This post was originally published at www.christianstudentsoncampus.com on March 20, 2020. I am reposting it here with some modifications.
The world is a different place than it was a month ago. The spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) has led to unprecedented closures of universities, businesses, and churches around the globe.
This is not the semester any of us had planned, especially graduating seniors, many of whom just had their last day of “real” college without realizing it. But it is the semester God had planned and we need to learn how to step into God’s calling for us at this time. It is precisely during times of crisis and surprise that we have the chance to grow the most.
In her book on advent, Maria Boulding reminds us that,
A creative breakthrough occurs when a species is under pressure and its ways of coping with the environment are no longer adequate.
All of us are experiencing disruptions to our life right now and we are still processing these changes. It’s hard to tell at this point when things will “get back to normal” and what that normal will look like. Certainly, the world will be a different place when we emerge from our self-quarantine cocoons and virtual classrooms back home.
The future remains uncertain as this pandemic sweeps through our cities. But one thing is certain: this isn’t going away in a few weeks.
Like Israel’s experience of a 70-year exile in Babylon, we need to figure out how to go through this upheaval together and settle into the new normal. Part of that is figuring out how to most effectively be the church during the next few months. Another part is remembering some unchanging truths from God’s word to fill us with joy, peace, and strength.
I saw a tweet the other day that reminded me of a crucial insight for times like this. It’s something that Gandalf says to Frodo at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings:
“Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We don’t get to choose the historical context into which we are born, but we do get to choose what we will do about it. So, what should we do?
Our Civic Duty
We need to do our part—our civic duty—to stop the spread and “flatten the curve” by following government and health official recommendations and/or mandates so that we do not become unwitting spreaders of this virus. If you don’t know what those are, fix that! These recommendations are for everyone, even the young and the healthy. Young and healthy people are not immune to catching the virus and may be a big factor in its spread. Think about your grandma or the elders in your church. Don’t be irresponsible and put others at risk. That means some fun things that you had planned will have to be canceled. View this as a culturally mandated lesson in one of Jesus’ central teachings: deny yourself (Matt. 16:24).
Our Christian Commission
But we also need to remember our Christian commission as stewards of grace (Eph. 3:2), and ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). Unlike nearly everything else, the great commission hasn’t been canceled.
I’ve been thinking about the church’s response in light of two verses:
Men who understood the times that they might know what Israel should do. –1 Chronicles 12:32
Who then is the faithful and prudent slave, whom the master has set over his household to give them food at the proper time? –Matthew 24:45
What should we do?
We live in crazy times. But we shouldn’t just live through them; we should think deeply about them so that we can live into them. We need to understand what God is trying to do right now, in our time (not just in general) so that we can cooperate with Him for His purpose. The first verse should make us ask, “what should we do?”
How should we do it?
The second verse should make us ask, “how should we do it?” We need to be faithful AND prudent. To be prudent means to be “characterized by care or wisdom in practical matters or in planning for the future” (American Heritage Dictionary). “Prudent” means we don’t just keep calm and carry on. Rather, we wake up and adjust. To be prudent in changing times means that faithfulness will look different than it did before.
Godet makes this comment on the relationship between faithfulness and contemporary situations:
Faithfulness in the realization of such a life rests on the knowledge which Christians have of the present situation of the world and of its significance.
For example, we are still faithful to love our neighbor as ourself. But two weeks ago that may have meant embracing them and letting them cry on our shoulder. Now that may look like practicing social distancing and FaceTiming them to see how they’re doing.
Faithfulness at this time means we will love our neighbors (Mark 12:31), bear others’ burdens (Gal. 6:2), share our material goods (Heb. 13:16), encourage the fainthearted (1 Thes. 5:14), and pray for everyone (1 Tim. 2:1).
Notice that love and prayer bracket and include a whole bunch of down-to-earth actions. Love-fueled prayer and prayer-filled love for others manifests itself as gracious human help. We should look around and ask, “Who can I help? Who can I pray for?”
Many of these spiritual virtues map onto practical necessities. The New Testament doesn’t let us neatly compartmentalize the Christian life into the spiritual vs the physical, or the doctrinal vs the ethical. Jesus doesn’t say: pick whichever one matches your natural bent and just do that! We need to guard ourselves from sliding toward either extreme at the expense of the other—an over-spiritualized faith that absolves itself from worldly concerns or a hyper-pragmatic faith that devolves into mere political activism.
