One Warning and Two Anti-Virals
I'm constantly intrigued with the threads of plot or character that run through the whole of the Scriptures. Like repeating melody lines in a symphony, or themes in a novel, they speak to the unity of the text and the sovereignty of its Author. One of those threads feels particularly pertinent to me as we endure this traumatic Covid-19 season.
God frequently renders his people utterly helpless.
It's a stark reality we saw in the Wilderness . . . the people of Israel landing a million strong, and at God's direction, in a place with no discernable source of food or water. Add to that the additional restraint of gathering only enough miraculous manna for one day. Further, on one day out of seven nothing was to be gathered at all, but rather God must be trusted for unique preservation of the previous day's supply (Exodus 16:19-26). Helplessness within helplessness!
(See that? It's right there in the Bible. No hoarding! When I see pictures of people with Costco carts loaded to the top with toilet paper, I have to stifle a hope that it will, similarly, be soggy with maggots by the next morning. Neil says no, because then nobody will have any to lend us when we run out!)
This theme of God-engineered helplessness carries on in biblical history. God takes his people from Egypt, a land of abundant and predictable water supply, to Canaan, which relies upon him to provide rain in its season. He weakens his people with a mass circumcision right when Joshua had the military advantage to conquer the Land. Later, God repeatedly strips his armies of weapons and then sends them into battle! Then God, the Son, sends his disciples out on their first missionary journey, instructing them to take absolutely nothing with them. Helpless, in every case. The end of all these stories is victory and jubilation when God's people hear and obey him despite their fear. Could it be that it is only when we are out of options, stripped of human agency, that we discover, most powerfully, God's power to protect and provide?
The book of Job is a cautionary tale which speaks a word to those of us who would like to try to explain to the world what we think God's motives are in this current crisis. It may offer instead a formula for how-not-to respond. The story of Job's misguided friends demonstrates how dangerous it is to try to explain or justify God's actions in the midst of tragedy. It's presumptuous and unwise. God tells them, I am angry . . . (Job 42:7).
There may be arrogance in assuming we can speak to God's purposes or intentions. Only he can make his plans plain. What then is a faithful response to this eerie and alarming global trauma? How will we respond to the helplessness, humanly speaking, of our situation? Are there biblical, heart anti-virals? I believe there are.
Two Anti-Virals for the Heart
The first we hear from Job himself. "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him," (Job 13:15). The prophet Habakkuk echoes Job's sentiment (and his description sounds a bit like the shelves at my local Publix), "Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields and the cattle barns are empty, yet will I rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign Lord is my strength!" (Habakkuk 17-19a). And at every funeral we repeat Job's words, "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold and not another," (Job 19:25-27). We have more than ample reason to fix our hope on God, the God whose power was displayed in Jesus' empty tomb. Wherever and however we end up celebrating it, we will celebrate Easter as our reason for ultimate hope in a darkening world . . . God's answer to the apparent helplessness of Good Friday.
So Anti-viral for the heart #1 is give thanks . . . but for who God is.
Recently, in conversation with a non-Christian friend, I expressed my sense of wonder over some sweet circumstances in the midst of pandemic. For starters, our house has three and a half normally stocked bathrooms and nobody is allowed into to our house anymore, so we'll probably use our toilet paper supply up slowly! Then there is the discernable peace and emergent creativity that my grandchildren experience when they are no longer hustled between school and sports, music lessons and church activities. Some kind of long, slow, family exhale. Smog has evaporated over half the industrialized world. Did this show us that we were capable of radical environmental change? Pastors are learning how to think differently about church. If God has allowed this plague, what could I notice about my world now? How could I express ultimate trust in him? These were my musings in response to my friend's questions about where my head was.
To her this all seemed callous and naive. What about the global suffering? The devastation of people gasping for breath and dying alone, having infected exponential numbers of people along the way . . . people all over the earth living in fear of an invisible enemy. Was I really going to try to find some kind of silver lining to that . . .? Were not our families afraid, friends ill, and people everywhere distressed? Her challenge was good. We give thanks in all circumstances (1Thessalonians 5:18), but Christians can sometimes seem glib in their dismissal of our culture's ultimate fears.
This was also a challenge to focus my heart more clearly. We give thanks not because our circumstances are safe and secure, but because even if I am in need and my body is destroyed, God still reigns on the earth and I shall one day see him for myself. As Paul declares, we have been delivered from bondage to the fear of death. Echoing Job and Habakkuk, I give thanks for who God is, and not just for his temporal mercies.
Anti-viral for the heart #2 is . . . ask. Just ASK!
Moses tells the people of Israel that in the new homeland God has chosen for them, a land of unpredictable water supply, they must look to God for rain rather than turn to their habitual idols (Deuteronomy 11).
Jesus tells us not to worry about our supply of groceries or clothes (like the pagans do) but rather to ASK our Father in heaven, who knows what we need (Matthew 6:25-7:11).
ASK! is the simplest golden thread through the Scriptures. It's mostly when we feel helpless, and then ask aright, that God's love and glory are most powerfully displayed. Simply asking, looking to the Father directly, is the antidote for the viral anxiety and idolatry of our age. Paul summarizes this succinctly: Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done (Philippians 4:6).
What are our actual needs right now? Have we asked God, specifically, to meet each one? Can we thank him no matter what?