When I wrote Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness, I could not foresee the suffering that would be thrust upon the world just a few months after I turned in the final manuscript. I, and many others, had experienced solitary suffering, the kind of suffering that seems to alienate us from the masses. Now, the world, and the church in the world, are experiencing communal suffering on top of our own individual struggles. We are both together and separate—suffering together in our counties, states, and nations. But our circumstances also force us to isolate, with little face to face conversation and virtually no physical contact. In the United States at least, this type of crisis is unprecedented in our lifetime. We are all in new territory.
But this is not new territory for the Church.
As I was researching the history of hospitals and the Church, I cried as I read the introductory paragraph on Wikipedia’s article on the history of hospitals.
“… no civilian hospital existed in the Roman empire until the Christian period. Towards the end of the 4th century, the ‘second medical revolution’ took place with the founding of the first Christian hospital in the eastern Byzantine Empire by Basil of Caesarea, and within a few decades, such hospitals had become ubiquitous in Byzantine society. The hospital would undergo development and progress throughout Byzantine, medieval European and Islamic societies, until the early modern era where care and healing would transition into a secular affair.”
An article at The Gospel Coalition argues that it was the very type of medical crisis that we are experiencing today that caused the Church to flourish in its early history. Believers stepped into such crises with a totally different mindset than secular authorities of the day. The humane care of the critically ill we see in hospitals today is entirely tied to the Christian ethic of the value of human life. When the rest of the world discarded human life, we believed that human life was valuable because we are made in the image of God. Our historical practice was to step into medical crises, not run away from them. And, now, this Christian influence has leavened the whole lump, in you will. Instead of Christians adopting a secular view of life, secular medical professionals have in many ways adopted a Christian one.
Today, our hospitals and health care workers are the soldiers on the front lines, battling this epidemic. Though many are believers, we have a largely secular infrastructure in our modern health care system treating the critically ill. And, in a weird contrast to pandemics in history, most Christians can best help today by staying away from the sick. My own dad was in the hospital in March with a medical emergency unrelated to Covid-19. I felt strongly that I should be with him, helping him, easing pressure on his nurses. But instead, the hospital insisted I stay home. I could best help by talking to him on the phone, not helping him in person.
Perhaps you are a health care worker (or someone working in another essential industry) called to step up, exposing yourself in care of others as Christians have throughout history. Maybe you have been called on to quarantine at home, carrying a different, though still very stressful, set of weights on yourself. Whatever your current circumstances, remember that you are not alone in history. You are not alone in the Body of Christ. Each of us is carrying new weights on themselves these days. And it is normal for these weights to seem more than you can bear on your own. If Scripture teaches us anything, it is that we do indeed carry weights we can not bear without the community of Christ. But, Jesus’s striking words from John 14:18 are still true today. He has not left us as orphans to navigate these dark times alone.
Who walks with us in these dark days? Who sits with us in our quiet home offices? Who holds up the arms of the believing nurse at the end of her ability to cope? Who holds our hand as we sit on the sofa stunned at announcements on the evening news? Who waits with us and guides us when we are sick with a fever but confused about what to do? The community of Christ that accompanies us first includes Christ Himself. He is the Head of the Body. He is the keystone, the rock strategically placed in an arch to hold all of the others in place. He is the cornerstone, the large foundation stone on which the others can be built, bearing the weight of all the floors built on Him. If ever there was a time for believers to believe in Him, abide in Him, and keep our minds stayed on Him, it is these stays. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. But, in Him, we can do all things—things impossible to do or endure on our own.
“… apart from Me, you can do nothing.” John 15:5 NASB
The community of Christ also includes our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are the hands and feet of Jesus’s Body. We need our living brothers and sisters in Christ. I am thankful that I spend these days of social distancing still in contact with my pastor and church family by way of Sunday services and Zoom Wednesday night bible studies. But the Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews 11-12 include our dead brothers and sisters in Christ as well – dead on earth, but quite alive in heaven.
When I was going through the hardest, most alienating days of my own individual suffering recounted in Companions in Suffering, I found great comfort in the Cloud of Witnesses that the author of Hebrews speaks about in Hebrews 11 and 12. I found great encouragement from the biographies of modern day saints as well, including Elisabeth Elliott and Amy Carmichael. In these new days of communal suffering around the Covid-19 pandemic, I am rethinking the encouragement these witnesses offer us. Joseph experienced the communal suffering caused by a famine that affected all of Egypt and beyond. He bore the pressure of preparing an entire nation for that famine and distributing supplies throughout the land for years, not months. Moses experienced the communal suffering of an entire nation enslaved by an oppressive pharaoh. But their cries did not fall on deaf ears. God heard their cries as well as Moses’s fears as God called him to lead them.
The author of Hebrews writes of these witnesses to believers experiencing great hardship and persecution. His Hebrew audience had been dispersed, pushed from their homeland because of increasing persecution. They had lost the land they had lived for generations and with it their livelihoods and any sense of stability. But God had not left them as orphans to figure out their unstable future on their own. The author and finisher of their faith was there with them, holding them securely. And the Cloud of Witnesses, who had endured their own communal suffering and national instability, gave testimony to them that God was faithful during societal upheaval as much as individual ones. They testify to us today as well.
13 These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.Hebrews 11
Medical and financial hardship has fallen on the world. It has fallen on my community. But we have witnesses testifying to us today of God’s faithfulness in such times. This world is not our ultimate home, they remind us. We are moving toward something better. So abide in Christ, believing in Him, meditating on Him, hoping in Him. He will not default on His promises to us. You can count on these things as you endure suffering with your community now.
“I will not leave you as orphans.” John 14:18