations of science.

The failures of medicine in the pandemic so far have not shown it to be an evil.  On the contrary it is a wonderful gift of God’s common grace to humanity.  Seeing my colleagues in the medical community rush into action is inspiring, and I believe their efforts will in the end prove profoundly beneficial.  The problem is not with science, but with our hearts.

What the conundrums of COVID-19 have exposed is the idolization of science as a false god.  Too long we have regarded it as the only source of truth and the solution to all our problems.  This is highlighted by our expectation of flawless information and total security.

As great as it is, science is a poor substitute for God.  The research on SARS-CoV-2 is fascinating, but it changes every day.  Scientific truth must continually change.  Meanwhile, the truth of the Bible has not changed over thousands of years.  Indeed, Jesus taught: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mark 13:31)

The adversity of a pandemic provides an occasion to realign our priorities, reorder our loves, and redirect our expectations.  Let’s remember to ask “How long?” not only to human experts and leaders, but to almighty God himself.  Our faith will be healthier if we place it in a worthy, unchanging object.  We will also gain answers that are grander than those that science can ever provide.

How To Ask

People with appetites filled by constant entertainment and worldly goods may ask “How long?” but it is with the impatience of a child on a family road trip.  Those who bask in security may want to know “How long?” but only to maintain control over schedules and circumstances. We can ask God in a different way now, less as a demand and more a desperate cry of need.

As a properly directed prayer, “How long?” is not a request for information, a complaint, or even an accusation.  It is a heart utterance, rooted in faith.  “How long?” presupposes that God is going to bring about a change.

I know that you and I are looking for a change.  How we long to get our world back!  But if scientists do find a solution to the coronavirus, let’s not forget to keep asking God “How long?”  Let’s look beyond just resuming the worldly diversions that we miss right now.  This is a chance for God to grant health to our souls and our society, as well.

Seeing how fallen and fragile this world is can help us clutch it less tightly and put less of the weight of our hope upon it.  There is someone who truly merits all our hope.  Saints like Ethan, Habakkuk, and Moses were looking to him as they longed for a consummation that transcended this world.  We want our old world back.  They were asking God for a whole new world. We should settle for nothing less.

What To Ask

How long until an effective drug or vaccine is available?  When will the numbers show a promising trend?  On what day will normal activities resume?  Many are laboring to answer these burning questions.  But when a saint cries out to God “How long?” the reply he or she really seeks is not a quantity of time.  It is a relationship.

Last Saturday several friends and I held our weekly virtual meeting.  There on the screen were the faces of three other men I love and who love me.  We shared burdens, and as we prayed for one another, I closed my eyes.  I could imagine another face on the screen with us.  Truly there was another friend present, though not visible.  It was Jesus himself.  He was, after all, hosting our meeting and was a part of it, as a friend and brother.  Unashamed of us, he bore our burdens and shared our joys.

As we join in the prayer of the sacred throng from all ages let’s move beyond simple questions about timing, complaints, or despair.  And let’s remember that the answer to “How long?” is not simply a number.  The answer is a person.

Waiting for the Answer

Recently as I sang along with my church’s online worship service, I felt tears streaming down my face.  They were tears of joy at feeling connected with those I hold dear. They were also tears of longing because we were not physically together.  Isolation and social distancing are provoking a real hunger to worship together face to face.

This hunger is a valuable teacher.  We Christians in the comfortable West can now start to grasp what others have long perceived.  The church has in a sense always been virtual – a universal body of believers separated by time and place, but united in one spirit (Ephesians 4:3)  Current challenges present an opportunity to connect separated parts of the body of Christ.

Perhaps going forward, the churches of America will have a different relationship to weak, invisible, and marginalized believers, like those in the persecuted church. Those suffering sisters and brothers know well the isolation, fear, and loss of control that we are now tasting in small measure.  We now feel a little bit of their pain. And maybe we can begin to help bear their heavy burden by remembering them.

Drawing from our lessons in the pandemic, let’s do a better job of praying for the persecuted church, reaching out to shut ins, and caring for singles.  Let’s remember what it feels like to be hungry for fellowship, so that church becomes a delight, not a duty. When you feel the hunger, don’t suppress it.  Reach out to a person who is single in your church community, realizing that they may be chronically hungry – and now acutely ravenous – for fellowship.

We await a healing of COVID-19 throughout the world.  But the challenges of this pandemic represent a promise for healing in society, the church, and our own souls.  I will say again that I would really like for you and me to come through this pandemic unscathed.  Unscathed…but not unchanged.  After returning to normal, will we be the same?  Will we return to the same exact world and lives?  I certainly hope not.

Bill Maynard, M.D.


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