Don’t drop, keep running (Part 3)
To God’s forgetful children
Why does God allow viruses to exist?
It’s tempting to dismiss them as a result of the Fall. We could be forgiven, because their press is so bad. Mind you, we used to think that way about bacteria too, but since the advent of probiotic yoghurts, they’ve had a PR makeover.
But viruses? They’re still high on the list of public enemies.
Colds, flus, Ebola, HIV and the dreaded COVID - just bad bad bad, right?
Well, not exactly. Our problem is that we know so little about viruses. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that viruses can be beneficial. Like most things, in the right place and in the right quantity, they serve a useful purpose. It’s when they jump over to another species, or mutate, or enter a person whose immune system is already worn down by pre-existing medical conditions that they become harmful. And the truth is, we’re not entirely without blame. Not when you consider the way human beings have encroached into ecosystems, upsetting biodiversity. Consider also markets selling caged animals with woeful sanitation, or the weaknesses in our health systems. All of these are human practices which increase our risk of infection and its impact when it happens.
But let’s stop for a moment, because this isn’t a post on virology, politics or apologetics. It’s actually about God’s purposes in our struggles. No matter how many potential benefits may arise from viruses, they are still outweighed by the pain of losing a loved one to coronavirus or being isolated from normal social contact. However we rationalise this pandemic, it still hurts.
So, what is God up to?
Well, a good place to begin is by considering who God is.
In my last post, I mentioned that God is a consuming fire – jealous in His holiness (Heb 12.29). But there’s another picture of God in Hebrews 12. He is a loving Father.
We need to grasp both of these truths. If we forget His holiness, we might diminish God by caricaturing Him as a cuddly grandfather, whose childcare strategy is indulgent entertainment until he ships us off. If we forget His love, we’re in danger of dismissing God as a harsh judge, whose condemnation is worked out in the hardships of life.
Understanding God as Father is key to appreciating how He works through our circumstances. The writer says, ‘we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them’ (v.9). I’m sure that was a generalisation even back then, when there was a clearer understanding of fatherhood than in our culture. Not everyone grows up with a father, not every father knows how to discipline (or comfort), and not every child respects a father who does. But we all know what the writer means, don’t we? Whatever imperfections our fathers had, and even if we had no father (or an abusive one), we wish we had a perfect father.
And that’s what God is.
The passage acknowledges the limits of earthly fathers. Even good fathers only did what seemed best to them. They didn’t always get it right. But our heavenly Father lacks neither insight nor wisdom. He always works for our good.
Nowadays, discipline is rather out of fashion. Our culture prefers to emphasise unconditional love and affirmation. But the best research suggests that good parenting requires both affirmation and limits (discipline). Children thrive when they know they are accepted and when they’re given clear direction. Both are needed in human parenting because they reflect the Father heart of God. It’s not that we imagine a perfect heavenly Father to make up for the imperfect earthly ones, but that earthly parents learn from him how to nurture their children.
So, we need discipline. And that’s what God does as we go through hardships. We don’t need to figure out whether He causes them or merely permits them – that’s a theological conundrum for another time – but we do need to remember that His goal for us is always good.
Now, that raises another question. What is good for us? We might have all sorts of ideas about that, but our Father knows best, and his definition of good is this: ‘that we may share his holiness’ (v.10). That’s always how God defines good. It’s true in the Law of Moses. It’s there in the Sermon on the Mount. And it resounds from Romans 8, where the good towards which God works everything (Rom. 8.28) results in our conforming to the likeness of His Son (Rom. 8.29).
So, I can tell you – without a shadow of a doubt – the outcome that God desires for you and your church through this pandemic: it is that you grow to be more like His Son. Nothing more, nothing less. He doesn’t want you simply to survive. And He’s not primarily concerned about making you stronger. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is a line from Nietzsche, not Scripture. Survival and resilience might be good things, but they aren’t the ultimate good.
Better to die godly than to endure godless.
There are two ways that God accomplishes his goal for us. One is primarily individual – that we become holy, set apart. We turn from our sin and we dedicate our lives to His service. The other is communal – that we live together in harmony. The sins I considered in the last post relate to this – immorality is counter to holiness and bitter hearts destroy peace. The fruit God wants to grow in us is peaceful and righteous (v.11). Furthermore, He calls us to ‘strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (v.14).
Maybe you immediately recognise what I’m talking about. Perhaps, every time you call one of your church members, they are bursting to tell you how God is growing the ‘peaceful fruit of righteousness’ (v.11) in them, rather than weighing you down with complaints. In your team meetings, your focus may have been on the pursuit of holiness and unity, rather than perfecting live streaming or maximising the use of the building. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all crying out for grace to be made more like Jesus, rather than becoming consumed by worries about ‘getting church right?’
I hope I don’t sound flippant. I don’t mean to be. I certainly don’t wish you to be. But I do want to challenge and encourage you. Our priorities must be God’s priorities. It’s vital right now to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness above all else. Our prayers need to focus on His will for us and our communities. In tough times, we need to work hard at forgiving those with whom we disagree. We must be be gracious towards those who hold different views on meeting together in person or online, singing, and wearing visors and masks. Let’s remember the part of the Lord’s Prayer about forgiveness, just as much as the line about our daily bread.
Our programming should prioritise the making of disciples, and the inclusion of everyone in our community. Our pastoring should help people frame their struggles within the good shepherding of Jesus. Let’s encourage believers to hear His voice and to stick with the rest of the flock. Let’s lead our congregations by following our Good Shepherd through the valley – comforted by rod and staff - all the way to the wonder of enjoying that ‘overflowing cup.’
How would you rate your leadership right now?
Temptations abound, don’t they? (see my last post.) The pandemic also threatens our unity. How do you keep a church together when some are meeting in person, some are online, and some (usually the most vulnerable) aren’t able to do either? How can you prioritise the weaker members? How can you communicate in ways that don’t weigh people down with guilt instead of releasing them into grace? And what about the danger of creating what looks like an in-crowd? How will you ensure no one feels like they’re consigned to the edges of the group?
We need sensitivity, attentiveness and wisdom. Lots of wisdom.
In my next post, I’ll write more about what it means to be ‘the church’ during a pandemic. For now, though, take a look at your sermon notes and your diary. Are the dominant themes the pursuit of peace and holiness? They should be.