We were on this past Monday, holiday not withstanding. If you missed it and want to catch up for next week’s study, you can watch the video with this link.
The password is: 7p$W!&@H
We were on this past Monday, holiday not withstanding. If you missed it and want to catch up for next week’s study, you can watch the video with this link.
The password is: 7p$W!&@H
“Social media may have connected more human beings to one another than any other moment in human history, but it has also robbed us of quality in our relationships,” writes Rhyne R. Putman, in a very helpful article entitled: “How Social Media Worsens Theological Divides.”
This has been on display for the world to see in the last few weeks, on Twitter and in the “blogosphere,” as Christians have been debating different issues that pandemics and lockdowns raise for followers of Jesus. If you’ve seen any of this, you’ve noticed that sometimes the exchanges have been…less than pretty. Putman suggests that this has to do with the inherent weaknesses of social media itself:
Even with all this ability to communicate, we still gravitate toward echo chambers that protect us from the risks of having open dialogue. We love protecting our tribes, our labels, and the reassuring safety that comes in numbers. Anyone who challenges us is one click away from being unfollowed or blocked.
We dehumanize theological debates when we only think of people as their ideas. It is easy to get in a comment thread and play trench warfare, lobbing conceptual grenades at others without ever taking a moment to know and understand them as persons or having concern over how they may feel about what you say. When we engage in debates like this, we have forgotten that these social media accounts represent real people made in the image of God, deserving of basic human dignity.
This is true, right? I don’t know how many of you are personally engaged in this kind of a thing, but it is good counsel for the future, and a biblical way to see what many people around us are engaged in. Putman also observes:
Ultimately, we must remember the unbelieving world is watching. Behavior unbecoming of Christians can adversely impact the proclamation of the gospel to the unbelieving world. For this reason, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need for his followers to love one another in their public witness to the world (John 13:35; John 17:21; John 23). With the same spirit, Paul discouraged law court disputes between Christians because of the impact it had on the unbelieving public (1 Cor. 6:1–6). A spirit of irenicism should permeate our debates and disagreements, especially in a post-Christian context in which faithful believers are becoming a minority.
Why is Putman’s point here so hard to remember sometimes? When I post something online, it’s there for everyone to read. Which means that, almost automatically, social media should be ruled out as a way to have real discussion about hard issues Christians disagree about, especially if our ideas are only half-formed, or we’re still working things out ourselves. But we can’t just think about ourselves, right? Even if I think my ideas are sound and worked out, Christian love leads me to consider anyone else who might engage with my ideas, or even “listen in” to the discussion online. This is the most obvious application (to this issue) of texts like Romans 14:1, and 15:1, and 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
Of course, no one should think that hard discussions are somehow opposed to Christianity. Not at all. God has not made the church to be a monolithic group-think organization in which we at the bottom receive our thoughts from those at the top unquestioningly. Healthy Christian community will be full of all kinds of discussion about all kinds of issues. (Things like… How do we relate to current ideas about gender and family? Should we wear masks all the time? What about women being pastors? Which translation of the Bible is best? Should a church support missionaries fully or should they have a network of churches who support them? What does 1 Corinthians 11:14 mean? Who should we vote for in the Fall? What does the Bible really say about the Rapture? Calvinism: true or false? Is home schooling more biblical than public schooling? Are video games ok?)
But it is not a mark of health or maturity to lack the ability to distinguish between which kinds of discussions should happen in public, and which should be private.
For instance, imagine a close-knit extended family. To the world outside of the family boundaries, they present one (true) way of seeing them—they work hard, invite their neighbors over to their houses, and take care of each other. They seem to be characterized by total family unity. But what those outside the family don’t know is that, after a long family dinner, when the coffee is being poured, deserts are being served, the kids are playing upstairs, and it’s just family around the table, then the real discussions start. Then, when it’s understood that everyone present loves each other and is committed to each other no matter what, and fundamental unity is the air they all breathe—then the differences between them can come out, and they can have real, difficult discussions. They can debate politics and how Grandma is spending her savings and if the family business is headed in the right direction—and they can even argue and get heated if need be, because those things don’t touch the fundamental reality of their commitment to each other. They will leave that evening, even if they get mad at each other, still family, forever.
The world outside never needs to see those discussions, or overhear those arguments. It has nothing to do with them. And this is how we should view debates over everything from eschatology to what constitutes faithful Christian witness in the face of Coronavirus. There are a lot of different opinions out there. The Church is full of all kinds of views. Many of us are passionate about how we see things. By all means, debate them. But not on Social Media.
Invite everyone over. Get Tacos. Eat them and enjoy each other. Then clear the table and get down to business.
