1. Evangelical

Plague and Providence: What Huldrych Zwingli Taught Me About Trusting God

The following is a guest post by Stephen Brett Eccher (PhD, University of St. Andrews; Reformation Studies Institute), assistant professor of church history and Reformation studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Stephen is married to Cara (20 years), and they have four daughters (Victoria, 13; Emma, 10; Sophia, 10; and Juliana, 7). The Ecchers have been members of Open Door Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, for the past 20 years.

Crippling Fear

In 2006 my wife and I welcomed our first child, a daughter named Victoria, who was born during our time abroad at St. Andrews, Scotland. We gushed over the gift God bestowed upon us. Yet, like most other first-time parents, our joy was always muted by fears. Was Victoria healthy? What if she got sick? What if the unthinkable happened and unforeseen tragedy took from us what God had given?

In those early days, no single thing came to embody my fears more than our baby monitor. A baby monitor is like a walkie-talkie that allows parents a lifeline into their infant’s crib. And cling to it I did. Every night and multiple times a day during naps I kept our baby monitor near. I listened intently for any signs of distress and to make sure that nothing stole our sweet baby girl from us. Soon this baby aid became more than a precaution. It became an obsession. With every creak and coo coming through the monitor, waves of panic washed over me, as I rushed to our daughter’s bedside to make certain she was all right. I simply could not lose her. I would not allow it.

I am a nervous, controlling person by nature, so this drama was crippling and unending. I frequently asked myself: How can a person training for ministry be so engrossed by my circumstances? Intellectually, I knew that God was sovereign and in control. I believed what the Scriptures teach about our providential God. So why was I still so consumed by fear? This question dogged me for years.

Zwingli’s ‘Plague Song’

I first came across Huldrych Zwingli’s “Plague Song” while studying the Protestant Reformation at the University of St. Andrews:

Help, Lord God, help in this trouble! I think death is at the door.
Stand before me, Christ, for you have overcome him.
To you I cry: If it is your will, take out the dart that wounds me,
nor lets me have an hour’s rest or repose.

Will you, however, that death take me in the midst of my days, so let it be.
Do what you will, nothing shall be too much for me.
Your vessel am I, to make or break altogether.

Early Protestant Spirituality, ed. Scott H. Hendrix (New York: Paulist Press, 2009), 184.

I was immediately struck by the reformer’s resolve. His commitment to the providential hand of God was unwavering, even if that meant embracing his own demise. I hung a copy of Zwingli’s song on my desk and reflected on it every day. The reformer’s concluding statement, “Your vessel am I, to make or break altogether,” haunted and inspired me. How did Zwingli get to that point? Could I get there too?

No Warning

Zwingli penned this stirring song about plague following dramatic events during his first year of ministry at Zürich. On January 1, 1519, the Swiss reformer arrived at Zürich to serve as the people’s principle preacher (Leutpriestertum). Guided by his commitment to scriptural authority, Zwingli immediately preached revolutionary ideas to his congregation through a verse-by-verse expositional style of preaching that dazzled the Swiss people. Zwingli thundered sermons about God’s great gift of salvation through Jesus Christ from the pulpit of the visually imposing Grossmünster church building. And the people loved him for it. Reformation was being spiritually planted in Swiss hearts, and Zwingli appeared to be in control of a forthcoming Reformation.

That all changed just a few months later. In fall 1519 plague ravaged the picturesque city of Zürich. Without the modern advancements of medicine, disease was particularly devastating to early modern communities. “The Black Death,” as it was often labeled, struck the Swiss people hard and without warning. Most estimates suggest a mortality rate of roughly one-third the population during such waves of pestilence. No sector of society was immune, no demographic was spared the plague’s cruel hand of death. Amid such dire circumstances Reformation would have to wait. A greater battle than the one with Rome was at hand, a battle for life itself.

As with most other clergy, the reformer’s care of those infirm required his ministerial attention. This demand put his own life at grave risk. In September 1519 Zwingli took ill. For months, the preacher who had previously stood as a picture of strength in the Zürich pulpit was now reduced to a feeble man, bed-ridden and clinging to life. Hours of struggle turned into days. Days into weeks. And as the warmth of Spring brought restoration to the Swiss lands, so too was health miraculously restored to Zwingli’s body.

