The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually all aspects of life, culture and business. News reporting, both true and false, adds to the deluge of information and horror stories that choke our minds. The sheer scale of the problems are often described as “biblical” yet the Bible and its precepts have enjoyed precious little airtime apart from in the closing benedictions of mildly Christian politicians.

There are a number of lessons we can learn from this pandemic and this article outlines ten key lessons or ten parables that will help us reflect on the ways of God and on our own life. It should be noted, regarding this crisis, that not everything we see or hear has meaning, but combined together much of what is happening is meaningful.

1. Lessons of unexpectedness

Human nature prefers stasis to change and works very hard to build consistency in all aspects of life. But when transitions happen, they frequently come unexpectedly, whether it is the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the financial system in 2008, the Sumatran earthquake of 2005 or the arrival of HIV-AIDS. They have become known by a phrase coined by the author Nassim Taleb as “black-swan” events: not entirely unexpected, but statistically unlikely and certainly unpredictable as to when they strike. From a localised outbreak in December 2019, the corona virus has led to a third of the world’s population living in home lock-down barely three months later, such has been the speed of this development.

Biblically, the Lord has warned us that his return will be just like this, an unforeseen, unpredicted, global, religio-political earthquake (Isa 24:19-20) that will usher in a New Heavens and New Earth as a result. That this is unexpected for the majority of the world’s population regardless of where they live is plain from his words:

“But keep watch on yourselves, or your hearts will become dulled by carousing, drunkenness and the worries of everyday living, and that Day will be sprung upon you suddenly like a trap! For it will close in on everyone, no matter where they live, throughout the whole world” (Luke 21:34-35 Complete Jewish Bible – CJB).

We need to ensure that we too are not caught out unexpectedly by our Lord’s return.

2. Lessons of globalisation

We live in a truly globalised world, regardless of where we reside. Just a glance at the labels on our products shows us that, along with the unseen supply chains, financing, corporate activity and the like, we are connected intimately to a global economy. This is felt most keenly by the financial markets, where a disturbance in one place or one sector can, in milliseconds, have an effect on currencies, stocks or bond-yields at the other side of the world. Globalised news, social networking and communications mean that news and information travels quite literally at the speed of light, around the world. The spread of corona virus has underlined this globalisation in the worst possible way. It is because of globalisation, travel and trade that it spread so rapidly.

But just as no one nation is isolated from the effects of the pandemic, so no nation will be spared God’s coming judgment on the earth. When our Lord is in the earth “who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest” (Rev 15:4). Let us long for the day when God’s saving health will be known among all nations (Psa 67:2).

3. Lessons of political and financial weakness

The exasperation of politicians with this crisis is seen daily on the news. More familiar with legislating, war-mongering, posturing, lobbying and vote-gathering, politicians are, like almost everyone else, totally ill-prepared for COVID-19. They are seen to thrash around between authoritarianism on one-hand and denialism on the other, with every shade in between. There is no modern precedent for this, although historically we know that pandemics were recorded as early as 450BC, when the Greeks were weakened significantly, which helped the Spartans defeat them. Pandemics or plagues have occurred at regular intervals in history, and rarely without major changes being the outcome.

This crisis has shown up deficiencies in both policies and priorities. For example, the USA has by far the best funded military in the world, yet one of the most financially inaccessible health-care systems. Wherever they are, politicians are at a loss on how to solve this. Sacrifice people or sacrifice the economy is the “choice of Solomon” that they all face—without the benefit of his wisdom. It is an unenviable job, yet serves to underline the limitations and frailty of human government.

The Economist in recent articles has predicted a swing to populism, strong-man politics, hyper-nationalism and xenophobia as likely longer-term outcomes as the economic pain bites. In the 25 April 2020 edition, the publication’s lead article states: “Unscrupulous autocrats are exploiting the pandemic to do what they always do: grab power at the expense of the people they govern,” with the following article entitled: “After the disease, the debt.” Again, the available mechanisms of escape from all of this are unpalatable—yet more debt, more taxes, more austerity, despite being unaffordable by all but the biggest economies.

If the ruling powers are being shaken politically by this crisis, the bigger shaking is yet to come—the economic fall-out, long-term recession or even depression, and years of rebuilding ahead. These will be even more systemically damaging and challenging than the virus itself. Undoubtedly there will be social unrest, uprising and political shifts. Just as the Black Death of the mid-1300s changed the status quo of wealth and land-ownership in Europe, so too could COVID-19.

Let us ensure that we don’t put our trust in our wealth or in our politicians: “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall: but the righteous shall flourish as a branch” (Prov 11:28).

4. Lessons of universal vulnerability

Over the last 100 years, there have been wonderful strides in reducing global poverty. Today, as a percentage, less people live in abject poverty than at any time in history. Yet, because of population growth, the absolute number of poor is staggeringly large and growing. At the same time, the disparity between the wealthiest and the rest is becoming cavernously large. The sad truth is that those who are the most vulnerable economically are also the most vulnerable to the coming economic fallout of the virus and more prone to contagion, because of poor living conditions.