And if you’re locked down through June 8, try FaceTime with three close friends. Have it out. And then pray for each other.
It’ll beat Twitter every time.
Following up on Chris’ post from the other day, I wanted to share some thoughts from a few hundred years ago from John Calvin. I’m (slowly) reading through his Institutes, and just happen to hit the section talking about how Christians are to handle disagreements over controversial things, right in the middle of all these discussions about life during and after Coronavirus. Here’s some wisdom from Calvin on Christians and disagreements in general:
[P]art of Christian freedom lies in this: regarding outward things that are of themselves “indifferent,” we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions. Today we seem to many be unreasonable because we stir up discussion over the unrestricted eating of meat, use of holidays and of vestments, and such things, which seem to [others] vain frivolities.
But these matters are more important than is commonly believed. For when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of. If a man begins to doubt whether he may use linen for sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs, and napkins, he will afterward be uncertain also about hemp; finally, doubt will even arise over tow. For he will turn over his mind whether he can sup without napkins or go without a handkerchief. If any man should consider daintier food unlawful, in the end he will not be at peace before God, when he eats either black bread or common victual, while it occurs to him that he could sustain his body on even coarser foods, if he boggles at sweet wine, he will not with clear conscience drink even flat wine, and finally he will not dare touch water if sweeter and cleaner than other water. To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw across his path, as saying goes.
Here begins the weighty controversy, for what is in debate is whether God, whose will ought to precede all out plans and actions, wishes us to use these things or those. As a consequence, some in despair, are of necessity cast into a pit of confusion; others, despising God and abandoning fear of Him, must make their own way in destruction, where they have none ready-made. For all those entangled in such doubts, wherever they turn, see offense of conscience everywhere present.
Freedom in the use of God’s gifts for his purposes
“I know,” says Paul, “that nothing is common” (taking “common” in the sense of “profane”), “but it is common for anyone who thinks it common” [Rom. 14:14]. With these words Paul subjects all outward things to our freedom, provided our minds are assured that the basis for such freedom stands before God. But if any superstitious opinion poses a stumbling block for us, things of their own nature pure are for us corrupt. For this reason, he adds: “Happy is he who does not judge himself in what he approves. But he who judges, if he eats, is condemned, because he does not eat of faith. For whatever is not of faith is sin” [Rom. 14:22-23].
Amidst such perplexities, do not those who show themselves rather bold by daring all things confidently, nonetheless to this extent turn away from God? But they who are deeply moved in any fear of God, when they are compelled to commit many things against their conscience, are overwhelmed and fall down with fright. All such persons receive none of God’s gifts with thanksgiving, yet Paul testifies that by this alone all things are sanctified for our use [1 Tim 4:4-5]. Now I mean that thanksgiving which proceeds from a mind that recognizes in his gifts the kindness and goodness of God. For many of them, indeed, understand them as good things of God which they use, and praise God in his works; but inasmuch as they have not been persuaded that these good things have been given to them, how can they thank God as the giver?
To sum up, we see whither this freedom tends: namely, that we should use God’s gifts for the purpose for which he gave them to us, with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind. With such confidence our minds will be at peace with him, and will recognize his liberality toward us. For here we are included all ceremonies whose observance is optional, that our consciences may not be constrained by any necessity to observe them but may remember that by God’s beneficence their use is for edification made subject to him.
Later, Calvin adds this bit of wisdom: “It is the part of a godly man to realize that free power in outward matters has been given him in order that he may be the more ready for all the duties of love.” Lots of good things to think about here.
In our current climate of sickness, lock downs, re-openings, and “new normals,” we also have new questions to think through—especially in terms of how we relate to each other now that there are many different opinions about the issues COVID-19 has created. Just to highlight two: Must people wear masks all the time? Should Christians insist on meeting together when the virus is still out there?
The other day Chris Lieberman texted me:
“Is Romans 14 going to become a really important passage in Christian circles soon? Re: Masks, etc…”
I responded that it was a great point he had made. Then I suggested he write about it for the blog. I recommend you go read that passage. In fact, all of Romans 14:1-15:13 is important territory for us in these times. Chris is right, and this is a perfect example of one way the bible gives us guidance. At the end of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul addresses some issues that Christians were debating and disagreeing about. The issues themselves aren’t relevant to our situation at all—they’re not the things we’re debating. But the directions Paul gives about how the church was to handle the issues are supremely relevant. They distill scripture’s teaching about how brothers and sisters are to disagree about things on which God hasn’t given explicit directions, and they give us easily applicable instructions for our time.
Chris agreed to write the post, and below are his thoughts. I recommend them for all of us to consider.
