My heart sank when I heard the news this morning about Thomas Eric Duncan. He was the first Ebola victim discovered in the United States, and he passed away earlier today. I don’t know much about Duncan at all, but I do know this. He travelled to the United States late last month after having contact with Ebola in Liberia. The disease overcame him after he arrived in Dallas, Texas. His condition became so desperate that his family members could no longer have video conferences with him. The sight of him was too unsettling for them. He died alone in an isolation ward this morning.
Some people have suggested that Western indifference to the Ebola epidemic in Africa is a racial thing. I wonder if the lack of urgency doesn’t have more to do with the remoteness of Liberia from the everyday lives of average Americans. Mr. Duncan’s arrival in Dallas erased the distance that many Americans may have felt before. For me, anyway, Dallas was once my home. I still have many friends there. I used to live near Presbyterian Hospital. I can imagine where he was. I can imagine him suffering there. I can imagine the horror of experiencing writhing pain and having to endure it all alone, with only the occasional stranger approaching in a Hazmat suit. His suffering—and that of his family—seems stark, real, and very close to home.
I think it is fair to ask, “Why should you let yourself think about such things? It seems kind of morose and unproductive.” I suppose it could be that. But it also may be something else. The Bible teaches us to put on a heart of compassion and to weep with those who weep (Col. 3:12; Rom. 12:15). Love teaches us not to stand aloof from the heartbreak of our neighbors. It means that sometimes we are going to have to let our neighbor’s pain in. And that means that we are going to have to let ourselves think about it. That’s one of the ways that we love them.
Occasions like this also present us with another opportunity. The Psalmist teaches us to pray,
4 LORD, make me to know my end,
And what is the extent of my days,
Let me know how transient I am.
5 Behold, Thou hast made my days as handbreadths,
And my lifetime as nothing in Thy sight,
Surely every man at his best is a mere breath. Selah.
6 Surely every man walks about as a phantom;
Surely they make an uproar for nothing;
He amasses riches, and does not know who will gather them.
7 And now, Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in Thee. –Psalm 39:4-7
The Psalmist confirms that it is good for us to realize that our days are numbered and that the end may come sooner than we think. This would only be morose if our expectation about God’s work ended with a contemplation of death. Actually, our contemplation of death is supposed to bring before us the prospect of what is beyond. Our days are short, but our hope is not in length of days but in the Lord: “My hope is in Thee.”
I do not mean to suggest that we are facing an Ebola epidemic any time soon. I would like to think that assurances from President Obama and the CDC are correct—that our health system can contain Ebola. Having said that, we shouldn’t put our faith in how many chariots and horses we can marshal for the fight (Psalm 20:7).
Nor should we be afraid to ask ourselves now how we should respond if the worst were to become reality—if Ebola were to overtake our own body or that of a loved one. If the worst were to come to pass, do you have a confidence in Christ that can handle Ebola? Do you have a confidence in Christ to know that He can glorify himself by your life or by your death (Phil. 1:20)? Can you trust now that no matter what happens—even if you are alone in an isolation ward with a family who can’t bear the sight of your suffering—He will never leave you or forsake you (Heb. 13:5)?
I often think about Habakkuk and how he asked God not to stand by while the culture in Israel descended into godlessness. When God answered the prophet’s complaint, Habakkuk was surprised to learn that God’s judgments would be more devastating to the land than Habakkuk really wanted. It took some convincing for Habakkuk to see the goodness of the Lord in this, but he finally did see it. And facing the prospect of great suffering to come among God’s people, Habakkuk prays and expresses two things: (1) a request for mercy for God’s people, and (2) confidence that God will be faithful to bring them through to the other side.
2 LORD, I have heard the report about Thee and I fear.
O LORD, revive Thy work in the midst of the years,
In the midst of the years make it known;
In wrath remember mercy…
16 I heard and my inward parts trembled,
At the sound my lips quivered.
Decay enters my bones,
And in my place I tremble.
Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress,
For the people to arise who will invade us.
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail,
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold,
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
18 Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. –Habakkuk 3:2, 16-18
This is not a pie-in-the-sky, praise-God-anyhow kind of faith. This is real, solid joy in the midst of real suffering. It’s the confidence that says “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in Him” (Job 13:15). It’s the kind of testimony that says that even if I lose everything—including my life—I still have everything if I have Him. It’s the kind of witness to the goodness of God that can only come about when God’s people experience pain.
We should not seek for suffering or wish it to come our way. God will bring our measure in due time (Phil. 1:29). We don’t have to go looking for it. But neither should we be surprised or unprepared when it comes (1 Pet. 4:12). He has given us everything that we need for life and godliness, and grace will enable us to stand when the time comes (2 Pet. 1:3).
So I’m thinking about a man in Dallas who took his last breath today. But I am also thinking about a man in Louisville today whose final breath may come sooner than he expects. And I am praying for the Lord to have mercy on him and his family and to make him ready to exalt Him either by life or by death.
And now, Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in Thee.