Trusting God (with Covid and all else)

Each new day we embark on a journey of the unknown. We make our plans, arrange our schedules and mark things in our diaries.  But rarely do things go exactly the way we would like.  Plans go askew, schedules get messed up, and events change in ways we least expected.  If you live in New Zealand, that’s what you faced at 4pm last Tuesday when our Prime Minister announced the whole country was going into lockdown.  There was one last dash to the store to get what you needed before midnight.  Whatever plans any of us had for the next few days, they went out the window.

But even in normal circumstances, life has a way of throwing us a curveball. The routine trip to the dentist shows up a problem with a molar.  Your car fails the WOF because they found rust in the door.  Your doctor tells you the scan results reveal you have a growth in your lung.  A million questions start going through your mind – can it be treated?  What if it’s cancerous?  What do I tell my wife and kids? 

It’s in these very times we need to be reminded that God calls us to trust him and trust him wholeheartedly.  There are so many places we could look to in the Bible for help in this, but perhaps the most obvious is Proverbs chapter 3 verses 5-6:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

These would have to be two of the most well-known and deeply loved verses in the Bible.  They provide for us in summary form the sum and substance of the Christian life.  The Christian life primarily is not about knowing certain doctrines (though there are important doctrines every Christian must know) or performing certain duties.  It’s about trusting, relying on, and hoping in God. 

I.  The Command

The command, in one sense, couldn’t be much simpler: trust in the Lord.  Following this through however is anything but simple.  You know it isn’t.  You’re standing there on the other side of the counter at the dentist and the receptionist informs you to repair that tooth is going to set you back $1000.  What’s your gut response?

“Well here’s another wonderful opportunity for me to put my trust in God.  I have no idea how I’m going to pay for this or where the money is going to come from, but God does.  He says if I acknowledge him in all my ways, he will make my paths straight. So I can be confident that God has an answer for this and therefore I’ll leave it in his good hands.”

We don’t respond that way, do we?  No, we hear the words ‘one thousand’ and we start experiencing blurred vision.  The blood pressure goes up, the stomach churns and we start developing nervous twitches.  Up until this point all things were nicely in your control, you were calling the shots and now suddenly your head is in a spin, and you are brought face to face with the harsh reality that you have no control over the events in your life at all.   

How then are we to trust in God?  

First, we are to trust him entirely – with all of our heart.  “Heart” in the Hebrew language refers to our inner person – our intellect, our emotion, and our will.  It’s our mission control centre, where all of our thoughts and desires and plans and hopes and dreams and beliefs and convictions originate.  It is here, the very core of our being, that God wants the surrendering and yielding to take place. 

Second, we are to trust him exclusively.  It’s not like, “I’ll trust God and my own wisdom.”  That’s going to be your natural tendency.  By nature, we are inclined to look within for the answers, not up.  It only seems to make sense to take such-and-such a path, so I’ll take it.  It seems sensible to follow this person’s advice, so I’ll follow it.  I sense that within me this is the right thing to do so I’ll do it – without even stopping to pray, without ever consulting the Lord, and without waiting on the Lord for an answer.  Proverbs 14:12 warns us, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

A man may feel that he would be happier if he left his wife.  A mother may feel that grounding her daughter for lying is too harsh.  An employee may feel that it’s OK to call in sick to work, even though there’s nothing wrong with him.  How easy it is to rationalize our disobedience when our hearts are saying one thing and God’s Word is saying another.

We are to trust God entirely; we are to trust him exclusively, and thirdly we are to trust him in every area of life – “in all your ways acknowledge him.” 

In all our planning. 

In all of our thinking. 

In all of our spending. 

In all of our decisions. 

The small as well as the great.  

Abraham Kyper once said, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, “That is mine!”.

No matter is too small for God’s attention.  To paraphrase one commentator, it is self-idolatry to think we can carry on even the most ordinary matters without his counsel.  In all your ways acknowledge Him

Scripture is not short of examples of what this looks like.  Noah building a great big boat in the middle of dry land when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, despite all the ridicule of his neighbours, just because God said so.  Abraham packing up everything and leaving his homeland when he was 80 years old, leaving behind his homeland and all his friends – because God told him to.  Peter stepping out of the boat to walk towards Jesus who was walking on the water, because Jesus told him to.  Ordinary Christians declaring “Jesus is Lord” in a Roman Empire which only recognized one Lord his name was Caesar.  They all did it.  They all chose to go against the tide of human wisdom and put their trust in God. 

I think of Asa, king of Judah.  Asa had just under 600,000 fighting men at his disposal. A formidable force unless your opponent happens to be the King of Ethiopia, who has an army of one million as well as 300 chariots. b1 million v. 600,000.  Do the math.  What was the King to do?  In Second Chronicles chapter 14 we read,

And Asa cried to the Lord his God, “O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.” (2 Chron 14:11)

At a time when most military generals would be drawing up their battle plans, we find Asa doing what? Falling on his face before the Lord in prayer. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7) What a courageous thing it was for Asa, as the leader of an entire nation, to put his head on the block (so to speak) throw himself at the mercy of God.

II. The Promise

Trust God in everything, submit to his leading, yield to his will in your life and what is the promise?  He will make your paths.  The Hebrew word here has the meaning of removing obstacles so that a path becomes clear.  It’s also found in Isaiah 45:2 where the Lord says to Israel,

“I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron,” (Isaiah 45:2)

What a marvellous promise.  Note the promise is not that the path will appear smooth and straight to us.  Often if feels very bumpy.  God never promises a smooth ride, but he does guarantee, if we faithfully follow him, a straight path.  He promises that every bump in the road, every turn, and every difficulty is there for our good and is part of the process of completing his work in us.  From God’s perspective, the path to Christlikeness is perfectly straight.  But from our perspective, it seems anything but.  As one Portuguese proverb says, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

As I look back on the past 35 years as a Christian, there are a lot of paths the Lord took me down that look anything but straight.  There were hills and valleys to climb, rivers to cross, and dangerous cliffs to scale.  Sometimes it looked as though I was going backwards before I went forwards.  I’m sure many of you have felt the same way.  But this is the path he calls us to tread.  We are pilgrims journeying in a foreign land.  We experience many difficulties and hardships.  But we know, that if we keep on eyes on our celestial city and trust in Jesus to guide us, he will bring us safely home. 

Conclusion

William Carey, the father of modern missions, faced a ministry disappointment of overwhelming proportions.  Carey began his missionary career in India in 1793.  He laboured in that country for 40 years, never once returning to his native home.

Carey was a brilliant linguist, translating portions of Scripture into over a dozen Indian languages.  One afternoon after twenty years of plodding labour in that country, all his work went up in smoke.  A fire raged through his printing plant and warehouse.  All his printing equipment was destroyed, but most tragically, many of his precious manuscripts were completely consumed by the fire.  Of course, Carey had no computer backup files. Twenty years of non-stop labour were gone within a few hours.