Thoughts on Romans 14 as it applies to our current situation…
As our nation debates issues of reopening and public health, naturally the Church is also facing tough questions about where to go from here. Is it biblical for us to stop meeting for this long? Should we gather in defiance of government orders? Is it okay for us to meet in one another’s homes right now? When we do meet, should we hug one another? Should we wear masks? Limit gathering sizes? Exclude those who are at risk?
Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been paying even slight attention for the past 4 years, the national conversation is polarized, politicized, and contentious (it’s hard to remember the last national conversation that wasn’t polarized, politicized, or contentious). Those on the “re-open” side are accused of valuing money over human life and endangering the public, while those who want to exercise more caution are told they are living in fear, buying into hysteria, and allowing tyranny.
This behavior is to be expected of the world, but the Body of Christ should be different. Yet even among genuine Christians seeking to be biblically faithful on this issue, there’s disagreement. Both groups want to do what’s right and honor the Lord. Both look to Scripture and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide their convictions. But some come to the conclusion that we should follow the guidance of government and health officials, while others believe that the Church should, at least in part, defy these commands in order to be faithful to Christ. Both groups act out of a genuine conviction that what they are doing is right, with proof texts and justifications such as, “Love your neighbor,” “Don’t forsake gathering together,” “Submit to authorities,” and, “Obey man rather than God.”
When Christians disagree, there are two possibilities. The first is there is a clear teaching of Scripture on the matter, and one group has failed to obey it, due either to a misunderstanding of what the Bible is saying or a willful disobedience to the Lord. But the second possibility is that it is an issue that lacks clear biblical guidance. I would submit that many of the questions we are facing now fall under the latter category.
While unfortunately the Bible doesn’t give us step-by-step instructions on what to do if a global pandemic and ensuing government orders upend the Church’s ability to meet, it does have some teachings on what to do when Scripture doesn’t tell us what to do. In Romans 14, Paul addresses the issue of “doubtful things.” The early Church had disputes about a variety of issues, with faithful Christians on both sides passionately believing that their side was the biblical one. Now Paul was writing Scripture. God could have inspired him to tell them who was right and who was wrong, and that would have been the biblical teaching on these issues. But instead, Paul taught them how to handle issues when Christians disagree and there is no clear biblical answer.
Romans 14 is a rich text that I would encourage everyone to read and pray through as we navigate these tough issues. While there is no doubt much more that could be said, I want to highlight three key principles from this text:
1. When Scripture is unclear, do whatever helps you best honor the Lord with a clear conscience.
The two main contentious issues Paul brings up in Romans 14 are whether or not Christians should eat meat (possibly referring to meat sacrificed to idols, or perhaps a reference to keeping the Jewish dietary laws) and keep the Sabbath and other Jewish religious holidays. Rather than a simple yes or no, Paul tells them, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (verse 5). In other words, Paul is saying that either choice is acceptable and that they should follow their convictions. He then clarifies in verse 23, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.” While in Christ there is liberty to act either way, Paul warns that for the person who is unable to exercise that liberty without conviction, what he is doing is sin.
A helpful guide to deciding what we should do is found in verse 6: “He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.” For some Christians, religious holidays were a chance to set time aside to focus on the Lord. For others, there was no need to treat one day any different than others. Every day should be a day to worship. Some saw refraining from meat as an act of worship. Others saw meat as a gift from God to give thanks for (I know I do). Paul exhorted the believers to do whatever was most beneficial for their walks with the Lord.
For some of us, following stay-at-home guidelines and practicing social distancing is an act of loving your neighbor and submitting to the authorities God has placed over us. For others, meeting together as the Body of Christ and living without fear is a matter of being faithful to God’s command to gather, obeying God rather than man, and living out the Gospel message that Christ has defeated death and we need not fear it. Are you convinced that following orders and worshipping at home is the right thing to do for your walk? Then do that. Do you believe that you are best honoring the Lord by gathering with other believers and living out the humanity God intended? If you are able to do it in faith, then do so. Live according to your convictions in whatever way you can best glorify God.
2. Don’t judge others on their convictions. God will take care of that.
One of the reasons Paul wrote this passage is because both sides of these arguments were passing judgment on their brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side for their convictions. Those who ate meat looked down on those “weaker” Christians whose conscience wouldn’t allow them to partake. Those who refrained from eating meat passed judgment on those who they thought were living in sin with their indulgence.
To this, Paul responds that we all will give an account before the Lord for our actions (verses 10-13). We are all God’s servants, and it is for Him to decide whether the actions and motives of our hearts are right before Him. When a believer is in clear violation of the commands of Scripture, we have a duty to rebuke and correct. But in matters of “doubtful things,” we lack both the clear biblical directive and knowledge of the other believer’s thoughts and intentions to rightly give judgment. That being the case, Paul’s command is to entrust judgment to the Lord rather than take it upon yourself.
