As published in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday 7th May

Faith can guide us through hard times and for many people, it will help them get through this coronavirus pandemic.

The disease has claimed the lives of more than 260,000 people, including 418 in Northern Ireland at last count, and beyond the statistics lie heartbreak and anguish. Devastated families are even denied the opportunity to begin the grieving process with a simple goodbye.

Some Christians may be questioning their faith at a time when we are asking why this real life horror movie is happening.

They may be questioning why God is doing this to us. Is it a punishment? A warning? A sign? A judgment?

And will their personal relationship with God change just as our whole outlook and the way we live our lives might alter when this nightmare is over?

These are dark times and we are all looking for light at the end of the tunnel.

Comfort is found in the way everyone is pulling together and the compassion showed to those who are suffering is heartwarming but for many it can be hard to cling to hope and glimpse light amid the darkness.

Some Christians, without church services during this period of lockdown, are finding their faith tested by the Covid-19 crisis. Humanity must draw lessons from it, but where does God fit in?

Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey is a senior social worker for the Larne Community Care team, working with older people with complex healthcare needs and those with physical disability.

“When we started to deal with the pandemic I met with my team and I talked about some basic rules to get us through this,” said the Sky Blues boss.

“Number one was make sure you take care of yourself because if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.

“The second thing was in every aspect of life only do what is essential. Even when you are doing something essential, question how you are doing it.

“Thirdly, make sure we keep calm and most important of all, trust in God.

“I have an unapologetic and unashamed very strong faith in God. It’s not about coming closer to God, it’s about being reassured that God is in control of the situation.

“I don’t question after that. My faith and hope is totally with my Father in heaven. My blessing is I have a relationship with God through Christ who died for me. Christ defeated death and God gives us wisdom and sense.

“While I have trust in God, that doesn’t take away from our accountability and responsibility.

“Some people might see this as a trial or test. For me, this is a time I am thankful I have a faith. If ever there is a time to trust in God it is now. It’s fine to do that when there are no challenges in life and things are going well but it’s in times of difficulty when we keep calm, be still and know God is there for us.

“This pandemic has happened and the one thing I know, through all of this, is that my faith is in my Father in heaven and he is still very much in control.”

The former Linfield manager believes the pandemic will provide us with a better understanding of how much we rely on others.

“You would like to think that during this period people will get a sense of priority and understand what is important in life and who is important,” he added.

“We talk about essential workers but that’s not just the doctors, nurses, social workers. What has been really clear is how much we need the people who drive the lorries, the people who produce the food and most importantly the cleaners.

“We were always told in any profession be the best that you can be at it and if you consider hygiene and cleanliness you look at people who are humble enough to do the most manual of jobs. I feel there will be a greater appreciation of their contribution to society.

“When we get through this it will be a time to reflect on who got us through and how we did it. It’s amazing to see the number of people involved in community work, doing the shopping for others, delivering food to the vulnerable. People are starting to understand what we mean by the word community.

“What has also been revealing is how this virus has affected everyone from royalty to politicians. This virus is no respecter of class, colour, creed, age or religion. We are all the same and as perverse as it sounds, if ever anything has united people and the nations of the world, it’s this pandemic.”

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter says he understands why people are searching for answers but his faith in God remains rock solid.

“We often look at the world and see disasters, famines, tsunamis and people will debate around the second coming but the Bible says no man knows the hour of when that will happen so I put trust in God that it will happen in his timing,” said Baxter.

“I also have found myself engaged in the Old Testament theology when there have always been plagues in our land. We are not exempt from this, I read that 70,000 people died of a plague in one day.

“We have seen viruses throughout history so I don’t say it’s a disease sent from God. If He wanted to end something He would end it. This has shown people we are not invincible. Our lifestyle has been taken away from us suddenly by a virus and we are asking, ‘What’s it about?’

“We are just human beings, here for a time and then gone so we are asking, ‘What are we on earth for?’

“I am not wavered by it all, in fact it has strengthened me to draw closer to God. My trust, hope and belief is fully in Him and I’m not shaken. I know He has all the answers to all of this and that’s where I pitch my tent, on his rock.”

Crusaders defender Howard Beverland, a social worker for the Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in the Northern Trust area, views what is unfolding as a wake-up call regarding his faith.

