June 2020 Feature
Many of us are afraid in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has grown in scale globally. Recovery is months away. It appears that things may not return to pre-COVID norms until a vaccine is found, produced in large quantities and shared around the world.
Fear and uncertainty are reasonable and expected human emotions. We like to reflect on two responses to this fear – (i) applying science and (ii) faith – to break down the unknowns, and make sense of the future. Do we pray against the situation and petition for physical meetings, even when the authorities instruct otherwise on the grounds of scientific and medical advice? Do we see a reduced role for our prayers, given that the implementation of social distancing theories seems to effectively and immediately reduce the rate and extent of virus spread more quickly? As Christians, we cannot take either approach – science or faith – in isolation. Our approach to science needs to be anchored on a broader perspective of faith. We should see science as an instrument given by God to help mankind tend the world of toil.
Looking to Science
Some Christians may wonder whether heeding medical and scientific advice compromises our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. If God is omnipotent, we should fully trust in Him to bring an end to the pandemic; science is secondary to our efforts to combat COVID-19.
However, the fact is that science and its theories give us our best guess at ending the pandemic, as we navigate everyday situations. Several robust Covid19 scientific models and predictions show that social distancing, the application of heavy restrictions to people movement and interactions, can eventually flatten the growth curve of the pandemic.
More importantly, science has enabled mankind to tend the post-flood world – which Hebrew thought describes as a world of toil. Many Christians would know that before God saved the remnants in Noah’s ark, the earth was in an undesirable state, and the flood was God’s judgment on the world. God shut the door of the ark, but God allowed Noah to open the ark after the flood ceased (Genesis 8: 6, 13). It is now mankind’s world and man has to take responsibility for earth and her inhabitants.
Just as Noah had to creatively tend the earth, we still do so today. Genesis 5:29 states that Lamech named his son Noah and said, “He will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.” The word Hebrew word “toil” is itzavon which literally means “sadness”. In Genesis 3:17 “To Adam God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” The curse intensified in Genesis 4:12, when the Lord said to Cain, when you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” Not only was Cain alienated from God, he was also alienated from the land.
Considering our toil on earth
As Christians, it is important to consider how our faith guides our application of science. We saw earlier that after the fall, mankind was sad due to toil and Noah was supposed to bring comfort. Man has since been constantly struggling against the forces of nature to enhance his safety, and increase his comfort and pleasures.
The “toil” carries a tinge of sadness and emptiness. Man can respond in two ways. First, we can view the sadness and emptiness as a “homing device” to bring us back to God. Alternatively, we could fill the void through our creative endeavours. Unfortunately, man chose the latter. Genesis 11:4 states that man continued to “build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves”. This marks the beginning of technological and scientific solutions, e.g. inventing methods to plow the earth and bricks to build the Tower of Babel. In short, mankind attempts to solve a spiritual problem with the use of science and technology.
The root issue here lies not with our creative work, but our underlying desire to create our own handiwork and worship our own name, instead of submitting to God. This tendency continues to persist today. We hear a familiar echo in our incessant desire to create machines, out-compete each other in ever-taller skyscrapers, invent scientific theories to explain newly discovered phenomena in nature, design computer systems, etc. However, science itself is neutral – it is neither an instrument of good nor bad in itself. We should carefully consider our purposes of using science instead. Do we use science to construct our own idols and legacy, master the unknowns of the world in order to serve our own human works and systems? Or do we see it as an instrument given by God to help mankind tend the world of toil and use science as responsible stewards?
So Christians should not face any conflict in trusting scientific theories during this pandemic season, as long as we are clear what we are using science for. We should have an attitude of thanksgiving towards successful scientific predictions, and view them as a gift from God to help us tend the broken world and help our fellow neighbors.
Our Forced Return to “Sabbatical Rest”
At the point of writing, Singapore is in the middle of a unique “circuit breaker” period, and we are constantly told to stay home. In a way, God seems to have allowed the pandemic so that human creative activities – particularly those driven by human contact and movement – are scaled down and reset to a minimal level. The lockdowns taking place worldwide seem to resemble our weekly Sabbath that is reset every 6 days, only on a far more massive and less frequent scale.
Ironically, in recent weeks, much more has been accomplished in the fight against climate change without human intervention. The skies are clearer and bluer. There are reports of animals coming out to roam the deserted urban streetscapes in India, turtles returning to Brazilian beaches, and even “dead” rivers in Malaysia and Venice’s canals have clearer waters.The earth is healing.
For us, this is an opportunity to return to reason, tame our desire to create with our hands and scale back manipulating the earth. D. L. Moody’s right-hand-man Henry Drummond once said, “Faith is never opposed to reason … it is opposed to sight”. We can still give praise to God even as we heed scientific and medical advice not to physically meet together, or engage in our usual intensity of work at the office.
We are challenged to set apart time for God, enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise (Psalm 100:4) together as a family unit, return to seek sincere community fellowship and counsel from each other as a kingdom of God. When we gather together as a household each Sunday to watch online sermon live-stream, we are reminded of the fact that our families are the fundamental church unit. We can still celebrate the Holy Communion at home as God is omniscient. Jesus exhorts us to worship God in Spirit and in Truth.
A Silver Lining
Man has to remember that our higher goal of spiritual living is not to create and amass things or a wealth of information but to face sacred moments in time with God, in the Name of Jesus.
This “Sabbath” reset perhaps allows us the opportunity to review the basics of Christian living, namely being a disciple of Jesus who does the will of God. In John 4:34, Jesus said His food was to do the Will of the Father who sent Him and to finish His work. Even as we stay home, let us take time to re-evaluate what God’s will is in our lives and do it.
Today, we have the opportunity to deeply consider what is most important in our lives i.e. our relationship with God, our loved ones and those who are vulnerable – the elderly, foreign workers and the low-income. When the circuit breaker is over, we should not forget these commitments made before God, and press on to make good on them.
Even though there is no clear sign of when things will return to pre-COVID-19 norms, it is instructive for us to remember a quote from Mark Twain that inspired many generations of soldiers – “Courage…is mastery of fear; not the absence of fear.”
Fear is common to us all. Thus, we should acknowledge and master our fears, and then face them down. We would like to share two responses for Christians to consider. First, an old essay by Cambridge’s King College scholar, Derek Prince, comments on David’s Psalm 56:3-4 “… when fear comes the remedy is not to say, I’m not afraid. Instead we should say I won’t yield to fear“. Prince observed that while David was afraid, he chose not to focus on fear nor let fear dominate his thinking. Rather, David turned away from fear and put his trust in God and honoured His Word. We too should emulate David’s example.
Second, Christians should not dismiss scientific theories even as we pray for peace and restoration amidst the pandemic. We should hold these theories in a complementary manner with how we live out our faith in this world. Micah 6:8 shows us that our response to God should consist of things of value i.e. “what is good ?” must necessarily be “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In a similar vein, we should see the scientific endeavour as a God-given gift. Our application of science to the problems of this world should be guided by a posture of thanksgiving and humility. This way, we will not nullify our works done with justice and mercy, as we endeavor to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves.
Dr Phil Chan is a theoretical high energy particle physics professor at the National University of Singapore. He was a student at the Disciples’ Leadership Development Institute (DLDI) hosted by the Methodist Church of Singapore in the 1980s. Since then, he continues to share God’s love and make disciples as Jesus leads.