In all of this, the possibility remains that there is a right and wrong answer. Perhaps those who are meeting together are sinning by disobeying the authorities. Perhaps a pandemic is not a valid excuse for Christians to stop meeting. But absent of a clear command of Scripture or knowledge of the hearts and intentions of others, there is no room for fellow believers to judge one another on their convictions in such matters. All of us will stand before the Lord to give an account for our own thoughts and actions. Our job is to make sure we are honoring the Lord with our own lives and trust the judgment of others to Him.
3. Remember that the love and unity of the Body of Christ are more important than your opinions.
The issue Paul is really addressing in Romans 14 was not the disagreement itself, but the Roman Christians’ response to the disagreement. Those who were at liberty to eat meat were intentionally flaunting their liberty in front or those who felt convicted about doing so, causing them to stumble in their convictions. Likewise, those who refrained passed judgment on the believers who were exercising their Christian liberty. To this, Paul responds that convictions are great, but maintaining the love and unity of the Body of Christ is even more important, and in this regard he leads by example (verses 14-21).
Paul’s personal conviction was that it was fine for him to eat meat. However, to him it was more important to love his brothers and sisters in Christ, and so he had determined not to eat meat if it would cause someone with different convictions to stumble. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8:13, he writes that he would never eat meat again if he knew eating meat would cause another believer to sin. He was willing to forgo his Christian liberty if it helped another believer in their walk. After all, the people on the other side were brothers and sisters for whom Christ (verse 15). Verse 20 really puts things into perspective: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” Christian liberty is great, but it’s not worth disrupting the love or unity of the Body. Rather, he exhorts both sides to “Pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (verse 19).
For those who don’t believe in following the guidelines, there will be temptation to look down on those who do and perhaps flaunt your Christian liberty. Pride may cause some to revel in not wearing a mask or meeting together with fellow believers. Those who believe in keeping these rules may seek to distance themselves from Christians who violate government orders and accuse them of not loving their neighbor and risking public health. No one denies the importance of these questions, but one might ask if they are worth dividing the Body of Christ. The people on the other side are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Should we destroy the work of God for the sake of masks?
Perhaps both opinions exist because the Church needs both opinions. If everyone in the Church wanted to rush to meet again, we would potentially risk endangering others and defying God-ordained authorities without the proper biblical warrant. If we all thought we should wait to gather, it could have serious consequences on the spiritual health of the Church. By putting Christians of both persuasions side-by-side, perhaps the Lord is teaching us how to handle disagreement with Christian love and balance both views toward the best possible solution.
I don’t claim to know everything about this situation. I don’t know that all my views are correct, or that my solutions are best for the Bride of Christ. But I do know that when this crisis is over, we will still be the Church. We are all still brothers and sisters in Christ. As we navigate these issues as one Body, let us support one another in our convictions. Let us not pass judgment or use our liberty to stumble one another. Rather, let us work in Christian love and unity toward our common goal, to glorify Christ and see His Name magnified on earth.
Today I’ve spent some time looking at Philippians 4 in preparation for next week’s Zoom study.
I found this great passage from Chrysostom‘s sermons on Philippians, on the 11th verse of chapter 4. Figured it would be a great thing to share with you, especially in view of our current circumstances. So check out this helpful wisdom, straight from 1600 years ago or so:
“For I have learned,” says he, “in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content.”
Wherefore, this is an object of discipline, and exercise, and care, for it is not easy of attainment, but very difficult, and a new thing.
“In whatsoever state I am,” says he, “therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound. In everything and in all things have I learned the secret.” That is, I know how to use little, to bear hunger and want. Both to abound, and to suffer need.
But, says one, there is no need of wisdom or of virtue in order to abound. There is great need of virtue, not less than in the other case. For as want inclines us to do many evil things, so too does plenty. For many, coming into plenty, have become indolent, and have not known how to bear their good fortune. Many men have taken it as an occasion of no longer working. But Paul did not so, for what he received he consumed on others, and emptied himself for them. This is to know. He was in nowise relaxed, nor did he exult at his abundance; but was the same in want and in plenty, he was neither oppressed on the one hand, nor rendered a boaster on the other.
“Both to be filled,” says he, “and to be hungry, both to abound, and to be in want.” Many know not how to be full (as for example, the Israelites “ate, and kicked” Deuteronomy 32:15), but, “I am equally well ordered in all.” He shows that he neither is now elated, nor was before grieved: or if he grieved, it was on their account, not on his own, for he himself was similarly affected.
