Spreading the Worst Infection
“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14).
What are you spreading? The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our entire world. Schools, workplaces, and churches enacted dramatic measures to combat the spread of the sickness. Millions self-isolated, canceling nearly everything on the calendar. Many use hand sanitizer compulsively, and only leave the home wearing a mask.
These serious measures reminded me of when my father underwent heart bypass surgery a few years ago and I spent much of the week in the hospital visiting him. Being well at the hospital, I noticed that everyone uses hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of disease to the vulnerable. Each and every person who entered the room sanitized their hands. How careful people are when it comes to spreading disease! Even those who are not “germaphobes” do this because of the great danger of spreading sickness—especially to the vulnerable, like those recovering from heart surgery.
These measures should challenge us: How slow we are to take care to limit the spread of spiritual sickness! How little do we think of the deadliness of sin. We all know the dangers of cancer and we know the deadliness of disease; yet we hardly think about the cancer of sin and how it affects our lives. Like a person walking around ignorant of their cancer, many people in our world—perhaps even in the pews beside you—ignore the dangers of their spiritual unhealthiness.
Sin That Spreads
We see, for example, the spreading of sin among the people of Israel when they wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. Specifically, notice how grumbling and complaining devastated the people in Numbers 11:1-3:
And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.
Grumbling, far from being a “victimless crime,” was punished by God. Our grumbling may be directed against people, but ultimately it is an issue between us and God, the Sovereign. When we complain about our circumstances, or even about the people around us, we are complaining about God’s provision for us.
At least the effects of that sin were limited; only the outskirts of the camp burned. However, as Numbers 11 unfolds, we learn about a second and more serious instance of grumbling. It started among the people the outskirts of the camp, the “rabble that was among them,” and spread, like an infectious disease! Iain Duguid comments,
“It typically originates among those with little or no spiritual insight, but it can easily be passed on from them to the whole community and draw in those who know better…Grumbling is a sin you can catch from others, which means that you need to be careful who you spend your time with and how you spend your time with them.”
Not only did the grumbling spread from person to person, but it spread from subject to subject—they complained about their hardships, and about the delicious manna, and about how they had been better off in Egypt.
Grumbling spread from the spiritually weak even to the spiritually stronger. Even Moses became infected by the sin of grumbling (Num. 11:11-15). He focused on himself: “Moses said to the LORD, ‘Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?’”
Like him, we are vulnerable to the sin of grumbling, which can spread like wildfire. Perhaps you are grumbling now about the many inconveniences caused by COVID-19. We do well to give heed to Philippians 2:14’s exhortation, which reflects back on Numbers 11: “Do everything without complaining and arguing” – an instruction that leads into the reminder in Phil. 2:15 that believers shine as lights in a dark world because of our union with Christ, the light of the world. Grumbling spreads the very opposite of what believers are called to spread to a needy world. We are called to spread true gospel hope to our neighbors (1 Pet. 3:15).
We therefore take precautions against the spread of negativity to us and from us. Numbers 11 not only warns of our vulnerability to the influence of bad character and the spread of sinful attitudes (1 Cor. 15:33), it reminds us to be careful not to spread our sinful attitudes to others. Are we spreading the aroma of Christ to our neighbors and children, or complaining to them about the events that have been canceled? Do we spend more time grumbling about the government, or gracing others with our steadfast hope that transcends circumstances?
The Most Dangerous Disease
Jesus reminds us in Luke 12:4-5 that the stakes are even higher when it comes to the spread of sin. As dangerous as any pestilence is for our physical health, sin endangers our immortal souls:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
In fact, when we think that the precautions taken against the spread of COVID-19 might be too extreme, we should remember the drastic measures Jesus suggested in Matthew 5:29-30:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
Jesus does not call us to jettison body parts—but he does call us to consider taking serious measures to avoid sin—because sin’s consequences are terrible.
This difficult time of Coronavirus provides an opportunity to consider what actions we are taking to avoid sin and to limit the impact of our sin upon others. Granted, our sin comes from within, and not from our circumstances (Mark 7:21-23; James 4:1-4), but we are also called to avoid situations that tempt us. As Proverbs 6:27-28 warns, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched?”
There may not be spiritual equivalents to hand sanitizer and face masks, but we can give ourselves to those proven balms for sick souls—the means of grace—experienced most intensely in public worship and the preached Word. We pray for the joy of the Lord, which is our protection (Neh. 8:10). How tragic it would be if we took drastic action to keep ourselves physically healthy while giving no thought to our spiritual health.
John Newton often referred to sin as a sickness, and to Christ as his divine physician. Jesus presented himself this way in Matthew 9:12: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” In one of his letters, Newton lamented the physical illness of the recipient’s sister, and encouraged them to look to Christ with faith:
“Hide yourself under the shadow of his wings; rely upon his care and power; look upon him as a physician who has graciously undertaken to heal your soul of the worst of sicknesses, sin!”
In another letter, Newton adds, “All our soul complaints amount but to this—that we are very sick; and if we did not find ourselves to be so—we would not duly prize the infallible Physician.” Praise the Lord that through Christ, God has undertaken to heal our hearts.
During this health crisis, let us commend our Physician to others; He can heal their worst sickness.
Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA.
"Curbing Our Complaints" by Jonathan Landry Cruse
"Lament: Self-Indulgent Whining, or Faithful Complaints?" by J. Todd Billings
The Life of Moses by James Boice
 Iain Duguid, Numbers: God's Presence in the Wilderness, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 149.
 John Newton, letter 4, London, dated August 19, 1775, which can be accessed online: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/newton/The_Letters_of_John_Newton_-_John_Newton.pdf
 John Campbell, ed., Letters and Conversational Remarks, by the Late John Newton (NY: 1811), 32.
 See John Newton, “Letter III. — Christ the great Physician — Spiritual prosperity at Olney. June 2, 1772, letter To B. West, Esq,” which can be accessed online: https://gracegems.org/Newton/additional_letters_of_newton.htm