How would he respond to this crushing devastation? How would you respond in similar circumstances? Listen to the words which Carey wrote to his pastor-friend, Andrew Fuller, in England:

“The ground must be laboured over again, but we are not discouraged…We have all been supported under the affliction and preserved from discouragement.  o me the consideration of the divine sovereignty and wisdom has been very supporting…I endeavored to improve this our affliction last Lord’s Day, from Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” I principally dwelt upon two ideas, that is: 1. God has a sovereign right to dispose of us as he pleases, and 2. We ought to acquiesce in all that God does with us and to us.”

Trusting God requires a surrendering of our own plans and agenda, a relinquishing of our deep and determined desire to be in control and casting ourselves before an all-wise and all-knowing God to do things as He sees fit.  When we do this, we are assured of this promise: God will make straight our paths.  He will clear the obstacles.  There will be – if not in the short term certainly in the long, ultimate success.

Lockdown

Last night the residents of New Zealand received the message from our Prime Minister that we were going into lockdown due to a probable Covid delta variant in a community in Auckland.  Her hunch was right.  The latest report is there are now 7 covid cases in the community.  And the number is likely to rise.

So here we are again, being confined to our homes and our movements greatly restricted.  It is at these times we need to have the right perspective – a reality check, as to what is really happening in our world.  The good news is there is one who is greater than our government, greater than any Covid variant, and greater than any vaccine. And he cannot be locked down. 

Let me break this down for you:

God never goes into Lockdown. 

He is sovereign and he is free. He is also omnipresent, which means he is present everywhere.  There is no corner of this earth that God cannot access – no country, no hospital, no prison, and no home.  Psalm 115 verse 3 says, “Our God is in heaven and does whatever he pleases.”  God cannot be contained or restricted.  Period.

God’s Son cannot be locked down. 

When the Jews and the Romans crucified Jesus, Satan thought he had him beat.  He had him not only locked down but locked away for good – in a tomb.  But death could not hold Jesus.  Three days later he rose again from the dead.  He defeated death, not only for himself but for all those who believe in him. 

Now he is seated at God’s right hand, where he rules and reigns forever.  He is building his church, distributing gifts to his body, advancing the gospel, saving sinners, and growing God’s Kingdom (Matt 18:16; Eph 4:7-8; Col 1:6; Matt 13:31-33). 

You and I might be locked down.  We can only operate under certain constraints and restrictions.  But Jesus is not restricted from doing anything. 

God’s Word cannot be locked down. 

Throughout history, Satan has done his best to restrict, impede or completely irradicate the Word of God.  He knows its power.  But he cannot do it.  The Word of God cannot be contained or shut away.  It runs free. 

God created the world by his word (Gen 1).  He sustains all things by his powerful word (Heb 1:3).  His word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb 4:12).  By his word, God rescues the lost, strengthens the weak, humbles the strong, comforts the downcast, corrects the wayward and builds up his church.

We may be in lockdown, but God’s Word runs free – in our lives, in the church and in the world. 

So, when you are watching the news tonight and hearing all the bad news and everything that humans in their weakness are trying to do to fix it, remember we have someone who is above all this.  And his interests are to do with far bigger and better things than a Covid variant.  He is building a kingdom and filling it with eternal souls.

That’s good news for all of us.  

Pray for India

Last night, in the comfort of my own home, I watched scenes of unimaginable horror unfold on my TV in front of me.  I saw people outside hospitals with loved ones dying in their laps and in the back of cars, desperate for medical help.  I saw vans and trucks, loaded with oxygen bottles, careening through the streets at breakneck speed.  I saw funeral pyres with bodies burning in great heaps.  These weren’t scenes from a futuristic Sci-Fi movie.  This is the country of India. 

The nation of 1.4 billion people is in the midst of a tsunami of coronavirus cases.  Monday recorded the worst single day since the pandemic began, with 350,000 new infections, and nearly 3000 deaths.  And there are no signs of it slowing down.  A doctor appeared on camera, pleading with countries from the West to send aid – especially oxygen.  Behind him, a nurse was on top of a young man, vigorously applying CPR to resuscitate him.  The camera quickly moved away.  He had died.

The danger is, in our nice little Covid-free land, to become numb to this.  We’ve seen it all before – in France, England, the USA, and Brazil.  And it’s so far away.  It’s not in our backyard. 

BUT IT COULD BE. 

And that’s what we have to remember.  These are fellow human beings.  They could be our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters who are dying.  How would we respond then? 

Can we do anything for the people of India?  Yes, we can.  We can PRAY.  Pray for the coronavirus to stop spreading.  Pray for medical professionals, caregivers, and researchers.  Pray for oxygen to reach India speedily.  Pray for leaders who are responsible for making decisions.  Pray for the many Christians in India to demonstrate the love of God and reach out to sufferers in tangible ways. 

We can also FEEL for the many thousands of Indians living in New Zealand who have relatives infected with Coronavirus.  They live on your street and work in your region.  Talk to them.  Feel their pain.  Show compassion and understanding.  Invite them into your home.   That’s what loving our neighbours is all about.  We might not be able to care for the dying on the streets of India, but we can care for the living on the streets around us. 

Jesus would ask of us no less.

God and Coronavirus – Part 5

No one disputes the fact that there is suffering in our world. Almost nine years of civil war in Syria has left more than 380,000 people dead. Over 115,000 of those were civilians. Malaria causes more than two million fatalities annually, the majority of them African children. Around the world, some 26,500 children die every day, 18 every minute. These are not just statistics. These are people who have mothers and fathers or sisters or brothers.

This is a huge issue for people today. For many it is not just a reason why they choose not to believe in God; it is the reason.   A Barna research poll once asked, “If you could ask God only one question and you know he would give you an answer, what would you ask?” The most common response was: “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”

Earlier in this series, I told the story of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. It struck on All Saints Day when churches were packed. Within 6 minutes 15, 000 were dead and 15,000 more lay dying. One of those stunned and horrified by the event was the French philosopher Voltaire. Wanting to voice his anguish he penned the Poem on the Lisbon Disaster. This is some of what he wrote:

Unlucky mortals! O deplorable earth!    
All humanity huddled in fear!   
The endless subject of useless pain!
Come philosophers who cry, “All is well,”
And contemplate the ruins of this world.
Behold the debris and ashes of the unfortunate—
These women and children heaped in common ruin,
These scattered limbs under the broken marble.
See the hundred thousand whom the earth devours!
Torn, bloody, and still breathing, they are
Entombed beneath roofs, and die without relief
From the horror of their suffering lives.
 
What crime, what fault had the young committed,   
Who lie bleeding at their mother’s breast?           
Did fallen Lisbon indulge in more vices         
Than London or Paris, which live in pleasure?             