Good to see everyone last night. Press on!
A lot of you know I’m always looking for tools that help us engage scripture with our minds at a deep level. So I wanted to share an article posted on the Crossway Books site a few days ago, called 5 Prompts for Journaling through Scripture. Here are the highlights:
… As you spend time reading and journaling through the Bible, consider these five prompts to guide your study and reflection.
1. Be honest. “Highlight examples in the Psalms and books like Lamentations and Job where the writers aren’t shy about telling God how they feel in their pain, confusion, exhaustion, and frustration…”
2. Learn about God’s heart toward those who suffer. “Read through large portions of books like Jeremiah and Job. How do the books end?”
3. Pray hopefully. “Use Scripture to pray for those who are hurting, sick, and lonely…”
4. Focus on what’s unchanging. “Reflect on what is unchanging about who God is when circumstances are shifting…
5. End with gratitude. “Record lists of the good gifts in your life and pray to embrace them fully…”
Why does God make us wait for difficult times to be over? Why does he sometimes delay his solution to the things that are troubling us? I was thinking about this while reading Acts chapter 8 and 9 this morning. Acts 8 describes what must have been a very difficult situation for our brothers and sisters in the early church:
At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
How long did this time last? We’re not told, but it’s long enough for the events of Acts 8 to take place. It’s more than a few days. It had to have been at least a few weeks, or even months. Imagine how stressful and difficult those weeks must have been. Acts 9 begins by continuing the story:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
This gives us a further clue as to the fact that this time lasted for at least a little while. It lasted until Saul began to feel that his work in Jerusalem was sufficiently wrapped up, and he was able to turn his attention to other places. Where else were these Christians hiding? Somehow he heard about an enclave of them up north in Damascus, so he made plans to go there to keep his work going. And that’s when God decided to act. As it tells us in Acts 9:3-12—
As he journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.”
So there it is—that’s how God decided to act, and bring this time of persecution to an end. But why did God wait for all this to happen, and why wait so long? Why do it this way? The short answer, of course, is, “Who knows? God knows.” But if we stop, and prayerfully consider, we may at least try to learn a little about how God does things, and why he worked this way.
For instance, maybe God wanted Ananias, specifically, to be the one to pray for Saul. That would mean that Saul needed to get to Damascus. But if Christ had appeared to Saul and blinded him anywhere but in the city itself or (as happened) just outside the city, Saul wouldn’t go into Damascus at all. He would have gone home to Jerusalem, and God’s plan to get Saul to Ananias would have failed. Which means God waited to save Saul until he had travelled that far first. But first, Saul had to decide to take the journey in the first place. And he wouldn’t make that decision while he was in the middle of all his work in Jerusalem—he wasn’t the kind of person to leave work unfinished. So God allowed Saul to continue persecuting Christians because it would cause him to exhaust the possibilities for his work there, because that would turn his mind to other places to root out believers, and his mind would settle on Damascus (where he had discovered another group of believers), because then he’d make the journey north, because that would put him in the perfect place, outside Damascus, on the road, for Jesus to appear to him, because then it would be easy for someone to lead him by the hand into the city, because then he could easily wait for someone to come pray for him, because Ananias was the one Jesus wanted to go to Saul, and it was simple for him to walk to the house where Saul was, because then Ananias could pray for Saul and he could receive his sight.
Why did God want all this? As I once heard someone say, why does God do anything? 10,000 reasons.
Why did Jesus want Ananias for this work, specifically? I can imagine being in Jerusalem, and praying for God to end the time of trial in Jerusalem. And I think, if God answered me and said, “It will not end right away, because there’s a man named Ananias in Damascus who I want to be the one who prays for Saul when I save him,” well, I think that answer would have seemed confusing to me, at best, and infuriating at worst. What? What does Damascus have to do with anything? They’re not going through what we’re going through! Why can’t it be someone in Jerusalem? Why can’t it be Peter, for crying out loud? This doesn’t make any sense!
Did it really need to be Ananias? Only God knows. The answer must be yes—it was necessary that he be the one to pray for Saul to receive his sight and the Holy Spirit. Maybe God’s delay in ending the persecution was all specifically for him. Is that really that unlike God? Didn’t Jesus construct an entire travel plan around meeting one woman in John 4? Yes, he did. But then, even that wasn’t just for her in the end, was it? By the end of the chapter, we see that it was for her whole town (and then again, for all the people in that same region who heard Philip’s preaching in Acts 8). So yes, it was all for an individual, and yes, it was all for much more than that. Maybe it was for everyone Ananias’ family, and the church in Damascus. Maybe it was for the work of evangelism in Damascus. Maybe God let the time of trial drag on because he wanted the Jerusalem Christians scattered (see Acts 8:4), but not those in Damascus. Why? Well, the scattering did not lead to the death of the church in Jerusalem, but maybe that kind of persecution would have eradicated the church in Damascus. Maybe they weren’t ready for Saul’s persecution yet.
