More and more we are hearing the expression ‘unprecedented times’ used by the media to describe the impact of COVID-19 upon our modern society. Some articles are reporting that unemployment rates are approaching those of the Great Depression years; others are saying that we are on a war-footing against a deadly but invisible enemy.

Whether this kind of rhetoric is warranted or not, there is no doubt that the Lord’s words in Luke 21:25-26 are coming to pass: “And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.”

The signs in the sun, moon and stars refer contextually to the political and religious re-emergence of the State of Israel upon the international stage after two millennia of oblivion. The image of the restless ocean, ebbing and flowing with wickedness and fear, is then used by Christ to describe our modern world. We should be aware that as a worldwide body of believers in Christ we are not going to be immune from the effects of all of this. 

The economic cost from the corona virus is staggering. According to the World Economic Forum, there is no returning to normal and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is warning that the crisis is threatening global financial stability with trillions of dollars being spent by governments to prop up faltering economies and stemming the tide of job losses.

The social cost for the world is just as bleak. The United Nations website reports this: “We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations—one that is killing people, spreading human suffering, and upending people’s lives. But this is much more than a health crisis. It is a human, economic and social crisis. The corona virus disease…is attacking societies at their core.”

The World Economic Forum website had similar descriptions: “Behind these statistics lie the human costs of the pandemic, from the deaths of friends and family to the physical effects of infection and the mental trauma and fear faced by almost everyone. Not knowing how this pandemic will play out affects our economic, physical and mental well-being against a backdrop of a world that, for many, is increasingly anxious, unhappy and lonely.”

“Fear of the unknown can often lead to feelings of panic, for example when people feel they are being denied life-saving protection or treatment or that they may run out of necessities, all of which has led to panic buying. Psychological stress is often related to a sense of a lack of control in the face of uncertainty.”

“The downside of self-isolation or social lockdown are symptoms of traumatic stress, confusion and anger, all of which are exacerbated by fear of infection, having limited access to supplies of necessities, inadequate information or the experience of economic loss or stigma. This stress and anxiety can lead to increased alcohol consumption, as well as an increase in domestic and family violence. In Jingzhou, a town near Wuhan in Hubei province, reports of domestic violence during the lockdown in February 2020 were more than triple the number reported in February 2019.”

We are not impervious from the effects of this upheaval. Brothers and sisters are facing the very real possibility of unemployment and hardship. Some of our community have been infected by the virus. Many of our senior brothers and sisters have been unable to receive visitors due to nursing home and hospital restrictions. Social distancing has meant that we are unable to meet together like we once used to, and this has resulted in the further isolation of some of our most vulnerable members.

It is a time when we need, more than ever, to turn to our God and draw nigh to Him in full assurance of faith.

One of the wonderful qualities of our heavenly Father is His capacity to provide comfort in times of trouble and show mercy when we are distressed. Paul expressed it this way in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, Who comforteth us in all our tribulation.”

When the apostle penned these words he was greatly agitated. He put it this way in verse 8 (ASV): “… we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, insomuch that we despaired even of life.” Sometimes we may feel like this and this is where the God of all comfort can help us. He won’t necessarily prevent the difficulties from enveloping us, but He can provide that consolation we so desperately need to endure the trial. 

So how does God provide comfort “in all our tribulation” when we are “weighed down exceedingly?” Firstly, there is the great comfort found in the Word of God: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus” (Rom 15:4-5).

The Scriptures hold a relevance for every generation. They served the needs of their own day and they serve our needs today as well. They hold out a message of hope and comfort which has proven to be timeless. Book after book outlines the struggles of the faithful and highlight the power of God to save and help. Who can tell how many faithful men and women have drawn strength, encouragement and comfort from the psalms and the prophets alone? The Word of God instructs; it also engenders patient endurance. And with all that it provides a consolation and hope that no other book can provide. 

The promises He makes are certain. The encouragement to “cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved” is powerful beyond words. The description of God as “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” lifts our spirits. The coming consolation of Israel expressed by Isaiah: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” can only enthuse us with a desire to be part of that picture.

Everywhere we turn the Word of God instructs and comforts us. When Paul outlined the return of our Lord Jesus Christ from heaven, he described the details of the resurrection and gathering together unto him in graphic detail. He then concluded by saying, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess 4:18). Truly we have “a strong consolation” in the “hope set before us” (Heb 6:18).

The second method by which God comforts us is when we are enfolded within the bounds of His providential presence. Take, for example, the ecclesial dispute that took place over the matter of circumcision and the Law. In the providence of God, the speeches of Peter and Paul outlining God’s work amongst the Gentiles, together with the wise counsel of James, finally prevailed over the assembly. When their determination was received, Luke records that the disciples “rejoiced for the consolation” (Acts 15:31). Their anxiety was relieved through the underlying providential work of God as He worked through the Jerusalem ecclesia to provide the comfort of salvation to the Gentiles.

Another example can be seen in the way God comforted the Apostle Paul. After writing his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul arranged for Timothy to visit the ecclesia and then made a brief visit himself; a visit that caused him great pain and sorrow (2 Cor 2:1-3). 

He then sent Titus to them to minister among them (2 Cor 2:13; 7:6,13-14; 8:6) and made an arrangement with Titus to meet him at Troas after that ministry. Making his way north from Ephesus, Paul arrived at Troas, intending to travel on to Corinth. But in Troas he found an open door for preaching the gospel and stayed there fully expecting Titus to meet him there with news from Corinth. As he later wrote: “I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother: but taking my leave of them, I went from thence into Macedonia.”

But he was still agitated: “For, when we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears” (2 Cor 7:5). It was at this point that God’s mercy came to the fore, just when Paul needed it most. The apostle put it this way: “Nevertheless God, that comforts those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus; And not by his coming only, but by the consolation wherewith he was comforted in you, when he told us your earnest desire, your mourning, your fervent mind toward me; so that I rejoiced the more” (2 Cor 7:6-7). He attributed the arrival of Titus with the wonderful news of how the Corinthians had responded to his appeal, undoubtably, as the work of God in comforting him when he was downcast. We should always be alive to the comforting work of God in our individual and ecclesial lives.

Returning to our theme—lastly, there is the comfort we can receive from the ministration we provide to each other. This is illustrated once more from Paul’s letters. When he wrote to the Ephesians, he indicated that he would send them Tychicus “that ye might know our affairs, and that he might comfort your hearts” (Eph 6:22). He sent Timothy to Thessalonica “to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith” (1 Thess 3:2). He spoke of the comfort he received from Philemon’s faith (Phm v7) and of the consolation he received from the example of the Thessalonian ecclesia (1 Thess 3:6-7). “We were comforted over you,” he writes, “in all our affliction and distress by your faith.”

We should never underestimate how our example and our labours for others can provide great comfort to other fellow labourers in Christ. 

As we endure the effects of the COVID-19 disruption, may “our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work” (2 Thess 2:16-17).