We can all sympathize with the sentiments to which Voltaire is giving voice to can’t we? And it does raise a question we have not yet explored: are disasters the judgment of God? Was God angry with the people of Christchurch so he sent an earthquake to reduce its inner-city to rubble? Was God angry with the people of Thailand or Japan or Lisbon so many years ago? Is that why he sent disasters to these places? Was the city of Christchurch any more sinful than say, the city of Auckland or Wellington? Were the Japanese greater sinners than the Chinese or Koreans?

There is a very helpful passage in the gospel of Luke, chapter 13, where Jesus sheds some light on these matters. There was a tower – possibly built by the Romans that collapsed and fell on some poor unsuspecting passer-by’s killing 18 people. There was a lot of speculation and finger-pointing and suggestion that this was the judgment of God on those people. Jesus sets the record straight. He says,

“Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:4–5)

Jesus makes it very clear: those who died were not greater sinners than the rest of the people in Jerusalem. But then notice what he does next: he uses this example to remind his listeners that human life is fragile; that death can come unexpectantly and at any moment – whether by natural disaster or accident or some other way. Therefore we should get our lives right with God now because who knows when a tower might fall on us?

That’s God’s message for all of us who are watching corpses being zipped up in a body bags from Coronavirus. Look and learn! Your life could end at any moment. Get your life right with God. If you don’t act now it may be too late. This is a very loving word from our Lord. He is more concerned about our eternal state than many of us are.

You say, “What if the corpse in the body bag happens to be your brother or sister or son or daughter. What comfort does Luke 13 provide for that person?” Very little, because it wasn’t intended for that purpose.  When someone has lost a loved one and they are grieving and in pain, or they are suffering unnecessarily and sometimes cruelly, we need to turn in a different direction.  We need to turn to the cross.

5. The Lens of the cross

At the cross we see God taking suffering seriously because he tasted it first-hand in his Son. This is what shaped the attitude of the New Testament writer’s attitude toward suffering. They looked not only at Jesus and the Cross as an example to follow (suffering unjustly), but also the means by which our sins are forgiven, and we are restored to God.

If Jesus is God, as the New Testament declares and Christians have always believed, then God knows all about suffering. Some of the most sobering details of Jesus’ suffering are found in the book of Isaiah, which was written 700 years before the event. Have a listen to some of these descriptions in chapter 53:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.
He was like someone people turned away from;
he was despised, and we didn’t value him.
Yet he himself bore our sicknesses,
and he carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
Stuck down by God, afflicted by God.

But why? What had he done wrong? Jesus had done nothing wrong. This was all for us. Isaiah explains in the next verse:

But he was pierced because of our rebellion,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on him,
and we are healed by his wounds.

The prophet continues in verse 7:

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth.
Like a lamb led to the slaughter
and like a sheep silent before her shearers,
he did not open his mouth.

Jesus experienced the worst that humanity could inflict: betrayal, unfair judgment, rejection, abandonment, torture, humiliation and one of the worst and most painful ways you can die: crucifixion. But it didn’t stop there. Jesus’ suffering went to an extra level when he bore our sin on the cross. During those hours he experienced suffering beyond what any of us could imagine when received on himself the full fury of his father’s judgement on human sin. All he could cry then was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Forsaken. Abandoned. Deserted. By the one he loved.

This is where Christians find their ultimate comfort in times of suffering. It is not in the knowledge that God is near. It is not in the hope that one day all suffering will come to an end. It is the cross – the place where their Lord and Saviour enduring the most horrendous suffering imaginable – for them.

In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, author C.S. Lewis gives a beautiful picture of what took place on the cross. Aslan, the all-powerful lion, created Narnia and all world. Edmund, Lucy’s brother is caught in an act of treachery and betrayal and is sentenced to death. “Can anything be done to save Edmund?” Lucy asks. “All shall be done,” Aslan replies. “But it may be harder than you think.”

Then Aslan becomes sad as he contemplates the terrible suffering and death he must endure for Edmund’s sake. Not long after, we find the scene where that suffering and death takes place.

“A howl and a gibber of dismay went up from the creatures when they first saw the great Lion pacing toward them, and for a moment even the Witch herself seemed to be struck with fear. Then she recovered herself and gave a wild, fierce laugh.

“The fool!” she cried. “The fool has come. Bind him fast.”

Lucy and Susan held their breaths waiting for Aslan’s roar and his spring upon his enemies. But it never came. Four hags, grinning and leering, yet also (at first) hanging back and half afraid of what they had to do, had approached him. “Bind him, I say!” repeated the Witch. The Hags made a dart at him and shrieked with triumph when they found that he made no resistance at all. Then others—evil dwarves and apes—rushed in to help them, and in between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though the Lion chosen, one of those paws could have been the death of them all. But he made no noise, even when the enemies, straining and tugging, pulled the cords so tight that they cut into his flesh.”[1]

Finally, the witch commanded that Aslan, their rightful king, be shaved. They cut off his beautiful mane and ridicule him. Aslan surrenders to his enemies, trading his life for Edmunds.

Following Jesus’ arrest, Peter pulls out his sword and attacks the Roman guard. Jesus rebukes Peter, saying “Do you not think that I could call on my Father, and he will provide me here and now with more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53) With just one word, Jesus could have called upon waiting armies to strike the whole Roman garrison down. But he didn’t. He willingly surrendered himself to his enemies.

It is one thing to suffering terribly; it is quite another to choose to suffer terribly. Most of us do not choose our suffering. Jesus chose his suffering – for us. Randy Alcorn, in his book If God is Good, writes,

“God’s love comes to us soaked in divine blood. One look at Jesus – at his incarnation and the redemption he provided us – should silence the argument that God has withdrawn to some far corner of the universe where he keeps his hands clear and maintain his distance from human suffering. God does not merely empathize with our suffering. He actually suffers… What Jesus suffered; God suffered.”[2]

In some remarkable way, when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taking on his own shoulders the consequences of your sin and my sin as well as the sin of the whole human race. This is the amazing reality of the gospel story. The God who gave us the dignity of freedom of choice now takes upon himself the consequences for our wrong choices.

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)

God suffered at the point of our greatest need. And that, for him, meant the greatest possible suffering. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, once put it like this:

“There cannot be a God of love,” people say, “because if there was, and he looked upon the world, his heart would break.” The church points to the Cross and says, “It did break”

When, in the midst of your suffering you feel that God is silent or think him as absent, aloof and uncaring, look at Christ. Look to the cross. And there you will be reminded that he does know, and he does care.

Note: This post is based on the final part of a series we are currently working through during our church lockdown called “God and Coronavirus.” You can watch and listen to the message here (the message starts 8 minutes into the online service).