Which means, that by delaying Saul’s salvation, God was accomplishing many things, for many people, including:
Imagine, again, a Christian in the middle of Saul’s persecution in Jerusalem, praying something like, “Lord why won’t you end this? Stop him! Save him! Something!” But what would God’s answer be? Maybe something like: “My timing has to do with thousands of things, and thousands of people, and everything I’m doing in the whole world to spread salvation to all kinds of people. If you had twenty lifetimes, I couldn’t tell you all I’m doing just in this several weeks of trouble. And no, I can not shorten this time without undoing all my work. Just wait a few more weeks. What I’m going to do outside Damascus will begin to show some of what’s going on. It’ll be just a glimpse—but a big, powerful glimpse.”
Which, I think, brings us to where we are today.
I am sure that, like me, you are ready for this time of spreading sickness and forced isolation and government-imposed shut-down to end. I am sure you’ve been praying for it to end. And it will end, one way or another. So, the question might arise, “If it’s all going to end in a few weeks or months anyway, why not just end it now? Why is God allowing this time to stretch on?” And, the answer must be something like we observed in the book of Acts, right? There must be something, or a hundred things, or ten thousand things God is doing in all this. It must be true—because that’s exactly how the Bible leads us to see the world. I don’t know why you can’t go out, but God wants to do a hundred things in your life from this time. I don’t know why school is shut down, but God wants to use this time for my kids’ good. I don’t know why much worse things are happening—deaths in isolation, people on ventilators, people losing work or businesses they’ve worked to build, loneliness, fear, global shut-down. And I don’t know why, as of April 15th, there’s no end in sight. But God knows why he’s allowing all this to go this way, and for how long it must. And he’s got good reasons.
It’s always easy to read the stories in the Bible, because we know how they end—gloriously, always—and so the trials only seem to heighten the drama. But when you don’t know the end, the lengthening of time doesn’t feel like growing excitement. It feels like drudgery. It feels like loneliness or uncertainty or anxiety. But friends, the Bible leads us to live, and think, and even feel like people who do know the end of the story.
Even when we don’t know the end to the chapter (like, “this will end when a man gets saved outside of Damascus,”) we do know the end of the book. This will end when a man rides a horse down through the clouds and conquers evil. And when he does, he’ll tie up every story line into the one perfect ending of the whole, huge plan. That’s true for the story line called Coronavirus, and whatever other storyline you’re living through at this moment. Because he works all things together, for the good.
A lot of us find ourselves with extra time right now, and as this time stretches on, with no obvious end in sight, we’re going to find that we need to be alert to the kinds of things that happen in our hearts and minds when we’ve been in quarantine for say, five weeks, instead of just one or two. Alone, with lots of time—that situation is going to breed new struggles the longer it lasts. And so will the other situation many of us are in—in a house or apartment with a few family members, and not a lot to do, for a long time. That’s a little different, right? Our enemy can tempt us and tweak us whether we’re alone or in close quarters with others. We who know God should not be caught off guard by any of this—at least not for long.
So here’s a reading assignment—go through these passages and seek the Lord for how he wants you to put them into action:
If you have the time, reading these verses while praying for God to help you hear them and internalize them will bring you into His presence, and give you good direction for the day at hand.
NOTE: Friends, this is a guest post from Tony DeFranco, who wrote it last week. I find Tony’s thoughts helpful and edifying. Enjoy! –BW
Monday March 30th marked the start of week three. The third week of attempting to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19. That means the third week of no church gatherings. The third week of social distancing. The third week of working from home, or week one of no job. The third week of isolation. And, for all of us, the third week of relying solely on screens to feel some sort of connection to anything or anyone else. For me, it was a defining day in the midst of our current situation.
I work in content creation and social media management for our church. As you might’ve guessed, my workload has not decreased because of coronavirus, but increased. Church services are solely online, social media is one of our major avenues of communication to the people, and every ministry leader has a growing desire to learn how to leverage our technological tools in order to stay in touch with the people they minister to most. Who could blame them? It sounds exciting for someone in my position, and at times that is true. However, on that Monday the amount of filming, requests, posts, zoom meetings that needed scheduling, and updates that needed organizing just debilitated me. My anxiety spiked. Since we closed the doors of the church building I haven’t stopped working, something that I realize is a blessing, with major layoffs becoming the norm. But it has been constant, and I was leaning in full force. What I am doing is important after all, isn’t it? However, that day, I sensed my soul was just worn out. I read this article headline a couple days later, “Coronavirus Ended the Screen Time Debate. Screens Won.” Ouch. That woke me up, fast.