“I think for so long I have been pre-occupied with other things and have been caught up in the business of life that God has taken more of a back seat in my life than I’d like to admit,” said the former Coleraine captain.

“This has been an opportunity to repent, to consider God afresh and draw near.

“For me it is not about how big or small our faith is right now but rather the object of our faith.

“I don’t blame God for what is going on, I don’t believe that it is a punishment from God either.

“I’ve been comforted also by a quote from a book I read years ago which said having Jesus in the stern does not mean the storm will not rock your boat but rather your boat will not sink. It’s okay to have worries, fears and doubts, but I want to encourage you to bring them to God. Run to him, not away from him.”

Beverland can understand why people are asking how God can let this happen.

“We will create our own narrative about what is going on, why it has happened and who is responsible,” he added.

“I do believe that there is a greater purpose behind all of this. As to what that is, I don’t fully know. I do know this, that much good has already come out of this challenging time. As a society we are united for the first time ever under a common and shared purpose and we are much more considerate of others’ wellbeing and safety. We are beginning to realise that life and breath is a gift.

“I hope we will live with greater thankfulness for the small blessings. I hope we will seek less after materialistic things. We would build each other up and see that as a society we can agree and work together under a common purpose.

“I think the God who we place our faith in will again prove himself to be the only solid and unshakable foundation that we can build our life upon.”

Cliftonville chaplain Dario Leal says the health crisis has had a positive impact on his faith.

“Yes, I am a Minister, but even Ministers can get discouraged at times,” he said. “I do ask a lot of questions, and that is normal and it brings sanity.

“I struggle seeing people suffering. Suffering and pain has always been around us and we try so desperately to ease the pain, yet with all our good efforts suffering remains and in many ways can shape our lives. So personally, faith in Christ, who totally understands suffering, is a great comfort to me. For me it is about not just wanting an answer but the desire to be heard.”

Dario understands why people are questioning God at this traumatic time.

“That is a great starter to understand and realise that we are all spiritual people,” he added.

“Is this a warning? Yes, a warning to our environment and the way we interact with one another. I think this will lead us to communicate and live in a more positive way. Communities are getting stronger and appreciating those who serve our community is moving to watch and to experience.”

Philip Mitchell, chaplaincy support director for Northern Ireland Sport, says the pandemic has made him analyse his own relationships.

“Firstly, God is not responsible for the virus,” said the former Glentoran and Linfield midfielder. “He told of a world that would experience trouble but through our faith in Jesus we could have peace.

“I’m asking the question, ‘What does God want me to do in the midst of this? Who does He want me to reach out to, or encourage?’ My faith in God brings me a peace about the situation.

“I have settled in my heart that God is good. What I am consciously aware of is that for others the virus will have certainly tested their faith because of the incredible sorrow and pain that it has brought to their own families. And though our experiences may differ, I know that God knows through Jesus’ life and death the anguish that some are facing and He is both present and comforting.

“I would hope that people generally will come out of this with new and better mindsets and fresh perspective about life and faith in God. I would hope we would be less proud of ourselves as a human race and I hope we don’t forget the value of our key workers on the front line.

“I hope we don’t forget that the lonely and isolated will still be lonely and isolated – but rather that we will continue to reach out to them in love. People are looking for something true; something that brings hope and that cannot be shaken when disaster comes along. This is the message of the church, and I hope as Christians we can find new ways to share that hope and express the love of God.”

Crusaders midfielder Matthew Snoddy, currently on loan at Glenavon, says his faith helped drag him out of despair caused by a gambling addiction.

“The virus doesn’t affect my faith, if anything it strengthens it because it proves what the Bible says about end times and pestilence that must take place is true and being revealed to the world,” said Snoddy.

“I can comprehend why people question why God would allow disasters. But God has allowed these types of things to occur for thousands of years. We live in a broken and fallen world where mankind’s rebellion against God has became perpetual. I would say it’s more of a warning to the world and a strong reminder that Jesus’ return is around the corner and a chance for people to reflect on life and get right.

“I’ve enjoyed the time that I don’t get in normal day to day life to draw closer to God and ensure as it says in Colossians to spend time with Him so that your roots grow down deep, so that when we return to normality I can live it out in my life.”

It’s the uncertainty of this disease that leaves us anxious. The unknown is unsettling but those who have faith seem to have found a renewed trust in God.