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (Arcturus Publishing Ltd) pp.164-165

[2] Randy Alcorn, If God is Good, (Multnomah Books) p.209

God and Coronavirus – Part 4

We’ve been taking the opportunity during this Coronavirus pandemic to address the subject of God and human suffering. It’s an age-old issue and one people have wrestled with for centuries. If God is perfect in power and love and goodness and could stop this virus, why doesn’t he? Why does he allow so many people to suffer?

In my last post, we looked at human suffering through the lens of the fall. Suffering, according to the bible is the result of man’s sin against God. God offered us a life of blessing on this earth, which was devoid of death and disease and disasters. But Adam rejected all that and chose to live independently of God, bringing upon himself (and all of us) God’s judgement. God could have – at this point, done away with us altogether. Thankfully he didn’t do that. That is because he had a greater plan, a plan that would lead to him sacrificing his own Son for us and thereby reversing the curse and making it possible for us to obtain eternal life.

Someone might object at this point and say, “Well that’s all very well. That still doesn’t alter the fact that millions of people are suffering in our world right now.” No, and you are quite right. And we must tread carefully here. Because suffering for many is a deeply personal matter. And often there appears no reason for it.

The response needed at these times is not our clever answers or theology but our love and our care and our compassion. And that is what we will be looking at today with the example of Jesus as we look through a fourth lens – the lens of the gospels.

4. The Lens of the gospels

In various places in the gospels, we see Jesus encounter people who are suffering – people with disease, people with leprosy, people who are missing limbs or eyes and, in some cases, – their senses. And in every occurrence, without exception, Jesus did not ignore these people, nor did he lecture them on theology or offer them glib, superficial answers. He loved them and showed compassion to them.

There’s a wonderful scene described for us in Matthew chapter 9 when Jesus encounters the crowds. It says in verse 36, “When he saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” 

That phrase, “he felt compassion” is the word splanchnon. It has reference to one’s intestines and bowels. It’s to feel something so strongly you feel it deeply in your stomach. We sometimes hear people say they were ‘gut-wrenched’ about something or someone. That’s the meaning here.

But it doesn’t just stop with a feeling. It also involves action. In this case of the crowds in Matthew 9, it was the action of Jesus sending out his disciple among the people. We find a similar case in Matthew chapter 14 verse 14: “When he went ashore, he saw a large crowd, had compassion on them, and healed their sick.” 

Here’s this word splanchnon again. Jesus sees the crowds; he feels deeply for the crowd and what does this prompt him to do? Heal them of their diseases. When evening came the disciples come and tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can go and find something to eat. Jesus says, “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to feed them.” Why? Because that’s what caring people do. They meet needs. So Jesus miraculously multiplies bread and fish and feeds them.

But it wasn’t only the crowds that received his compassion. It was also individuals. In Mark chapter 9 a father with a demonized son came to Jesus and pleaded with him, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) “Feel for us,” the man pleads, “Be moved to help us.” And Jesus answered him, “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” And Jesus delivered him of the demon.

When Jesus encountered two blind men, Matthew describes what happens: “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they could see, and they followed him.” (Matthew 20:34) When he encountered a desperate leper, Mark tells us, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him.” (Mark 1:41)

Jesus had compassion for the hungry crowds, and he fed them. He had compassion for the father of a demonized son and delivered him. He felt pity for a leper, and he healed him. What does this tell us? Jesus cares. When we are afflicted with disease or pain, he cares. When we are grieving for the loss of loved ones, he cares. Jesus is a caring, compassionate Saviour and his compassion moves him to act.

You say, “So we see in Jesus that God is not indifferent to human suffering. He is not uncaring. He feels deeply about it and it often moves him into action. But what about when he takes no action? How do we explain that?”

That’s when we turn to passages like John 11.

In John chapter 11 we have the story of Lazarus. One day Lazarus falls sick. His sisters Mary and Martha are very fortunate because they happen to be very close friends to a miracle-working healer by the name of Jesus. So they sent him an urgent message. John records his response:

“Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was sick, he stayed two more days in the place where he was.” (verses 5–6)

Jesus could have come when Mary and Martha called. But he did not. Did he not love this family after all? By the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. Martha goes out to meet him and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Yet even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” (verses 21–22)

Lazarus is dead, yet she still retains some hope that Jesus can do something. Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

We can almost hear her saying, “But won’t you do something now? Can’t you help us now?”

As Christians, we know this place Martha is in. We know about the resurrection. We know one day Jesus will return and make all things new. But that doesn’t take away the pain and suffering we experience now. We are looking for God to intervene now.

Jesus looks into this grieving woman’s eyes and says to her in verses 25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “As much as you want Lazarus back Martha, that is not your greatest need. I am what you need.”

Martha responds with remarkable faith: “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.” (verse 27)

Then she calls Mary, who comes and falls at Jesus’s feet, weeping profusely. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” (verse 32)

And then we encounter one of the shortest and most profound verses in the bible: “Jesus wept.” (verse 35)

This is no remote deity, watching suffering from a distance. This is the God who meets us in our suffering. He weeps when we weep. In Jesus, we find the one person who knows all our heartache and our pain.

Most of us know the ending of the story. Jesus walks up to Lazarus’ tomb, commands the stone to be rolled away and then calls Lazarus out. And the man who had died comes out. Jesus was demonstrating what he will do with all those who have died and whose bodies have rotted away. He will call them out. He has power over death and life.

There are some interesting issues that are raised in the text. Why, if Jesus planned to heal Lazarus, did he not do that in the first place? Why did he let Lazarus die and put Mary and Martha through all that anguish? Why not sent a message to them and inform them, “Listen – I’m going to be a bit late, but don’t worry because even if Lazarus dies, I’ll raise him up again.” He doesn’t do that. He leaves in the dark.

And it is right here, at this juncture, that we get a glimpse into God’s purposes for suffering. We see Jesus as he really is. He is the answer to our suffering. He is our resurrection and our life. God is not a vending machine we push coins into, and the goods pop out in our hand. Prayer is not our magic lamp we rub, and a genie pops out. Jesus is not a means to an end to get what we want. He is the end.

C.S. Lewis makes a clear and compelling case for this in his book, The Problem of Pain. There are two types of Pain, Lewis argues: 1) a particularly unpleasant sensation produced by the nerve endings of our bodies when we hurt ourselves, and 2) any experience which we dislike. It is this second type of pain that Lewis explores in his book. This is the pain that God taps into in order to get our attention. He writes,

“Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’

How often people who ignore God, criticize God and sometimes scoff at God call on him in the moment of die need. Lewis continues:

“Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?”[1]

And so God troubles us and disturbs us and causes all kinds of things to upset us, shattering our sense of self-sufficiency and our false dreams so that we come to realize true happiness cannot be found in this world but only in him.