The irony of what I am writing is not lost on me. If you’re reading this, it is likely on a phone. You were probably on social media, saw a post from our account, and linked in. Please don’t hear what I am about to say as hypocritical… it’s time to resist our screen time, not lean into it.
In the article I mentioned, Nellie Bowles offers a confession from a friend,
“One friend of mine admitted averaging 16 hours of screen time a day, often on multiple devices at once.”
Wow. She goes on:
“I’m 31 and have lived almost all my life in San Francisco…Given our demographic, most of those having babies crafted careful plans to keep those fresh eyes from screens. Plans to keep the babies from using screens, of course, but also away from even seeing the screens in use. How are those plans going now?”
She offers some answers to that question; I think this is one of the most profound:
“We’ve all officially lost the battle,” said Dr. Helitzer, who has a 2- and a 3-year-old. “I’ve accessed every educational app you can. I’ve used every online interactive worksheet I can find,” Dr. Helitzer said. “If he’s sitting on his iPad for two or three hours a day, I literally don’t even care. It’s like, ‘Use that screen as much as you can.’”
We’ve all officially lost the battle. Did you catch that warfare language? Even people outside of Christianity admit that how much time we dedicate to screens is a battle. A battle for what? I think it’s a battle for us—our behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and dependence. What’s on the other end of those screens wants us, forms us. Information is not neutral. Can I just be honest? I resonated with Dr. Helitzer at the start of week three. I felt like I lost. Before COVID-19 I had strict guidelines in place to limit screen time. I barely averaged an hour per day on my phone, even with my job. I don’t say that to feel good about myself, but to acknowledge that I knew I was fighting a war. Why did I suddenly surrender to the all-consuming iPhone just because someone said “social distancing?” My answer is short: because the culture told me I lost, and I believed them.
Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, has even come out and said:
“I think that this reveals the screen-time issue as a misplaced anxiety…now, forced to be alone but wanting to be together, so many are discovering what screen time should be.”
Ms. Bowles adds, “It should be about learning and connecting. It should be humanizing.”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re not. We won’t know what will be produced from us during this huge surge in screen time until we can enter back into community, face to face, with other humans. I hope their estimations are correct. But, what I am concerned with is how we are going preserve our souls, the deepest part of our being, during COVID-19.
Regardless of whether this deepens our appreciation for human contact, or increases our ability to learn (both positive effects outlined in the NY Times article), the fact remains that devices form us. I don’t think that is a stretch, and I don’t think that formation is easily undone. So, what are we supposed to do? How do we resist that formation? Believe it or not, I am not about to suggest you burn your phone, or even cancel Netflix. I have come to the conclusion, personally, that rest from these screens will preserve us through this crisis, and beyond.
In Deuteronomy 5:12-15 the command is given to God’s people to “Observe the sabbath” (v. 12). It goes on to state this practice is so God’s people will “…remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there…” (v. 15). The original sabbath command is found in Exodus 20:8-11. That command was grounded in creation, and supposed to be practiced as a rhythm for the people of God. In Deuteronomy the command is reiterated to Israel and grounded in redemption (v. 15). It is supposed to be practiced as resistance from the norms of a society that excluded God from its view of life. It is literally a practice that can keep them from going back to Egypt in their everyday dealings. Think about it. He’s saying, don’t do life the way Egypt does. Don’t do life the way people who don’t acknowledge me do. Don’t do life the way society does when it is in a collective rebellion against me. It’s a call to live life redeemed from those currents. It’s a call to resist those currents. How? He doesn’t say don’t get jobs, or don’t rub shoulders with others. He doesn’t say shut yourself in and hide. Quite the opposite, He tells them to exist within that culture and work amongst those currents for six days with everyone else (v13). It is in the institution of the seventh day where we find resistance. On the seventh day, they practice sabbath.
The word sabbath literally means “cease.” The idea is…stop. It is a time to delight in God, and live into thankfulness for what is directly in front of you, focusing on nothing beyond that. It is acknowledging that God is God, and we are not. For Israel, that day was supposed to be observed, post-exile (v. 12), as a way to remember (v. 15) that God delivered them from Egypt. It is a profound idea. By forcing yourself to set aside intentional time to cease (from interaction with the norms around you that deny God’s goodness, sovereignty, and love), you can honor Him and remember you’re not a slave to those systems anymore. In fact, you, as one of God’s people, have been delivered from their grip. We need that reminder today more than ever.
