“Coming to Grips With Ebola-A Reason for Hope“
I first heard of the Ebola virus about 20 years ago when I read Richard Preston’s book, The Hot Zone. It’s the kind of non-fiction book that grabs your attention and reads like a thriller. It’s hard to put down. The ‘King of Horror’ himself, author Stephen King described it in the following words: “The first chapter of The Hot Zone is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life – and then it gets worse.”1 I would have to agree. I’ve read a lot of thrillers in my time, but what makes this one so terrifying is that it’s true. The events described in the book actually took place.
Preston was convinced that the events he described weren’t the last the world had heard of Ebola, and the recent outbreak has borne out his grim prediction. Today, the situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is desperate. It’s impossible to get to the end of a day without hearing another story of suffering, sorrow, and death. Although the vast majority of North Americans will never come into contact with Ebola, people have reacted with panic and fear. There was the woman who showed up at the Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. wearing a homemade HazMat suit. And the parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids out of school after the principal returned from a visit to Zambia, a South African country far removed from the source of the outbreak. Late last week, a college in Texas denied the applications of two Nigerian students because of Ebola – even though Nigeria was the first country to contain the virus.
Why are people so terrified? Ebola is highly contagious if people have direct contact with those who are ill, and once infected, its victims suffer horrific deaths. The average mortality rate has ranged between 25 to 90% in past outbreaks, and there is not yet a proven cure.2 The ease of air travel and the long incubation period before people begin to show signs of infection (an average of 8 to 10 days, but as long as 21 days) have made it possible for the disease to be transported to other countries, including the United States, Germany, Spain, Norway, France, and the United Kingdom. The difficulty in diagnosing Ebola – in the early stages, its symptoms are similar to those of other diseases such as malaria and typhoid fever – have contributed to the general concern. People are unwilling to expose themselves or their loved ones to any perceived degree of risk, no matter how remote or unlikely that risk might be. We are afraid of what we cannot see; we are afraid of what we cannot control.
But it is an illusion to imagine even for a moment that we can ever completely control the circumstances in our lives or the lives of others. For good – or for evil – there will always be things that happen that are beyond our control, things that are unforeseen and unexpected. But while we can’t control the events that take place around us, we can control how we will respond to those events. And even in the midst of the greatest tragedy, there is always reason for hope.
I’m not talking here about the hope that scientists will eradicate this virus some day, although this is something for which we should all pray. Nor am I talking about a hope that would be limited by our human ability to find an effective cure. The kind of hope I’m talking about is supernatural – a hope that transcends all circumstances and doesn’t depend on the limitations of our human actions and resources. It is a hope that brings light in the darkness – that assures us that God is here: that He loves us, and that even at this moment He is in control. It is a faith that assures us that God will bring about good from every situation, no matter how bleak or tragic it might seem. When we place our trust in God – when we unite our will with His and want what He wants – we can be certain that everything will turn out for good (Rom 8:28).
St. Alphonsus Liguori once wrote, “God wills only our good; God loves us more than anybody else can or does love us. His will is that no one should lose his soul, that everyone should save and sanctify his soul.”3 This truth assures us that we can “abandon everything to God’s good pleasure, because being infinitely wise, he knows what is best for us; and being all-good and all-loving – having given his life for us – he wills what is best for us.”4
This kind of abandonment to Divine Providence is not a passive exercise, however. God expects that we will do everything in our power to avoid evil, including sickness. Health is our natural state of being, and we are responsible to do our best to preserve it. God asks us to care for our bodies and to not place ourselves unnecessarily in harm’s way. And when we fall sick, God’s healing power is made evident in the efforts of the many doctors and scientists who work ceaselessly to discover cures for those who have been afflicted with this and other illnesses.
But through it all, no matter what happens, God asks us to accept His will for us with peace and tranquillity. We show our love for Him when we trust in His loving care and in His goodness. We confirm that we are His loving children when we have confidence that He will bring about whatever is needed for the good of our souls. In His wisdom, it is possible that God may not always choose to protect us from illness. But if we turn to Him in our times of suffering, we can be certain that He will give us the grace and strength we need to endure it.
In 1 Peter 3:15, the apostle writes, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” Christians have a reason for hope – today and every day – because we know that God is our Father. We know that He loves us, and that He has the power to bring about the greatest good no matter what evil we may encounter along the way. God may choose to heal us, or He may use illness as the means to unite us even more closely to Him. And if our goal is to be with God in heaven in eternity, then the means He chooses to bring about our eternal happiness is less important than that we actually attain that end.
We may find ourselves feeling anxious about the threat of serious illness, but we should never be afraid to bring all our worries to God. We should have no reservations about placing ourselves in His hands, because He is God. He loves us, He cares for us, and He will never leave us alone (cf. 1 Peter 5:7).
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Stephen King, quoted in “About the Hot Zone,” available from http://www.randomhouse.com/features/richardpreston/bookshelf/hz.html; Internet; accessed 21 October 2014.
2 “Ebola virus disease,” World Health Organization Fact Sheet No. 103; available from
http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/; Internet; accessed 21 October 2014.
3 St. Alphonsus Liguori, Uniformity with God’s Will, trans. Thomas W. Tobin, C.SS.R. (Charlotte, N.C.: Tan Books, 2013), 14-15.
4 Ibid., 17.