This gives a very different perspective on things – doesn’t it? If our greatest need was to live a comfortable, trouble-free life, devoid of any discomfort or pain, then God would give it. For he is a loving God who likes to give good things to his children. But that is not our greatest need. Our greatest need is to have our unbelieving hearts changed and brought into a right relationship with our Creator. God knows that and will shake heaven and earth to do it. Indeed he did when he provided the remedy in putting his own Son on the cross.

If we are ever lacking proof that God cares about our suffering, we find the answer right there.

Note: This post is based on Part 3 of a series we are currently working through during our church lockdown called “God and Coronavirus.” You can watch and listen to the message here (the message starts at 7 min 42 s into the online service).

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, William Collins, p.94

God and Coronavirus – Part 3

Throughout history people have asked why, if God is all-powerful, all-loving and all-wise, does he not intervene in this world to prevent pain and suffering? That is a very relevant question during this current pandemic where we see widespread suffering and death on a global level.

Many offer simplistic answers which are often inadequate. A better approach is to look at the problem through different perspectives.  I have chosen five such perspectives: the lens of history, the lens of culture, the lens of the fall, the lens of the gospels and the lens of the cross. In my last post, we looked at Coronavirus through the lens of culture. We learned that people will come to different conclusions as to the “why” of things like plagues, viruses and other disasters depending on their worldview. There were four influential worldviews we examined: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Secular Humanism (or atheistic naturalism). Today we compare those worldviews with the Christian worldview with the lens of the fall.

3. The Lens of the Fall

The Bible teaches that God created all things for his own pleasure and for his own glory (Revelation 4:11). It also says God works everything according to his plan and purpose (Ephesians 1:11) and that his kingdom rules over all things (Psalm 103:19). If all things work to the glory of God and according to his plan and he has power over all things, then why is the world the way it is? Why does he allow humans to suffer?

The answer to that lies in the biblical teaching of human will and the fall. When God first created the world, it was free of human pain and suffering and disease. God saw all that he had made, Genesis 1:31 says, and it was very good. The world God made was a good world.

But within this good world God made, he endowed human beings with a marvellous gift: the gift to freely choose right and wrong, good and evil. In other words, they were moral agents. With this choice came the possibility of misuse of that freedom. And sadly, as the third chapter of the bible unfolds, the first human beings did exactly that – they misused their freedom, disobeyed God and suffered the consequences.

God clearly warned them that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which he had told them was off-limits, they would certainly die (Genesis 2:17). Now we could have all kinds of discussion as to what kind of strange tree this was and why eating its fruit would give knowledge of good and evil. But that would be to miss the point of the story. To do anything at all, from whatever motive, that is contrary to the will of our Creator – who always does what is best for his creation, is an act of lawlessness. To say, “I know better than you God; I know what will make me happy and I don’t need permission from you,” is an act of treason and rebellion. It is pushing our Creator aside for our own interests.

In principle, that is what “sin” is. It is an attitude of selfishness and pride in the human heart. And sin, as God warned those humans, automatically leads to death. The consequences were huge. There was death— first in the spiritual sense of a rift in the relationship between humans and God, and, later, physical death. But it wasn’t just humans that were adversely affected by sin. So was the earth. God said to Adam following his sin,

“The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:17)

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 8:20 says the whole earth groans under its bondage to sin.  The earth and all its elements have been affected by God’s judgment. This is the reason why we have things like disease and viruses and genetic malfunctions as well as destructive forces of all kinds – hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis etc. These “natural forces” as we call them are in many ways indiscriminate. They strike the wealthy and the poor, the old and the young, the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Nature is cursed because mankind is cursed. Natural evil (though it shouldn’t be named as such because nature has no moral agency) is merely a reflection of moral evil. Both are savage, ruthless and damaging. Erwin Lutzer, in his book An Act of God – Answers to tough questions about God’s role in natural disasters, writes,

When we see the devastating results of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we should see more than creation gone amok—we should also see a picture of the evil side of human nature: powerful, heartless, and randomly cruel. In an age that is indifferent to sin, natural disasters hold up a mirror to humanity, showing us what our sin looks like to God. Sin always leaves a trail of death and destruction with ongoing, painful consequences. Both the physical world and all of humankind await a liberation that only God can bring about.[1]

And that liberation will one day come about. God has promised it in his Word. Creation “eagerly awaits with anticipation” for God to end its bondage (Romans 8:19). The word for “eagerly awaits” describes a man scanning the horizon on a dark night searching for the first glimpse of dawn. Nature is pictured as if on tiptoes, waiting for its own release from the Curse. What we experience here and now on earth is not what it used to be; nor is it how it will be one day. God will redeem his creation. When God’s people are fully and finally redeemed, nature will follow suit. We see a picture of what that will be in the book of Revelation by the Apostle John:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more…. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.” (Revelation 21:1,3)

Conclusion

God always acts from the standpoint of eternity rather than time. His decisions are made from an eternal perspective. That’s why he does things (or does not things) that we do not understand. What we do know is that God does not delight in the suffering of mankind. He cares about the world and its people. God could not remove all suffering, for in doing so he would have to bring an end to all human life. He would have wiped out every one of us. God instead provided another way, a far better way, at great cost to himself.

He sent his Son, Jesus, to become one of us. Instead of destroying the world, He entered it. When Jesus was born, He became the first person in history to live without rebelling against God. His obedience was perfect. Jesus also gave us a taste of things to come. He healed the sick, hung out with outcasts, and confronted injustice. The miracles He performed foreshadowed the day when God will restore the world to the way it should be.

One day Jesus will return to judge all sin and evil and then he will completely renew our world. But now, God calls for our response. God invites us to come to Him in surrender, admitting our need. God calls us to admit the truth about ourselves, to turn away from our sins, and follow Him in faith and trust. There’s only one way out of the mess and brokenness and pain we find ourselves in, and that’s through Jesus.

The God who wore a crown of thorns is not cruel and vindictive, but one who is full of mercy and love. He invites people to come and know him, amidst their suffering, and experience eternal life. This is the gospel – the good news of salvation in Jesus. And it is our only hope. No other worldview, religion or philosophy offers anything close to this. It is what makes Christianity wonderfully unique.

Next time we’ll be looking at Coronavirus through another lens: the lens of the gospels. We will see first-hand how God responds to human suffering through the life of Jesus. I think it will both surprise and encourage you.

[1] Lutzer, Erwin W. An Act of God?: Answers to Tough Questions about God’s Role in Natural Disasters (pp. 14-15). Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Kindle Edition.

God and Coronavirus – Part 2

Ravi Zacharias, a philosopher and apologist for the Christian faith says the question of pain and suffering provides the greatest challenge to one’s belief in God. It is also one of the greatest obstacles for the unbeliever. There are two errors I think we can make: saying too much and saying too little. We can say too much and thereby attribute things to God and what he is doing that isn’t true, or we can say too little and give the impression that God has nothing to say, nor does he have anything to do with this calamity. I believe we have to walk a fine line between the two.