As people under Christ, we don’t live under the Old Testament law referenced in Deuteronomy (see Colossians 2:16). However, I think there is something here for us, by way of invitation not commandment.
Do you know what pulled me out of my hole of anxiety and stress? Turning my phone off. I stopped. Was the work I was doing wrong? No. Was the volume of work coming my way wrong? No. Was my constant connection to the pace of increasing screen time, with no breaks, wrong? I found it to be so. That is the new battle before us. The battle of fighting our impulses to constantly gratify our need to feel in control of the situation by scrolling news feeds or producing content. Then there’s the constant allure of escapism through streaming ourselves into oblivion. Both ignore reality. Both are being peddled to us by the culture as the only options during COVID-19. One ignores the reality that we can’t control what’s happening, the other ignores the reality that there is a paradigm shift in front of us. All this screen time can and will form us into people who believe we are god in an age of information. We are not. It can and will form us into people trained to escape every difficult thing in life. We will miss what God can do in us and through us during those times.
So what is the way forward? I know things are changing, I don’t think we should delete social media accounts right now. We have to face the fact that with all the shelter in place mandates, screens are currently front and center, so how can we step into that reality without logging 16 hours of screen time per day?
Like Israel of old, rest—intentional time away from it all. Taking intentional time to put the digital connections away can be our way of acknowledging that God is God and we are not. It is our way of becoming present to the moment, our moment, and finding thankfulness in it because of what God has provided for us.
In the opening lines of Psalm 63, we read these immortal words, penned by David:
O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You In a dry and thirsty land Where there is no water.
I think, every time I’ve read this verse, I’ve read it this way: David is telling God how much passion he has for Him. And he’s telling us too, by writing it down. “Here is how much I love God—my heart longs for him! Even my flesh is part of this. I get up early to seek God.” It’s a beautiful sentiment. There’s a lot to learn by way of David’s example. We can read it and think, “Yes, that’s how I should feel for God.” And sometimes, we do.
But this morning I read this verse again, and heard something totally different. See if you can follow me here…
First let’s just isolate out the two things David says about himself:
My soul thirsts for you.
My flesh longs for you.
Is David proclaiming how much he loves God here? Well, sure, in one way of looking at it. He had just said, “You are my God!” The rest of the Psalm follows these lines as well. David totally loves God. But there’s more to hear in these words. Imagine writing out the emphasis this way:
My soul thirsts… for you.
My flesh longs…for you.
Or to say it another way:
I had always had this dull ache inside. This longing for something…more. It was right at the center of who I was. And it was never satisfied. And then…I found You, in the sanctuary (v.2), and I encountered Your power, Your glory, and Your lovingkindness (v.3). And then I knew what I’d been searching for all along. God—it’s You that my soul longs for—Your power, Your glory, Your love.
And when I discovered that, I discovered that my body, too, actually longs for You. I’d always thought that all these physical problems were just part of being human. Pain, sickness, weakness—just normal life. But then I met You. And I discovered that, not just my heart, but my flesh too longs for You. Why is there so much physical struggling in the world? Because our bodies need You in ways this fallen world can’t support.
God, it’s You. You’re the One who fills a soul and makes it love life. You’re the one who totally fulfills men and women—closeness to You, friendship with You. Your joy, peace, and love are what we need to give us…even the will to live. And Your fellowship makes life worth living—forever, in fact. Your love is better than life.
So now, no matter what happens, I know that my soul will be satisfied, and then, one day, even my body will experience this total fulfillment and perfection (Psalm 17:15).
I think that’s all in those few words. David is sharing his discovery with us. All his longing was really longing for God. It’s a realization that changed his life.
With all this extra time that many of us have (not all of us, true, but a lot of us), may I throw out this challenge? Sometimes when things slow down, we hear our hearts better. It’s harder to ignore the longings within. Or maybe, inactivity and isolation have even stirred up a bunch of new restless feelings. But in every longing, instead of thinking, “Man, I really wish I could…” maybe think, “My soul is hungry for God.” Or even better: “God, my soul is hungry for you. Closeness to you is actually what I’m longing for.” Yes, we weren’t meant to be cooped up inside. We weren’t meant to be inactive. We were meant to do things that matter, so it’s hard not to do any of that. But…when your life is full of activity, does that actually fill your heart? Or do you still feel that need for something more, right under the surface?
That’s how you know David’s words are the truth. God’s loving kindness is better than normal life. Or social life. Or campus life. Or career life. His presence is true fulfillment. Full fulfillment. Which is why David also wrote:
You will show me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
My friends, there are a lot of ways to redeem this time. But let’s not forget to attend to the main thing our soul needs—closeness to God.