Van Gogh painting stolen from museum during coronavirus shutdown: The nonmedical consequences of COVID-19 and the response of reasonable faith

incent van Gogh
Van Gogh self-portrait. Public domain.

Vincent van Gogh painted “Lentetuin,” or “Spring Garden,” in 1884. As you can see, the great artist depicted a woman in a garden with red-flowered bushes and a church building in the background. The painting is estimated to be worth between one million and six million euros.

This morning, the director of the Netherlands museum where the painting was on loan announced that it had been stolen overnight. “I am shocked and absolutely livid that this has happened,” he said. Police stated that thieves “entered by breaking through the glass doors” and “were gone by the time police responded to the alarm.” 

Dutch museums have been closed since March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak. The theft is just one example of the pandemic’s ever-widening consequences. 

“The coronavirus has seized our autonomy” 

Here’s another: isolation and anxiety regarding COVID-19 may be acting as triggers for those in recovery, especially when coupled with canceled Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. We may see a rise in drug and alcohol relapses as a result. 

And another: according to Time“As the physical coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, an emotional pandemic is following fast in its wake.” The article notes that “doctors are reporting both new anxieties among existing patients, and relapses among former ones.” 

The Federalist reports that nine people died from suicide within forty-eight hours in Knox County, Tennessee, last week. That’s more people than had died so far from coronavirus in the entire state. 

As USA Today notes, the pandemic is affecting us all: “It has stolen school from the kids and hard-earned graduation ceremonies. It has delayed trips and weddings and even funerals. It has taken dreams from athletes training for the Olympics, the NCAA basketball tournament, the Boston Marathon. It has consumed jobs, paychecks, and retirement funds. 

“The coronavirus has seized our autonomy, our sense of safety and the false but comforting belief that we can predict the dangers ahead.” 

The medical effects of anxiety 

Anxiety related to the pandemic is perhaps the most pervasive nonmedical effect of the disease on us. However, anxiety can produce medical effects of its own. 

As I have noted, stress causes our bodies to produce greater levels of the hormone cortisol and can cause anxiety and depression. These in turn can lead to elevated inflammation that can compromise our immune system. 

Stress also decreases the body’s lymphocytes—white blood cells that help fight infection. In a circular reaction, the lower our lymphocyte level, the more we are at risk for viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

In response, let’s consider a biblical meditation that may help us respond to fear with faith. 

Refusing spiritual solipsism 

In Psalm 90, Moses says to God, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (vv. 1–2). 

These are present-tense facts. 

We tend to associate the reality of God with times when we experience his reality personally. In this sense we are spiritual solipsists. (Solipsism is the philosophical claim that the world exists only to the degree that we experience it personally).  

By contrast, biblical faith declares to sight that God is always what he has ever been. And intellect agrees, declaring to sight that if God is truly God (the greatest that can be conceived), he cannot change or he would at times be less than God. Thus, he must be always what we sometimes know him to be. 

Consider Moses’ personal experience as instructive here. God was no less God when the people were enslaved in Egypt than when he freed them; he was no less God when they wandered in the wilderness than when he defeated their enemies and took them to the Promised Land. 

What COVID-19 changes 

So it is with us. 

COVID-19 changes nothing about the capacities of our Father (cf. Malachi 3:6). Nor does it change anything about our capacities—we are no less or more mortal than before, no less or more in charge of our future. 

What the disease does change is our perception of our mortality and finitude. We can react by turning from the One whose protection and provision we need most. Or we can respond by turning to the Great Physician with our fears and anxieties. 

Here’s his invitation: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). 

What’s your response today?