One approach is to look at the current pandemic through different lens or perspectives. I came up with 5 such lenses:

  1. the lens of history
  2. the lens of culture
  3. the lens of the fall
  4. the lens of the gospels
  5. the lens of the cross

Last time we looked at Coronavirus through the lens of history. We learned that plagues and pandemics are not new, we have experienced them in the past, in far greater measure and worse outcomes. We also saw how Christians were always on the frontlines, putting their own lives on the line when others fled. They could do this because of their hope in the resurrection, freeing them from the fear of death.

This time we are going to look at Coronavirus through the lens of culture.

2. The Lens of Culture

We are all influenced by the culture we live in. And every culture has its own worldview. A worldview represents your fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world and human life. It’s what we use to make sense of the world we live in and influences our understanding of things like plagues, disasters and pandemics.

One of the most devastating and far-reaching natural disasters in modern history was the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Although the death toll wasn’t as high as other disasters, this one deeply impacted people’s thinking about God. The earthquake hit on All Saints Day when churches were packed. The buildings crumbled, killing everyone inside. Fires broke out across the city, making rescue efforts almost impossible. Then came the tsunami, which pounded the coast drowning people who were fleeing falling buildings. Somewhere between 30-60,000 lives were lost as a result and three-quarters of the city was reduced to rubble.

Afterwards, all kinds of reasons were offered up as to why the disaster happened. Some said the earthquake was an act of divine judgment on a sinful city. What was puzzling, however, was a street filled with brothels was left largely undamaged while the churches filled with worshippers were destroyed. Protestants were saying it was God’s judgement on the Spanish Inquisition. The Jesuit Priests responded by saying the quake revealed the anger of God because the Inquisition had not gone far enough! Clearly, people were confused.

There are modern-day comparisons. Many Muslims believed that Allah caused the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Southeast Asia due to immorality, sin, alcohol, and other excesses. Following hurricane Katrina, some said that Allah was heaping vengeance on the United States for the war in Iraq. In the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, conservative Christians were saying it was God’s judgment on a sinful city. Others were saying it had nothing to do with God; it’s just natural forces of mother nature at work.

So you see we will come to a different understanding of things depending on our worldview. There are four dominant worldviews that influence people in our world today. We will examine each of these and then compare it with the Christian worldview in my next post.

Worldview #1: Buddhism

About six centuries before Jesus walked the earth, a young prince is said to have escaped the trappings of materialism and found the path to enlightenment. Now known as the Buddha—the enlightened one—he left behind a formula to help others discover nirvana – the ultimate spiritual goal.

The problem of suffering, Buddha concluded, is connected to desire. We desire things, we desire success, we desire wealth, and we desire happiness. All these desires make us vulnerable to pain and suffering. We need to get to a place where we will no longer desire anything—the state of nirvana. Buddha’s conclusion was that detachment is the key to happiness. If you never wish for anything anymore, then you are never without what you wish to have.[1] The answer for the Buddhist, therefore, is be happy with the way the world is – viruses, tragedies, disasters included.

Worldview #2: Hinduism

According to the Hindu those who suffer do so because of sin in a previous life, and suffering in this present life serves to help them to work off their karma.[2] Therefore, since the chain of cause and effect is unbreakable, there is no point in making an effort to relieve their pain; that would only serve to slow down the process of their purification. It is hard to see how this worldview offers any hope at all to people suffering from coronavirus or any other disease.

Worldview #3: Islam

Like the Bible, the Quran teaches that people are descendants of Adam and Eve and are imperfect sinners. Unlike Christians, Muslims believe that humans are sinners because Allah has willed it. They have no understanding similar to the Bible’s teaching that humans, not God, caused sin through rebellion against God.

The very word “Islam” means “submission.” Many Muslims understand that to include suffering–enduring pain or loss is a way of submitting to the will of Allah. Therefore, for the Muslim, Coronavirus is the will of Allah. If people die from it, that is the will of Allah. If people live, that is the will of Allah. In this form of determinism, Allah wills everything.

Worldview #4: Atheistic naturalism

The atheist/naturalist says that ultimate reality in life consists of matter and energy. That’s all life is – atoms and particles banging into each other. There is no God; there is no good and there is no evil. Suffering is a mere fact of existence like the redness of red or the wetness of water. It’s just the way things are. Richard Dawkins, a leading spokesman for atheism says:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.[3]

In Dawkins’ view, terrorists and murderers and people like Stalin, Hitler and Mao who carried out horrific acts of genocide were simply acting in according to their inbuilt genetic programming. No one can actually blame them. They couldn’t help it. Natural disasters are forces working indiscriminately and if you get caught in them it’s simply bad luck. This is what happens when you take Atheism to its logical conclusion. Everything is meaningless.

It is worth noting that all other worldviews hold that this life is not the whole story; we are part of a bigger story. Not so for the atheist. This life is all that there is. We must, therefore, create our own meanings. How do we do that? You find something to live for. You might live for your family or your career or a political cause or accomplishment. But in order to have a meaningful life, life must go well for you. Suffering disrupts this and has the power to destroy your meaning.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish doctor who survived the death camps during World War II. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning he explored the reason why some people stayed strong and kind under terrible conditions while others gave up. His conclusion was that it had to do with a person’s meaning in life. Those who made their career or family or social status their meaning often gave up and died. Others collapsed morally, betraying family and friends in order to save themselves. Those who did not crumble had a reference point outside of this life to orientate themselves. They had a “depth and vigour of religious belief” that surprised those around them.[4]

The atheist worldview, therefore, is hardly satisfying. It doesn’t give us any answers and leaves people feeling that life is meaningless and empty.

How do these different worldviews stack up with the Christian worldview? That’s what we will be looking at next time with the lens of the fall.

Note: This post is based on Part 2 of a series we are currently working through during lockdown called “God and Coronavirus.” You can watch and listen to the message here (the message starts at 12 min 50 s into the online service).

[1] Zacharias, Ravi. Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (pp. 116-117). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[2] Karma (in Hinduism and Buddhism) is the sum of a person’s actions in one of their successive states of existence, which is regarded as deciding their fate in the next.

[3] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books, 1992), p 133.

[4] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking books), pp.72-73

God and Coronavirus – Part 1

The Coronavirus pandemic has infected over two and a half million and taken the lives of tens of thousands. There is not a household in the world where people’s lives have not been affected. There’s disruption with our jobs, disruption in our schedules, disruption in our social lives, and disruption in our families. The effects are far-reaching and will continue to be so in the months to come.

In times like this, when our lives are thrown into chaos, the foundations in our lives are shaken and we are left asking some serious questions. Many are asking, where is God in all of this? How can he stand by while people in their thousands are dying? If he is all-powerful and all-loving as the Bible says he is, why doesn’t he do something about it?

