We are forgetful. In times of material blessing and when we are in good health, we tend to think that everything’s fine and life is kind because we’re good at living. When we’re comfortable and relatively affluent it’s too easy to think we somehow deserve it or control our circumstances.
But every once in a while we are confronted with challenging times, personal or social crises which remind us just how dependent we truly are. Times of crisis, such as the current outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic, expose our weaknesses and force us to reassess our priorities. Crises are stress tests: our trust is tested and our allegiances are exposed.
For Christians, difficult times are opportunities to trust God. Also, a crisis such as this one puts things in a radically different perspective: deadlines and important meetings, plans made well in advance, which seemed unquestionable before the outbreak of the pandemic, quarterly financial targets, business and leisure trips, they all seem less important now than we could have imagined only weeks ago.
Is it foolishness now, was it foolishness then? I think that whenever we become ignorant of our dependence, whenever we become too prideful or self-confident, we are foolish. Oliver O’Donovan beautifully said that “to act wisely and to live well means treating present appearances and present anticipations as perfectly fragile.” (in Seeking and Finding. Ethics as Theology. Volume 2)
Few of us, I think, lived well and acted wisely before the onset of this crisis. We were largely unprepared, we thought the future looks predictable, an extrapolation of past circumstances. We could say that some were more underprepared than others, but no one was prepared for it or saw it coming, and even upon hearing news of the outbreak in China and the spread beyond Asia to Europe and the rest of the world, most people, including governments and healthcare system managers, underestimated its potential impact.
Faced with a forced slowdown, confronted with the ensuing uncertainty and potential instability, when human leadership and governance systems are showing their limitations, we need to remember that God is the giver and keeper of our lives, the one on whom our very existence depends. When we feel in control we ignore how fragile and dependent we truly are. On this illusion of control and meritocracy we tend to build our mundane existence, forgetting that God is the giver and sustainer of all good things, including our ability to produce wealth. We might intellectually know that, but even us Christians live as if this dependence is a mere philosophical or theological concept, not as real as our very next breath.
I can’t help but think about how Albert Camus described the mindset and the busyness of the unsuspecting inhabitants of Oran before the outbreak of the plague:
They thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any futures, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.
Albert Camus, The Plague, p. 36.
These words sound too familiar: they are relevant to us, as they accurately describe our own mindset before the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. Now the cities facing the epidemic are so much larger, densely populated and globally connected. Wuhan’s sheer size dwarfs Oran: we’re talking about a mega-city of 11 million inhabitants of which most people outside China had never heard of before. Fortunately, the current outbreak is far less deadly compared to the bubonic plague which Camus describes in his existentialist novel, a terrible disease with very high mortality rate (30-100%, if left untreated, according to WHO). However, due to the rapid spread in our highly connected world population, the latest pandemic disrupted our normal living across the world and forced us to stop and look ahead differently.
None of us made plans which involved lockdowns and mass quarantine. We planned meetings, trips, but none of us even considered that 'usual' things such as going to a cafe or to a shopping mall could become impossible for weeks, possibly months. Probably most of us never thought seriously of the real risk of completely debilitating our national health care systems in just a matter of weeks if there was an epidemic outbreak or about the risk of losing our parents due to a severe respiratory illness. Virtually no one was worried months ago about these threats. We were living on a different level of concern. Back then, our anxieties were mostly career and money-related. Because money never seems to be able to keep up with our ever-growing desires and expectations, our usual worries gravitate around money, as we’re preoccupied with whether there’s enough to go around or to support our future plans. The desire for ‘more’ is the driving force of our modern economy, but do we ever stop and realise that if we’ve built our economic and social system on discontent, at least we shouldn't complain of being discontented?
Wealth had the capacity of deceiving people even before money existed. This deceitfulness is as ancient as human society. It is a heart issue, not a technical one. We’re no different than ancient people. We like to think we are, that we know better, just because we are more sophisticated and have developed complex social and economic systems. Make no mistake, fundamentally we are the same. Knowledge has increased exponentially since antiquity, but looking back at our recent history we cannot but wonder whether our wisdom has failed to keep up with the increasingly complex challenges facing humanity today.
Dependence - When Life is Stripped of Distractions
Let me take you back some 3500 years ago: the people of Israel were camped on the edge of the land where they were about to settle, the country which would become their homeland. They were coming from a long and harsh pilgrimage in the wilderness after they were liberated as a nation from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. They were weary and tired, humbled after having just gone through a 40 years detox programme which should have helped them to get rid of the acquisitive, exploitative economic practices of the empire they left behind. All their parents, born slaves in Egypt died in the wilderness. An entire generation that never knew freedom had passed away and their children were about to begin a new life in a land that was to become their home. It was an opportunity for a fresh start, for courage and hope as they set out to their future as a newly formed nation in their new homeland.
These people had experienced firsthand dependence on God’s miraculous provision for their daily food in a glorious but humbling way. All they knew was manna. What came first as a miracle and a surprise (literally the name of it, manna means “what is it?”) became their daily bread, a daily reminder that they eat and survive miraculously. In spite of all this, they were still at risk of forgetting who gave them manna from heaven every day for 40 years straight. God, through his prophet Moses, gave them a loving but sobering warning against amnesia, idolatry and pride.
Before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses warned his own people against the danger of forgetting where they came from and who delivered them from slavery:
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.