But despite this, no one is immune to the virus, whether pauper or billionaire—indeed it is the silent answer to the rhetorical question: “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Despite having its most devastating effect on the elderly and those with existing health issues, the corona virus has taken the lives of young and old alike. It has made even the young consider their mortality and those who perhaps had thought they still had many years of life left, to reconsider their thinking. As a “wake-up call” to the deadliest common threat to all humanity, our intrinsic mortality, this pandemic has certainly made people think more than they ever have about the meaning of life.

As a parable for the universally destructive nature of sin, the corona virus is a great leveller in very literal form. Psalm 49 expounds on the universality of death and the hopelessness of riches to change it: “Hear this … both low and high, rich and poor, together” (v1-2). Regardless of wealth or status: “Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish” (v20).

5. Lessons of abuse of the earth

As with the problems of globalisation, we are experiencing the effects of earth’s degradation on a worldwide scale: unseasonal intense storms, droughts and record elevated temperatures are the speed-gauges of the damage we are doing to our planet. This virus has shown us acutely that we are part of the same fragile biome from which we can all benefit or suffer, depending on our collective behaviour. The careful farming principles and animal husbandry techniques taught in the Law of Moses provided for the sustainable use of the environment without destruction of the natural habitat.

The BBC reported that in China, emissions fell 25% at the start of the year as people were instructed to stay at home, factories shut and coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. The proportion of days with “good quality air” in 337 cities across China was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year, according to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fading away over northern Italy. A similar story is playing out in Spain and the UK. People in Venice could see the bottom of their canals for the first time in living memory.

But all this will be reversed when mankind restarts the world economic engine once again. It highlights the truth of the Scriptures that man continues to destroy the earth but the time will come when God will remind them that “the land is mine [God’s]; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23) before it is restored to its former glory.

6. Lessons of greed

When lock-down was proclaimed in various countries, it prompted a run on stores to stockpile products: medical masks, disinfectant gel and various medications ran out within hours. Toilet-paper, pasta, tinned-anything, and crates of alcohol flew off the shelves. This was driven by a mostly irrational fear of food shortages. Yet, despite assurances from stores, people over-bought without consideration for the rest who would be inconvenienced by their greed. Health workers returning from long shifts would find stores already plundered. Elderly people, unable to access alternative sources would go lacking. Rarely has the ‘me first’ attitude of the modern age been so grotesquely real and hurtful to others.

At the other end of the scale, the super-wealthy boarded flights to exotic homes where they, along with medical staff and a retinue of support personnel, planned to wait out the worst in luxury and isolation. Greed and self-interest have also been exhibited by countries which deny other countries medical protection gear and medicines in order to prioritise their own. Some have sold faulty or fake equipment, while black-market smugglers have capitalised on the chaos. For example, some South African politicians stole food parcels destined for the starving to sell for cash and votes. Human greed and self-interest know no bound.

Let us not be ensnared in the trap of greed as the world has:

Then to the people he said, “Be careful to guard against all forms of greed, because even if someone is rich, his life does not consist in what he owns.” The Master then spoke of the fool who laid up his goods and took it easy in life, only to lose both in a sudden death: “That’s how it is with anyone who stores up wealth for himself without being rich toward God” (Luke 12:15-21 CJB).

7. Lessons of human solutions

As a medical problem, antivirals are both complicated to design and a relatively new science. It has taken years to find treatments for other viral threats (such as HIV) and even then, they are often not cures but control mechanisms. With the corona virus, there are currently around 100 vaccines under development. These are meant to stop people contracting the corona virus in the first place. Some are just starting; others are more advanced, having been developed for similar families of viruses in the past (such as MERS & SARS), giving them a head-start. It is unlikely that all will work, possibly only a few. Then the task of mass-manufacture, distribution and inoculation will begin. And even then, it isn’t known whether the corona virus will return each year, much like the common cold, another similar, although well-adapted-to virus, strain.

While every rational person would welcome a working vaccine and an effective treatment regime, the fundamental problem that the virus has highlighted, that of universal human mortality, has not been addressed, nor can it be. As with all that science provides, and we gratefully accept, it simply prolongs the inevitable, it doesn’t solve it.

The Bible is quite clear in whom we should trust, and in whom our trust will be disappointed:

Don’t put your trust in princes or in mortals, who cannot help. When they breathe their last, they return to dust; on that very day all their plans are gone. Happy is he whose help is Jacob’s God, whose hope is in the Lord his God (Psa 146:3-5 CJB).

8. Lessons of simpler living and dependence

It has been a startling event to behold. The rapid switch in consumer behaviour has been astonishing. Purchases at restaurants, bars, entertainment venues; of electronics, personal care, vehicles, holidays, jewellery, clothing, shoes and accessories have all plunged, while groceries and home activities have soared.