Reformation could continue, but now with an important guiding principle learned during Zwingli’s duel with death. The Lord was providential; God’s providence meant that he could be trusted, no matter what the outcome. And trust him Zwingli did. In fact, the themes of providence and sovereignty were woven so strongly throughout the tapestry of Zwingli’s theology that he even held to a more robust view of election than other reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Darkest Days

In 2009 my wife and I received the shocking and wonderful news that she was pregnant with identical twins. We were both elated and honored that God chose us to be the parents of multiples. However, during a second ultrasound our joy was replaced by devastation—an early diagnosis of a rare condition called Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome. In short, our babies were dying, and the doctors gave us little to no hope for their survival. We were heartbroken. Feelings of helplessness and despair soon set in. Just like with our first child, Victoria, I was crippled by fears. But this time my fears were being realized. Our twins were being taken from us.

The next few months were the darkest of my life as I wrestled with faith and despair. Again, I knew God is sovereign, but where was he now? How could he be so distant at this time? Feelings of anxiety and hopelessness overwhelmed me. Despite being asked to abort one child in the hopes of saving the other, we continued the pregnancy. Ultrasound after ultrasound we waited to hear that they were gone, yet each time we found our twins fighting for life. Somewhere amid the 30 total ultrasounds that my wife underwent during her pregnancy I found myself alone with the Lord on a long drive to Washington, D.C. I can vividly remember screaming at God. With tears running down my cheeks I defiantly asked where he was and why he was not saving our twins.

In that moment I remembered Zwingli. His words, “Your vessel am I, to make or break altogether,” kept coming to my mind. Although 500 years separated us, our human condition had left us in the same place of dependence. Zwingli could not save himself any more than I could save our twins. But what dawned on me in that moment was that I did not have to save them. At the opening of the “Plague Song” Zwingli declared, “Stand before me, Christ, for you have overcome him.” It was that simple. My hope for my twins wasn’t in my ability to save them, but in the sovereign Lord who created them. Jesus’s victory over death at Calvary was the surest proof that the apostle Paul was correct in his claim that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Either way, live or die, my twins were in the hands of the Lord. And that truth was enough to rest in.

Miraculous Gift and New Freedom

God was merciful and gracious to us in a unique way according to his will. Miraculously, in fall 2009 our identical twin girls, Emma and Sophia, were born healthy, having cheated death much like Zwingli did. They were a gift from God. But the preceding months taught me that every second with them was now a gift from God undeserved, time we never thought we would have. So, instead of jealously longing for more time with them fearing for their lives, I would cherish every moment knowing they were the Lord’s. He was just loaning them to us for as long as he would will it.

We used those same baby monitors for our twins, but this time they were no longer the shackles for me that they once were. In fact, I would often joke with my wife that I could hear them going to sleep as I turned off the baby monitor, knowing full well they were awake and making all kinds of racket. This freedom had eluded me before. This is the liberty that trusting in a providential heavenly Father can offer. In the end, as those silly baby monitors revealed, I had come to affirm God’s providential hand not only in doctrine, but also in practice. The Scriptures had sown the seeds of this theological dogma in my mind, but, as with Zwingli, the hard, painful experiences of life planted that truth deep in my heart.

The German reformer Martin Luther, a contemporary of Zwingli’s, offers us some helpful reflections on illness and mortality. In a letter penned to Nicolas von Amsdorf, Luther addressed the spiritual realities that accompanied his Wittenberg home being transformed into a makeshift hospital: “So there are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones. . . . We can confront Satan’s fury with the Word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies” (Luther’s Works 43:116).

My Prayer for Us All

As we face the fearful uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 or whatever future fears that stand before us, may we face them with a boldness based upon his providential character and the divine promises made in God’s Word. May we find a steadying anchor in him, the resurrected Lord Jesus, who triumphed over death and the grave.

And may those of us who have tasted this hope boldly share it with each other and with non-believers around us in our great time of need.

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