Faith and Risk - Or: Martin Luther and the Bubonic Plague

Michael Hardt

How do you strike the right balance between fearless faith and avoiding risk? On the one hand we read: “Ye shall not tempt the LORD your God” (Deut 6:16) – a verse the Lord Himself quoted when tempted by Satan (Mt 4:7).

On the other hand, we read of a dear couple who risked their lives, and were commended for it: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus:   Who have for my life laid down their own necks”. We don’t know what exactly they did but we learn that they were willing to put their necks on the block in order to save or help the Apostle Paul. The expression: “they have for my life laid down their necks” shows that they did not simply end up in a dangerous situation, but they consciously did what could well have led to their death. Paul’s inspired comment is touching: “unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles” (Rom 16:3.4).

And as to himself, Paul could say: “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself” (Acts 20:24). John adds the exhortation: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1. John 3:16).  So, how do you reconcile these guiding principles? Is it even possible?

The other day, I was pointed to an interesting piece of information: almost 500 years ago, the bubonic plague ('black death' / 'second pandemic') ravaged large parts of Asia, Europe, and indeed other parts of the world.This disease had an astronomic death rate, even compared to the vicious coronavirus (COVID-19): in some countries, a very significant proportion - between 45% and 50% (!) - of the population was wiped out within a four-year-period. It was during this time that Martin Luther was asked by Dr John Hess, how one should behave (specifically whether one should flee) in the face of such a plague. His response may be of interest:

“If God sends a deadly plague then I shall ask God that He might be gracious to us and stay the plague (and to protect us). Then I shall fumigate the house, air it (to help purify the air), administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.

Should my God wish to have me in His presence (so that I die), he will surely find me. But so I will have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.

But if my neighbour needs me, I shall avoid neither the place nor the person but will go freely and help him as stated above.

See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is not brash or foolhardy, nor is it presumptuous, and does not tempt God.”

(Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 334-335)

One is impressed with the sobriety, courage and calm confidence shining in this short but poignant reply. His choice of words indicates that he had the scriptural principles before him that are expressed in the verses quoted above.

Many examples could be added from Scripture. Think of Daniel politely refusing the royal Babylonian cuisine. Think of his friends addressing the world’s mightiest monarch of the time, Nebuchadnezzar, at the risk of being burnt alive. Think of Daniel calmly carrying on in prayer - and then seeing the lions’ mouths shut. Think of the early Christians who were for forbidden to speak of the ‘name’ and Peter calmly stating that this was an impossibility to them: “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). 

None of these men and women (think of Priscilla) were risk lovers or adrenalin junkies. But they knew they did not need to be anxious when they followed the instructions of their God.

Faith knows that, if we do His will, we can leave the consequences to Him.

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).