All of a sudden, the things that once seemed essential have been taken away, only to be replaced by a gratitude for the basics of life: daily food, shelter, clothing, family and utilities. And because the future is so unclear, the value of daily blessings has become more apparent. While this will no doubt change when lock-downs are eased, the sense that we have overdone it in many aspects of our lives has been underlined, in red.

In discussions with people, several have stressed that they won’t be returning to their previous way of living and will seek a simpler, more wholesome and more balanced way of living. So too, a more focused, decluttered mind is of great importance to a believer.

Again, the Scriptures teach us exactly this, and so perhaps again, this pandemic is preparing people for another, better way of living yet to come. Jesus had the following to say:

“Therefore, I tell you, don’t worry about your life—what you will eat or drink; or about your body—what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? … But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Don’t worry about tomorrow—tomorrow will worry about itself! Today has enough trouble already!” (Matt 6:25-34 CJB).

Not only was our Lord telling us several times in these verses not to worry, but he emphasises, too, that well-placed trust and dependence needs to replace fear. This means seeking for the things of the kingdom – first and foremost. This is a teaching of priorities, of balance and ultimately of a more peaceful life in him. But it requires trust. Trust is the evidence-based assurance that what God has said, He will perform. It is the very basis of faith (trust) in Hebrews. As with all trust, God builds it in stages – little by little – it is never ready-made in a moment. But it does require that we engage with God in this process. He can’t help unless we “taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him” (Psa 34:8).

9.  Lessons of preparedness

No country, no medical system, no community was ready for the COVID-19 pandemic. Bill Gates had warned of such a global event in his March 2015 TED talk entitled The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready, in which he accurately forecast an event like this. Despite being acclaimed and watched some 33 million times, very little was done as a result. Other priorities intervened.

The Bible shows repeatedly the necessity of preparedness and visualising a future – an as yet unseen reality – which is more important than what is now seen and painfully present. Of necessity, because the timing is undetermined for us, the virtue of patience has to be coupled with preparedness.

In the well-known parable of the ten virgins, the Lord emphasises that only those who were ready, who had prepared and were individually and personally filled with the only light worth having in this world, were allowed into his close fellowship. The others, unprepared and frantically trying to make up at the last minute, were unrecognisable to him—frauds who only did what was necessary when it was sure they’d lose out.

The salutary warning is clear: stay alert, be prepared, even if you have to exercise extreme patience in the absence of knowing when he will return. Again, the final and repeated warning of our Lord is clear: “stay alert!” (Mark 13:24-27).

The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians emphasised the unpreparedness of the world for the coming of Christ. But he expects that the Lord’s followers will be sober-minded, clear-headed and alert, whether by Gentile day or night, never being distracted from their prepared watchfulness for his return (1 Thess 5:1-6).

10. Lessons of love

If there is one positive lesson that has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic so far it is this. There have been more acts of kindness, of selflessness, of giving and of love than one could have imagined in the world BC—before corona virus. These show that given the right motivation and cause, people can become less inward-looking and self-absorbed than they have become in recent years.

We need to examine ourselves to see if we have acted with kindness throughout this crisis. Over the coming months our willingness to show practical love will undoubtedly be put to the test as people we know and love battle with the consequent fallout. In the poignant words of James:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but has no actions to prove it? Is such “faith” able to save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, and someone says to him, “Shalom! Keep warm and eat hearty!” without giving him what he needs, what good does it do? Thus, faith by itself, unaccompanied by actions, is dead” (James 2:14-17 CJB).

But to say we love people and to only care for them materially, is a job less than half done. The primary duty of each disciple is to feed the flock and feed anyone who will listen with heavenly food, which sustains the inner man. This is the only food that will satisfy beyond the day.

Conclusion

The world after COVID-19 will be different, that is certain. Every plague, every disruption of this magnitude has always ushered in changes, some for the better, others for the worse, but change will come—that is certain.

Whether it is the event that triggers other events that lead to the Lord’s return, we do not know. It certainly could as politics, economics and resources are all in turmoil at levels unseen for decades. Whether it does or not, the world and its inhabitants are being prepared for the coming of a New Heavens and New Earth wherein righteousness dwells. The failure of humans to resolve this at every level will create a fertile ground for a new and better way of living in a restored earth.

That these events are of a global nature in a world where global unity is at its lowest ebb in years, where nationalism and protectionism is rife, shows that only a global ruler with heaven’s power at his disposal will be able to tackle the interwoven and humanly insoluble mess that the world is in.

May these parables speak to us individually to prepare for the coming of our Lord, to stay alert and to practice love—the Lord’s love—to all, both within and without the household, resting in hope and trusting in the Good Shepherd’s love, whatever the next day, or months may bring.