These questions are not new. People have been asking them for centuries. Christians are tempted to give simple and trite answers. But the answers are not simple, nor are they trite. They are deep and complex. And hence the reason for this new series. We are looking at the Coronavirus pandemic through five different lenses or perspectives:

  1. The lens of history
  2. The lens of culture
  3. The lens of the fall
  4. The lens of the gospels
  5. The lens of the cross

Think of it as the special glasses you need for a 3-D movie. Without them, you miss out on the full enjoyment of the picture. You are only watching it in one dimension. It’s similar with the subject of God and human suffering. If you are looking at it only through any one of these lenses, while ignoring the others, you will fail to see the big picture. Let’s begin then with the first lens, the lens of history.

1. The Lens of History

This is not the first time the world has faced a pandemic of large proportions. We’ve been here before. Here’s a brief run-down on the history of plagues.

The most ancient recorded is probably the Antonine Plague or Plague of Galen in AD 165-180, which is thought to have been caused by measles or smallpox and killed around five million people. It contributed to the end of the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace), and the eventual decline and collapse of the Roman empire.

Then there was the Plague of Cyprian (named after St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage) in AD 250-271 which killed 5000 people a day in the city of Rome alone. Historians aren’t sure what caused the epidemic. What we do know is people died a horrible death.

Then came the plague of Justinian in AD 541– 542, a bubonic disease which was spread from animals (rats) via fleas to humans. Some estimates suggest that up to 25 million – that’s 10% of the world’s population, died.

Then in the 14th century, there came the most horrendous of all plagues – the Black Death (1346 – 1353), which killed an estimated 70 to 100 million people in Europe, reducing the world population by around 20%. It had a huge effect, culturally as well as economically and changed the course of Europe’s history, bringing about better pay for workers and ending Europe’s system of serfdom.

In the year 1665 Black Death found its way to London. At its peak, some 8,000 people were dying each week. The wealthy – including King Charles II – fled to the countryside, leaving the poor as the plague’s main victims. “Never did so many husbands and wives die together,” one eyewitness wrote, “never did so many parents carry their children with them to the grave.” Somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 people eventually perished before the outbreak ended.

At the turn of the 20th century came the Spanish Flu in 1918, right on the tail of the First World War (it didn’t actually start in Spain, it was attributed there because there was no censorship of its press). People were dying at such a rate that one couldn’t keep count, but estimates are in the range of 20-50 million deaths. Some communities almost became extinct.

So we see that what we are experiencing is nothing new, and when compared to some of the great plagues in the past, it is hardly a cause for panic or thinking that the world is going to end.

You might say, “How does any of this help answer the question where is God in the midst of human suffering?” It doesn’t, directly. In order to do that we need to dig a little deeper into the history of these events. And what we find is something very interesting: wherever people were sick and dying of plagues, Christians were right in the middle of it.

In the Antonine Plague, there was a Physician by the name of Galen, who did what all pagan physicians did back then: he fled. But he wrote something about the work of Christians who stayed. He said they acted with complete disregard for their own lives because if they died, they would be going to a better place.

During the Plague of Cyprian in the 3rd century, Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote that the Romans “pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt…” Christians, however, behaved differently. Dionysius reported:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead

Their thinking was this: Jesus was a healer, and if we are Jesus’ people, we need to be caring for the sick like he did. We might not be able to heal like he did, but we can care like he did. Though their deaths likely seemed pointless to many Romans, Rodney Stark argues in the book The Triumph of Christianity, that Christians may very well have decreased the death toll by administering basic nursing care to those strong enough to recover. They were in their day the equivalent of the modern healthcare system.

The same actions are repeated in later centuries – the plague of Justinian in the 6th century and then the Bubonic Plague (otherwise known as Black Death) in the 14th century. That was a mortality rate of 48% across the entire continent of Europe. Some groups were hit harder than others. One sector was the clergy – they had one of the highest death rates. They were the ones at bedsides, comforting the sick and dying, reading them their last rites etc. at the risk of their own lives. And many contracted the plague and died as a result.

That was the consistent record of the church throughout history. It was these actions of Christians that gave rise to things such as hospitals and medical care facilities. It’s only been since the 17 and 18th centuries that these became institutionalized, but it was Christian who were the ones on the front lines.

So how do we apply that now? Does this mean Christians should disregard instruction from the State and defy the law and break into hospital wards so we can minister to the sick and dying and potentially put lives at risk? No, it doesn’t.

Martin Luther has some helpful things to say at this point. When the plague hit the German town of Wittenberg in August 1527, Luther along with his wife Katharina maintained their post, ministering to both the spiritual and physical needs of those suffering. But even he recognized amidst the sickness that was spreading that he ought to be extra careful. This did not remove him from his duty to shepherd, but it did affect how he ministered to people. He wrote to Reverend John Hess, a fellow pastor saying,

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”[1]

So you hear Luther’s balance there. He was careful, yet faithful. He was wise yet loving. He avoided places where contamination might be harmful and he would infect others. Yet if his neighbour needed him, he would do everything he could to meet his needs. That is the calling of God on his people.

We live in a very different day. Yet there are many simple and practical ways we can serve others. There are elderly in our neighbourhoods who may be frightened to go out. We could leave a note in their letterboxes offering to get groceries for them. There will likely be people in your town who have run out of money or have lost jobs. Perhaps there are practical ways you could help them out. There are small businesses that might be in trouble. As soon as lockdown restrictions are loosened, we might think about trading with them to support them. These are all ways of showing love to our neighbours.

Conclusion

Where is God in this Coronavirus? The answer is the same place he was in any of the past plagues – working in the midst of it in and through his people – showing compassion, comforting the sick, loving the unlovable, giving hope, and sharing the good news.

Next week we are going to be looking at plagues and natural disasters through the lens of culture and worldviews. We will then compare these with the Christian worldview and its teaching of the fall.

Note: This post is based on a message I gave to our people at Grace Church during our present lockdown. You can watch and listen to the message here (the message starts at 13 min 9 s into the online service.)

[1] Martin Luther, “Luther’s Works,” vol. 43, 123.

The Psalm 91 Protection Policy

It is very hard to get away from the one subject that dominates the news, media and airwaves and that is Covid-19. It has estimated that 40-70% of the world’s population will contract the virus at some point this year. We can slow it down, but as with any contagion, we can’t eradicate it. People are fearful and anxious. No one wants to get sick and die.

A number of Christian leaders around the globe are making bold claims that Christians can claim protection from Coronavirus. And a favourite is Psalm 91. A well-known pastor here in New Zealand takes verses 4 and 5 which says, “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday” claiming it as the “Psalm 91 Protection Policy.” He says, this is “the best policy that a family can have to protect them from any of these plagues and pestilences”.

But is that the right way for us to read the Psalm? How is a Christian who is on this side of the cross to read such passages that we find in the Old Testament?

