The Surprising Role Illness Has Played In Christian Religious History

Written by Wes Walker on May 2, 2021

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It may surprise and confuse the irreligious left to see people of faith finding ways to continue meeting to pray and worship despite the grim threat of COVID-19. Ultimately, it’s a question of perspective.

For most of the irreligious left, we live in the world of what is called ‘closed-box materialism’. In that understanding: you live, you die, you become worm food. The end.

If the Big Dirt Nap is truly The End, mortality becomes the ultimate threat. That would explain why materialists freak out about illness and anything that would threaten their mortality.

But for people of faith, while none of us is excited about the idea of our mortality (even Christ calls death the ‘last enemy’ 1 Cor 15:25-6), the context and perspective about death is different. We exist as more than merely the meat wrapped around our bones; as more than something that will eventually crumble to dust and blow away.

We understand that in this world we will have trouble, and sickness, and famine, and war. We do what we can to prepare for these situations and to endure them. But even our best efforts in any of these situations are hit-and-miss. We apply such wisdom and preparation as we have, and leave the rest to God.

This is the same God of whom the psalmist said,

You will not be afraid of the terror by night,
Or of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the plague that stalks in darkness,
Or of the destruction that devastates at noon.

Illness is not something foreign to religious experience or the pages of scripture. It’s baked into the cake.

Early Christians, when plague tore through Rome, provided care and a decent burial for the infected. They cared not only for their own loved ones but for pagans and strangers as well. Christians got sick, and some died, but their concern and example went a long way to having the love of Christ’s gospel be shared and received among those who would not otherwise have shown interest.

Pestilence makes appearances throughout scripture as well. Judgment of Egypt’s firstborn under Moses is one. The divine rescue of Hezekiah (2 Chron 32) from Sennacherib, the return of the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines (1 Sam 5). It is listed among the horsemen in Revelation.

But none of those seem as interesting for today as the event that happened during the reign of King David, in an account that can be found both in 2 Samuel 24, and in 1 Chronicles 21.

Here’s the short version. David screwed up, and made a decision that brought down Divine Judgment on Israel. The prophet Gad came to him with a choice between three options: 3 years of famine; 3 months of getting whipped by neighboring nations; or 3 days of plague. David’s explanation for his choice showed us why God said, elsewhere, that he had a heart after God.

David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; please let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are very great. But do not let me fall into human hands.

Even in the light of a deadly plague, David’s attention was fixed on God’s mercy.

The plague wiped out 70,000 people and was poised to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented. But he opened David’s eyes to see this:

Then David raised his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, with his drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem.

David prayed in sackcloth and ashes, his culture’s sign of sorrow, mourning, and repentance.

The prophet gave him instructions, next. He was told to build an altar on the farmer’s threshing floor where he had seen this sight, and make a sacrifice to the Lord.

Then David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of this threshing floor, so that I may build on it an altar to the Lord; you shall give it to me for the full price, so that the plague may be brought to a halt from the people.”

Why is this story important?

We see that piece of real estate take on particular significance in the time of David’s son.

That place where the sacrifice was offered so that mercy could triumph over judgment? A building was built there.

Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had prepared on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. He began to build on the second day in the second month of the fourth year of his reign. — 2 Chronicles 3

The plague that might have destroyed Jerusalem became the focal point of worship and gratitude for His Redemption.

Mount Moriah. Did you catch that reference? Where have you heard that name before? Remember when Abraham climbed a mountain with his son Issac? Yep.

Mount Moriah. And David meeting the Lord with a drawn sword… but staying His hand. See a pattern?

A sacrifice. A brush with death. A redemption.

Abraham and David both knew of a fate that was worse than death. Neither of them broke faith. The threat of death didn’t weaken the resolve of Abraham or David to worship Almighty God — it intensified it.

Sure, great. But what does this mean for the 21st Century?

Simple. A crisis has a way of testing us and showing us what we’re really made of. It’s time the Church ask itself what our response to the plague was.

Did a brush with COVID intensify the depth of our devotion to God, to remind us that there’s something bigger than the daily grind by which to regulate our lives?

Or did it show us we had reversed the polarity of our priorities?

Did we, like the early church, consider our mortality within the larger context of our faith, or did we reverse that, and live like the materialists, managing our faith within the larger context of our mortality?

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