Ten Lessons to Learn from COVID-19

As the dust seems to be starting to settle on COVID-19—and life begins to get back, at least somewhat, to ‘normal’—I’ve been reflecting on what has happened over the past couple of years. What are the lessons which we, especially Christians, need to learn from this most recent worldwide pandemic? While there are surely many more, what follows are ten lessons which are particularly pertinent for us as believers.

1. Jesus is Lord, especially regarding COVID-19

One of the central truths taught in the book of Revelation is the Lamb of God is even now seated upon the Divine throne (Revelation 5:6-14). No matter what happens throughout the course of human history, it’s all under the sovereign direction and control of Jesus. This is seen especially in Revelation 6 where the seven seals are opened one by one by Christ Himself. Significantly, when the fourth seal is opened, a mysterious rider on a pale horse is released, representing death and Hades respectively.

The apostle John then says, “They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by wild beasts of the earth”. It’s both comforting and sobering to realise that Jesus is ultimately responsible for COVID-19. He released this particular plague upon the earth, and as such, it is fulfilling His holy plan and purpose.

There are many positive lessons we can all learn through suffering (i.e. Romans 5:3-5). But surely the greatest is our need to seek the LORD in humble repentance and faith. For what it’s worth, my anecdotal observation is many churches have seen growth—both spiritually and numerically—during this particular period. And it’s something which we should stop and thank God for doing, while pleading we might be mercifully spared from enduring it again soon.

2. Meeting for Corporate Worship is a Vital Service

One of the most difficult things Christians—especially those living on the eastern seaboard of Australia—experienced during COVID-19, was being forbidden from meeting together in person for corporate worship. At least for a time. In some states this lasted a couple of weeks, whereas for others it went on for months and months! Then when we were allowed to resume our services, we were subject to all kinds of health restrictions; mask mandates, enforced social distancing, temperature checks, QR codes, hand sanitising and even a prohibition against singing.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down (over Zoom) with two researchers from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, to discuss how churches played a vital role in helping people stay connected during this difficult time. Interestingly, their thesis was those who stayed connected to Christian communities during COVID-19 did better than those who did not. It sounds obvious I know, but many people’s mental health suffered terribly over the past couple of years. And from just a sociological perspective, churches provided an essential way for people to be supported.

What quickly became clear is how important it is to physically meet together as God’s people. Celebrating communion, witnessing weddings, grieving through funerals and being able to just greet one another face-to-face (see 3 John 14) are all integral to Christian worship and human flourishing. Unfortunately, some people have failed to fully appreciate this and continue to routinely watch church online from home. But the privilege to meet together again each Lord’s Day should be cherished with renewed enthusiasm, commitment and thankfulness.  

3. Technology is a Good Servant, but a Bad Master

Scott Morrison commented that during COVID-19, that we embraced technology at a rate which would have taken more than ten years in ‘normal’ circumstances. It has been wonderful to be able to have meetings over Zoom and live stream services to those who—because of physical distance or ill health—couldn’t be present.

But there has also been a great cost. As mentioned above, nothing can replace human contact and interaction. The Lord has created us to be in relationship with Himself as well as each other. I heard a terrific talk recently from a retired Professor of Teaching at the University of Technology, Sydney. His main point was that ‘relationship’ is the key to effective learning. Something integral is lost though, when a screen takes the place of a real, live person.

4. Conscience is Not our Supreme Standard

The question of mandatory vaccination raised important ethical and theological questions, especially from a biblical perspective. For those who are interested, I have written about the issue more fully here. One of the key sources on this topic—especially for Australian Presbyterians—is the Declaratory Statement relating to the Westminster Confession:

            Civil Magistrate (vi) That with regard to the doctrine of the civil magistrate and his         authority and duty in the sphere of religion as taught in the Subordinate Standard, the        Church holds that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church, “and      Head over all things to the Church, which is His body”. It disclaims, accordingly,         intolerant or persecuting principles, and does not consider its office-bearers, in       subscribing the Confession, as committed to any principle inconsistent with the liberty      of conscience and the right of private judgment, declaring, in the words of the        Confession, that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”.

While the place of “conscience” is crucial—see Romans 14— it can also be over played. This is because one’s conscience is not infallible. Unlike the Holy Scriptures, an individual’s conscience is not the Supreme Standard in deciding what one should or should not do in every single circumstance.

God’s Word often warns us to not be led astray by controversies which replace the centrality of the Gospel (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9-11). A couple of passages relating to the place of conscience are especially pertinent. For example,

  • Jeremiah 17:9. We can’t trust our own “hearts” which includes our thinking and feelings, because it is “deceitful” and even “beyond cure”.
  • 1 Timothy 4:2. It is possible for our consciences to be “seared” or dulled through false teaching. 
  • Titus 1:15. Once again, one’s conscience can become “corrupted”.
  • 1 Corinthians 8:7. Finally, an individual’s conscience can become “weak”.

COVID-19 revealed the importance not only of individual Christian freedom but also the importance of Christian accountability. As Presbyterians, COVID-19 provided a particularly good opportunity for sessions, Presbyteries, State Assemblies and ultimately, the General Assembly of Australia to wrestle with these issues and to provide wisdom and guidance to the broader church.

