Writing about events while they are happening is always a bit dangerous. It’s easy to encourage over-reactions and reinforce unhelpful panic in our hearts. That said, the COVID 19 coronavirus provides us with an opportunity to think about how we respond to anxiety. Specifically, I want to think about how we can handle the particular strain of anxiety that comes when we are waiting for a threat that is gliding toward us, its fin visible above the surface. Thankfully, Scripture knows the fear of impending danger intimately and speaks to it repeatedly.
So let’s seize this occasion to refresh our collective memory on how Scripture navigates this particular eddy within the larger current of anxiety. What is our comfort when a significant threat looms but has not yet begun to erode the shore in earnest? Let’s look at an unfamiliar portion of a familiar Old Testament passage to get our minds moving in the right direction.
Waiting to plunge into the flood
After they left Egypt, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for decades. When they finally arrived on the doorstep of the promised land, they faced one last obstacle to entry: the Jordan River. You know how the story goes. The priests carry the ark into the river and, once their feet get wet, the waters part and the people walk through on dry ground. God repeats the miraculous provision of deliverance their parents had experienced a generation earlier at the Red Sea.
What we can easily miss is a little detail in the first two verses of Joshua chapter 3, and it’s this: the people had to camp and wait at the river’s edge for three days (3:2). Without knowing what was coming next or how they would cross. What’s it like to sit in your tent watching a river at flood stage churning by (3:15)? What’s it like to watch your children playing outside, knowing that they are going to have to somehow cross this engorged river, dark with flood-stirred sediment? What’s it like to look at your sheep, donkeys, and the precious heirlooms you carried all the way from Egypt that represent your life savings, and wonder if you might lose it all? How does it feel to know that God is calling you to keep moving forward, that he is promising to be with you, but that all you can actually see is a river whose depth you do not know, but of whose fatal power you can be sure?
It’s an easy parallel for us to make today, isn’t it? A virus is seeping across the world and has reached our shores, and we don’t know how treacherous it’s going to be. God is calling us to continue forward in love of neighbor and service to his kingdom, but all we can see are public surfaces potentially covered in germs and neighbors who may be walking vectors of disease.
Because of these parallels between then and now, it’s striking to reflect on what God didn’t do at the Jordan. He could have—but didn’t—pick his people up in a mighty whirlwind and deposit them on the far side of the river the moment they got there. He could have—but didn’t—part the Jordan so that it was waiting when they arrived, perhaps with the ground dried and a scattering of grass and lilies down the center of the people’s path. He could have—but didn’t—simply ask them to swim and float across, seeing to it that everyone made it safely and every sheep and gold earring was accounted for. These would have been equally miraculous and equally effective ways of carrying his children to their new home.
Instead, God chose for his people to wait and watch the flood, inviting them to trust him with all that crossing that flood might mean.
God often calls us to wait in the presence of our enemies, doesn’t he? He often comes to our aid later, and in different ways, than we would like. We most like to hear the stories about dramatic rescues and incredible miracles of rescue from dire situations. But we most like to experience stories where God provides in boring, safe, and predictable ways, like full bank accounts, good health, low risk ministry success with high buy-in from the congregation, and so on.
God knows we need to be reminded of our dependence on him over and over again for as long as we live. Few reminders are more vivid or visceral than waiting by flooding rivers. Or spending nights in a lion’s den. Or watching for heart stopping moments to see if Xerxes would extend his scepter. Or waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane while your rabbi pours out his soul and sweat in anguished prayer, knowing there are dangerous men who want to arrest him and you. God knows that these reminders of our dependence are frightening and place profound strain on us (even when things turn out well in the end). That’s why he shows us that we can trust him and wait on him. He has been his people’s helper over and over and over again across the millennia—and he will help us now no matter what may come.
How then do we wait on him well, specifically in the face of a global pandemic? Certainly not by pretending that everything will be ok. We don’t know if COVID 19 will end up as a minor inconvenience to our stock portfolio, or if we will end up in a quarantine zone, or fall ill, or lose a loved one. Waiting well in the face of our anxiety about a coming danger means taking seriously the reality of the danger. Our God takes our lives and our sufferings very seriously indeed, and “he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone” because he cares for us and for the things we care for (Lam 3:33). And when through the deep waters he calls us to go, he makes sure that the rivers of sorrow do not overflow, for “though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (Lam 3:32–33).
I’ll close with one last thought about how you and I can wait on the banks of this river, even as its flood is swelling:
Pour out your anxieties to your Father in Heaven. Do not churn fruitlessly inside your own heart with worries about school closings, travel plans, economic downturns, or the potentially infected surfaces you’ve touched! When you are afraid, turn to him. Cast your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. In fact, let handwashing or rubbing on hand sanitizer become a moment in which you consciously entrust yourself and the future of everyone you care about into his hands.
To spend our time frantically strategizing about how we’ll cross the flooded river is so instinctive, even though it is also foolish and needless. So do wash your hands, and do what is wise about working from home, or calling your doctor. But don’t let yourself for a moment forget where your true safety lies. After all, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but you do know the one who parts raging rivers…and who has already parted the last river for you, blocking its flow with his blood-soaked cross! That final crossing you will indeed find already open and waiting for you. And on the far side of that river you’ll fear and wait no more.