You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” (Deuteronomy 8:10-18)
Remember God! Just as the ancient people of Israel, today’s believers don't have to invent God. We only need to remember him, to trust him again, because God proved his faithfulness in the past, and surely he will never abandon us. He remains forever faithful, whatever may come our way. In Israel’s case, they were leaving the wilderness behind as they were looking ahead to times of prosperity. God knew that when they will settle and become comfortable, they would tend to forget God and trust their own strength, at their own peril.
Individual Valleys, Collective Wilderness
I believe we all go through valleys. This is a universal truth. I think of personal suffering as being our valleys. All human beings have their time of walking through valleys, and the valleys look different for different people. But there’s a valley which every human being has to go through, one way or another: the "valley of the shadow of death". It is a personal experience of facing death: we might be at risk of dying ourselves or we could have to deal with losing dear ones. We will all lose friends and family. If we haven’t yet, it will happen. Everyone, with no exception, will encounter death. We usually don’t walk through this valley all at once, but the truth is no one makes it out alive, and one way or another, unless Christ returns before our time comes, we’ll all die. This is not a depressing thought, because we know who we believe in: we put our trust in Christ, for this life and for our eternal destiny. He is the one who conquered death, the one who promised us abundant life, the resurrected one who said: “Because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:19) For a Christian, death is never the end, so we should not live in fear but live as people of hope. Hope shines brighter in the dark and broken places. In spite of the general anxiety, now is an opportunity to give an answer to whoever might ask about the reason for the hope we have in Christ. If you have this hope as the anchor of your soul, you live differently, so expect questions.
I said that everyone inevitably walks through valleys, but sometimes we even have to go through the wilderness. Let’s think of “the wilderness" as a collective challenging experience when people have to go together at the same time through austere and threatening circumstances and overcome them. When we’re going through the wilderness, we’re all in it together at the same time, and how we get to the other side depends on our collective resolve and individual responsibility.
This might be the wilderness of our times. As scary and as worrying as it looks like, this global health crisis and the economic and social instability it might trigger could be a wake-up call, a time of focusing our attention on what really matters. There’s a paradox of epidemic crises: one of the best way to show solidarity with the most vulnerable members of our communities is to keep physical distance, to voluntarily renounce all non-essential direct interactions for a while, so we limit the spread of the virus. This is an uninvited opportunity to start to care more about others and to acknowledge the limits of hyper-individualism.
What if the love of money which kept the world spinning at a frantic pace was eclipsed, at least for a while by the love of neighbours? When facing a pandemic together, we are facing it as sisters and brothers, regardless of how different we think we are. Neighbourly love is the best response as we're trying to get through this wilderness with minimal casualties.
Fear Not! Remember God!
Anxiety is the fear and unrest we experience when confronted with the unknown.
Anxiety’s most immediate manifestation is greed. We’ve seen all over the world empty shelves, people hoarding food, stockpiling medicine, disinfectants, protective equipment and all kinds of essential and non-essential supplies. It is not a specific cultural response, but a universal fear response. Whereas in ordinary times a massive supply of goods and services are chasing a limited supply of money, in distressed times people realise more than ever that money is purely instrumental, so their immediate instinct is to try and get stuff which they think might help them overcome the crisis.
Jesus saying “do not worry!” (Matthew 6:25-34) also means “cease to be anxious!”
This is not a casual dismissal of fear, but a call to face the unknown with absolute confidence in God’s promise. It is a call to hope. One may pretend he has faith, but faking hope in times of stressful circumstances seems futile, if not impossible.
Being hopeful and courageous doesn’t mean denying our fears and repressing anxiety by positive or wishful thinking. That would be delusional. To have real hope, grounded in faith in God, means to have the confidence that we are never facing the future alone, on our own. So “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) Bring your fears and anxieties in prayer to God and find rest. Be encouraged! Thank God for his presence in the valley of the shadow of death and trust him for his provision through the wilderness.
Fear not, God is good, God is all-powerful, and God loves us. We’re safe in his love.
Remembering God is not merely an intellectual act; neither is idolatry. These are deep heart issues. What captures our hearts rules our lives. Idolatry is not seeing deep enough, it is mistaking the gift for the giver, forsaking ”the spring of living water” and digging our own “broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13), chasing the blessing while ignoring the one who blesses. It is trying to strike a deal with God(s), in a transactional way. It is a shift of allegiance, misplaced trust and a disordered love, easily conquered by fear.
Trials and crises are times when our idolatries are exposed for what they are: worthless, unable to save us. Fear easily overcomes our misplaced trust (in our own strengths, in people we think could save us, in our money and connections, etc.). The antidote to anxiety is true love. Only true love drives out fear. Turning to God with all our heart is the solution; learning to trust and love and worship him, no matter what comes. This is easier said than done.
Remembering God is a practical act of managing money and possessions differently, especially in challenging times. Remembering God is a passional disposition of our hearts which then shapes our character and flows out into our behaviour: kindness, justice and righteousness, rooted in our dependence on and trust in God.
Remembering the Lord is long overdue. Now the time has come.
We are normally too busy to be “still and know that He is God” (Psalm 46).
Remembering the Lord means keeping his commands, of which the greatest of all is to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, with all our mind and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
We should never forget God in the first place, but when hardships strike, as our false security in other things is exposed for what it is: fragile and illusory, we have a better chance to remember God. When money fails, when governments are scrambling for resources and practical wisdom, there’s no one else to turn to.
May this be a time of remembering God, a time of repentance from idolatry, a time of fierce hope in the face of the unknown, a time of neighbourly love and solidarity, a time to let the hope we have in Christ shine bright and make a difference here and now. A time of revival.
It does matter who our God is! Take heart and be courageous!