The Context of Psalm 91

The context of the Psalm is likely the wilderness wanderings where an entire generation of Israelites were prevented from entering the Promised Land because of their sin of unbelief. They tested God a number of times inciting his judgement, which came in various forms – plagues and pestilence among them. When we come to the end of the book of Deuteronomy in chapter 32, Moses recounts these wanderings by way of a song. It is addressed to the second generation – the children of those who died in the wilderness. He writes:

His people have acted corruptly toward him;
this is their defect—they are not his children
but a devious and crooked generation.

We read further down in verses 16-17:

16 They provoked his jealousy with different gods;
they enraged him with detestable practices.
17 They sacrificed to demons, not God,
to gods they had not known,
new gods that had just arrived,
which your fathers did not fear.

Then Moses recounts the Lord’s response in verses 19-20

19 When the LORD saw this, he despised them,
angered by his sons and daughters.
20 He said: “I will hide my face from them;
I will see what will become of them,
for they are a perverse generation—
unfaithful children.

Now look at the judgments that God sends upon them:

23 “I will pile disasters on them;
I will use up my arrows against them.
24 They will be weak from hunger,
ravaged by pestilence and bitter plague;
I will unleash on them wild beasts with fangs,
as well as venomous snakes that slither in the dust.
25 Outside, the sword will take their children,
and inside, there will be terror;
the young man and the young woman will be killed,
the infant and the gray-haired man.

Arrows, plagues, pestilences, snakes, the sword are all mentioned in Psalm 91. These are all forms God’s judgments – not on the nations but on unbelieving Israelites – those who refused to trust in God. In Psalm 91:8 Moses says,

8 You will only see it with your eyes
and witness the punishment of the wicked.

Moses is calling upon the new generation not to follow the example of their parents.

“Don’t be like them. Don’t incite the Lord’s judgement. Flee to him for protection. Find shelter in the One who is the Most High – El Elyon; the transcendent and exalted One. Dwell in the shadow of the Almighty – El Shaddai; the all-mighty, all-sufficient One. Make him your refuge and fortress. Put your trust in him.”

Then comes this beautiful imagery in verses 3-4:

3 He himself will rescue you from the bird trap,
from the destructive plague.
4 He will cover you with his feathers;
you will take refuge under his wings.
His faithfulness will be a protective shield.

The picture here is of a mother bird, sheltering and protecting her young under her wings. God promises his personal protection for those who trust in him, from his own judgement. God protecting the faithful from God – what an amazing picture!

You say, well surely these promises must be true for believers today? Any Christian reading this Psalm should be able to claim such promises. Not yet. We can’t make that jump so soon. First, we need to ask the question, how does this Psalm apply to Jesus?

Psalm 91 and Jesus

Jesus did live under the protection of the Most High – perfectly. He did dwell in the shadow of the Almighty – faithfully. He never acted independently of his Father – even for a second. “I always do what pleases him,” he stated (John 8:29). You can’t say that. I can’t say that. Only Jesus can say that. You know as well as I do that there are many times when we have not made the Lord our refuge or sought shelter in his presence; we have behaved like the unbelieving Israelites – not trusting God, and therefore we have no business making claim to any of these promises.

The only one who can claim blanket protection from Psalm 91 is Jesus. Yet he didn’t. How do we know he didn’t? Because in Matthew 4 we find Satan tempting him to do just that.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will give his angels orders concerning you, and they will support you with their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Satan is quoting straight from Psalm 91 verses 11-12. Was it true? Should Jesus fall (and Jesus kept the covenant perfectly), would not God give orders and his angels would bear him up and prevent injury? Of course – yes. If someone pushed him or he jumped. But not if he deliberately fell just to make sure God would keep his promise. That would not truly be living under the protection of the Most High or dwelling in the shadow of the Almighty, would it? It would be testing the Lord. And so Jesus replies to Satan – quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16,

“It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.”

Jesus is the only one who ever fulfilled the terms of this psalm perfectly. He is the only one who could without any reservation say, “My God” (Psalm 91:2). He was the faithful Son who made the Most High his dwelling place (verse 9). He knew the name of God (verse 14). And so God promised to deliver Him and rescue him and gave him honour and long life by raising him from the dead.

Psalm 91 and the Christian

Do you see how this is all falling into place? With our gospel glasses on we understand our true state. We are sinners. We are that wicked generation in the Old Testament who rightfully deserve the judgment of God for our disobedience and sin. The fact that God has not killed us, along with every other man, woman and child on the earth – whether by means of Coronavirus or something else is an act of mercy and grace. None of us deserve to live.

But we do live. And what is more, for those of us who have found redemption in Christ have received grace and mercy and the love of God – not just in a temporal sense but an eternal sense. For our security; our protection now lies in the Son.

  • He who found the secret place (namely, Jesus) is the secret place.
  • He who dwelt in the habitation of God (namely, the Son) is the habitation of God.
  • He who knows the name of God is the name of God.

So we are privileged to take refuge in Him, and in Him every last one of these promises is ours as well. For as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:19-20

“For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in him. Therefore, through him we also say “Amen” to the glory of God.”

This does not guarantee, even at this point, that we will be spared from Covid-19. It does not guarantee that we will be spared of sickness or death. But we will be spared from a greater death – eternal separation from God. For Covid-19 cannot touch the redemption and justification and glorification of the believer. No true follower of Jesus can come to lasting harm from disease or plague or pandemic. No plague or pestilence can ultimately take them. Because ultimately, our refuge is in Christ.

Conclusion

In conclusion, how do we rightly read Psalm 91 or any other passage of the Old Testament? We read it in light of the bigger story of redemption. We read it through the lens of the cross and resurrection. We read with our gospel glasses on, understanding our true state apart from Christ and we lay claim to the promises of God that those who put their trust in His Son will not be ashamed. Then, and only then, can the promises of Psalm 91 be applied.

Consider this picture: take a cross and lay it above your open bible on Psalm 91. Where the shadow falls, there is your protection. Then your reading of Psalm 91:1 becomes,

“The one who lives under the shadow of the protection of the Son, dwells in the shadow of the Almighty”

“Because you have made the Lord Jesus—your refuge, the Son of the Most High—your dwelling place, no harm will ultimately come to you; no plague will come near your tent.”

Note: This is based on a message called “Under the Shadow of the Almighty.” It was recorded as part of our online services while we are in lockdown. You can watch and listen to the message here (starts at 9 min 30 s with reading.)

Postscript: Ajith Fernando has written a very helpful article on this same subject.  He writes, “Psalm 91 teaches that God looks after us. That is an absolute principle. Other passages in the Bible teach us that the way God looks after us is not always in the same way as he does in Psalm 91. This promise is applied in different ways by God, but it is always true. Through all of it, God will continue to bless and deliver his people.” That’s a good summary. You can read his article here.