KUCHING: The nation’s first Covid-19-related death was recorded in Sarawak on Tuesday (March 17), the state disaster management committee announced.

The victim, 60-year-old Pastor David Cheng (pic), from Emmanuel Baptist Church here, passed away at 11am at Sarawak General Hospital (SGH). (The Star)

The first reported death from the Covid-19 virus in Malaysia was a pastor from Kuching, Sarawak. He had underlying health issues, hypertension and diabetes, but so do many other people. So why was the first Covid-19 fatality in Malaysia a Christian and a much-loved pastor?

The major source of the spread of the virus in Malaysia was a religious event held in Kuala Lumpur.

The Muslim gathering held at the end of last month at the sprawling Sri Petaling mosque complex here has emerged as a source of hundreds of new coronavirus infections spanning Southeast Asia. (New Straits Times)

Perhaps some of us may have seen the infections as the Lord thwarting an event that promoted the spread of Islam. How then do we explain the fact that the first death from the virus was a follower of Jesus?

A number of Christian leaders have been quoting Psalm 91 as teaching that God promises to protect His people from disease. The promise seems clear enough:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
   will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
   my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you
   from the fowler’s snare
   and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
   and under his wings you will find refuge;
   his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
   nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
   nor the plague that destroys at midday.

(Psalm 91:1–6 NIV)

Surely God is a God of His word. On the basis of this Psalm, God’s people should fear no disease. How then do you account for the death of Pastor Cheng? Craig C. Broyles writes:

For certain believers this Psalm provides some of the most comforting promises of the Bible. For others these promises are some of its most unrealistic. For the faithful who have experienced tragedy, these promises smack of being cruel. (Craig C. Boyles, Psalms [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999], 362.)

I don’t think there is any easy way to resolve this tension. But looking at the Psalm in its entirety, we see that God doesn’t quite say that we will be free of trouble, only that He will rescue us from our troubles.

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
   I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
   I will be with him in trouble,
   I will deliver him and honor him.

(Psalm 91:14–16 NIV)

We are not guaranteed freedom from all pestilence. But we needn’t fear it even if it strikes because God will rescue us. The heart of the promise is not freedom from troubles but the assurance of God’s presence — “I will be with him”. Paul understood this. He writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:35–39 NIV)

We can face anything that life throws at us because we know that we dwell in the presence of Abba Father. He might choose to protect us from harm, or He might choose, for example in the story of Job, to allow us to go through hardship, but He will deliver us in the end, one way or another.

How then should we respond to the death of Pastor Cheng and other followers of Jesus?

First, we grieve with those who grieve. Pastor Cheng is not a statistic. He is a human being and so are all those who perished because of the virus. They have grieving family and friends. We grieve with them. Although we will be reunited with saints who have died in Christ, we will miss them this side of heaven.

Next, we don’t presume on God’s grace and therefore we take common-sense steps to avoid infection. After all, Paul told Timothy “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:23 NIV) He didn’t tell Timothy to claim Psalm 91 and not to worry about his frequent stomach illnesses.

Third, we love our neighbours. Anchored in God’s presence we reach out in love to all who suffer, whatever their race or religion. All human life is precious and we are called to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Perhaps the Lord allowed the first person to die of the virus in Malaysia to be a Christian to remind God’s people this is not a game of religion one-upmanship.

Finally, and I believe it was Charles Colson who reminded us, if God were to shield His people from the pains of a fallen world, we will not be able to see how believers and unbelievers respond to a similar crisis — whether the presence of God makes any difference. None of us wants to live through a virus pandemic, but God has allowed it. Let God’s people arise and show what it means to face the storms of life with Christ in our lives.

I am sure there will be many more questions that we will face before this crisis is over, but one thing we know for sure — God is with us.

“Over all over all
He’s the ruler over all
And my life in Him is secured”
(Pastor David Cheng)