5. The CCP cannot be trusted

While it was initially dismissed as being something of a conspiracy theory, the “lab leak” explanation relating to COVID-19 has become increasingly accepted. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strenuously denied any link to the virus at first, but the rest of the world has woken up to their political deceit. For a well-researched and persuasive presentation of this thesis, see Sharri Markson’s, What Really Happened in Wuhan (HarperCollins, 2021).

One of the most remarkable people in uncovering the danger which COVID-19 initially posed was a Christian medical doctor, Dr Li Wen Liang. Dr Wen Liang himself died of the virus at the age of thirty-four. But his legacy as a whistle-blower almost definitely saved countless numbers of lives. While forgotten by most people, Dr Wen Liang’s name should be remembered for his sacrificial service and also personal courage as the following video shows.

6. The State is Not our Saviour

Too many Christians viewed the state during COVID-19 as their functional saviour. Daily media briefings with state Premiers became so routine, that many started to become defined by it. People would gather around their phones at around 11 am each morning, urgently waiting for the latest health update on how many people had been infected. Such ‘panic porn’ gave politicians too much of a sense of power and level of social control which was unprecedented in Australian history. The temptation was to look to the State, and not to God, to save us.

There was a noticeable lack of corporate prayer—let alone any call to fasting or repentance—during COVID-19. Instead, we increasingly put our trust in the government to deliver us from a virus which was nowhere near as deadly as first predicted.  While those in authority made many good decisions for the benefit of the community, it’s crucial to keep in mind their limitations and to ultimately put our hope in the LORD (Psalm 146:3-5). 

7. The State is Not Utterly Wicked

Alternatively, other believers viewed the state as being completely wicked and an instrument of the devil. Some people I interacted with even saw the vaccine as being a “mark of the beast” (Rev. 13:16-18)! The challenge throughout COVID-19 was—as it has always been—to seek to submit to governing authorities whom the LORD has placed over us, upholding them in prayer and especially showing them honour (1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; Titus 3:1-2; Romans 13:1-7).

Imperfect human rulers have been instituted by God Himself. And if the apostles wrote and expected this of believers during a time when Nero was emperor—when Christians were being routinely executed for their faith—how much more applicable are these commands for us today?

8. Schadenfreude is Always Ungodly

One of the things which has been especially difficult to witness has been the level of pride and condescension levelled at fellow believers with differing opinions. ‘Schadenfreude’ is defined as being the “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune”. Sadly, this has been present in people on both sides of the debate. Whether it was a non-vaccinated person being excluded from employment, education or social settings, or alternatively, the sense of vindication non-vaccinated people felt as their principled opposition was shown to be more and more reasonable. Delighting in someone else’s misfortune has been an all-too-common feature in social media feeds and it is not only ugly, but also ungodly.

9. Fear was Present on both Sides

I have friends on both sides of the COVID-19 debate. There were some who were vax hesitant and highly sceptical of everything the government did, whereas others not only believed vaccination should be mandatory, but that the Australian government didn’t go far enough. Ironically, both sides gave in to a spirit of fear.

For those who insisted on mandatory vaccination there was an excessive fear of sickness and death. Which was strange when, especially in comparison to other pandemics, far fewer people died. But those who were anti-vax started to go down the conspiracy “rabbit hole” of seeing the whole world on the verge of imminent collapse. Everything started to take on apocalyptic proportions and pose an existential threat to Western civilisation.

While there are legitimate concerns from those on both sides, we must never give in to fear (2 Timothy 1:7). Instead, we should continue to trust and worship Jesus as being the One who is in complete control. If that means we are going to suffer in some form or another, then the best way to be prepared is through a clearer vision of both who He is and what He has done.

10. There was a Greater Danger than COVID-19

By far the saddest thing which I have witnessed over the past couple of years was how many believers valued their own personal opinions over unity in the Body of Christ. Whether it was pressuring people to be vaccinated or alternatively, refusing to comply with any of the government health decisions, the greatest danger of all was division.

I’m sure Satan has used this period as an opportunity to fracture more than a few fellowships, and even entire churches. It’s good to be reminded then, of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17. And in particular, that we would be one just as He and the Father are one. Why? “To let world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

Our unity as Christians provides is a powerful and profound witness. It is not only a wonderful blessing and encouragement to us personally (Psalm 133), but it also presents the truth of the Gospel to the unbelieving world in a real and tangible way. Our unity with each other as believers is an outworking of the unity which we have first been given through the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun…

The writer of Ecclesiastes famously wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Everything that is has been before. And what has been will happen again. What’s more, it’s worth remembering that believers in the past have had to endure similar trials and hardships. And there is much from church history which we can continue to learn.[1]

The Lord God Almighty has been teaching us much through this latest particular trial. The only question is, will we humble ourselves to learn from what has happened, or will we in our pride think that we know better than everyone else?

– Mark Powell

[1] For an excellent overview of the topic, see Peter Barnes, “Plagues throughout History and Some Christian Responses”, Reformed Theological Review, Vol. 79, No. 2 (2020).