As we respond to this crisis in appropriate ways, we do so with the confident expectation that others will see and hear Jesus through us, and then worship and adore Him with us.
Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in the heavens. –Matthew 5:16
Three things to do
So we’re all on board, right? Great, how do we do this? One of the biggest challenges for the church in the coming months will be our physical separation. With that in mind we should do three things while we can’t physically gather.
1. Stay connected
Even though I am absent in the flesh, yet in the spirit I am with you… –Colossians 2:5
We have a great opportunity at this time to stay connected through technology and to practice being present to each other in spirit. Physical distance shouldn’t isolate us from the Body of Christ or cut us off from its supply. Social distancing doesn’t equal relational distancing.
This was Paul’s experience. When he was imprisoned in Rome for his faith, he wrote to the church in Philippi 1,000 miles away, and told them, “This will turn out to salvation through your petition and the bountiful supply of the Spirit” (Phil. 1:19). Think about that: 1,000 miles away, alone in jail, with no FaceTime or texting. Where was Paul’s confidence? Not just in the presence of God, but in the prayer of Christians.
Physical distance doesn’t diminish the power of prayer. The supply of the Body transcends the limitations of space. We have it way easier than Paul did to stay connected. Let’s be creative and constant in our endeavors to stay connected through technology. Set up a FaceTime prayer time with someone. Text someone what you are getting from God’s word.
2. Redeem the time
Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. –Ephesians 5:16
Without physical classes happening and with in-person church gatherings on pause, many of us may be tempted to waste more time than usual. The disruption to our normal routines and the daily structure of our lives can lead to lethargy and distraction. On top of that, our spiritual muscles atrophy if we don’t use them. We can easily end up spinning our wheels and going nowhere. This could look like more Netflix, more scrolling, or more pointless diversions.
But it’s important that we don’t waste this season that God has arranged. In fact, the Greek word for time here (kairos) means “opportunity” or “season.” It differs from the other Greek word for time (chronos).
Here’s how two other Bible translations render it:
“Redeeming the season…” (D.B. Hart)
“Making the most of every opportunity…” (NIV)
Chronos is the undifferentiated march of seconds on the clock that lets us measure and control our lives. Kairos refers to special, divinely-determine opportunities within the temporal structure of existence that we must grasp and make the most of before they slip by. Think of kairos like this: a friend does something amazing or silly and you have about 3 seconds to whip out your phone to capture it before it ends. Chronos is predictable and uniform. Kairos is unexpected and unique. Chronos is like a constantly flowing river. Kairos is like a desert pool that briefly appears after a rare rainfall.
So let’s make the most of this unexpected rain. Here are some suggestions.
Be intentional about morning times with the Lord. Soak yourself in Bible reading. Schedule in afternoon breaks for 10 minutes in prayer. Develop new spiritual muscles. Pray through Psalms one day at a time. Develop new skills. Learn new worship songs. Read a book that will broaden your soul. Reflect on your spiritual growth (without free-falling into an inner abyss). Journal about life. Process your feelings. Learn to appreciate small moments. Cultivate wonder in creation. Develop gratefulness. Invest in relationships. Look for ways to do good (Gal. 6:10).
There will only be one regret in eternity: missed opportunities. Don’t let this be one!
3. Spread the word
Those therefore who were scattered went throughout the land announcing the word as the gospel. –Acts 8:4
Like I said above, just because we’re scattered doesn’t mean the great commission is on pause. In fact, God sovereignly scatters the church to scatter the word more broadly. God knows where the word needs to go and how to get it there. Maybe you’re back home or around friends that you normally wouldn’t see in the academic year. Take advantage of this nearness to share with them what God is doing in your life. Especially at times when society is roiled by fear and anxiety, people need to hear the gospel of peace that brings the comfort of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31).
This is exactly what God did in Acts 8. The church recognized that persecution and that disruption to their church life as a gospel opportunity. Sometimes the scattered church can do more than the gathered church, especially if the four walls of church become a coffin to our commission. The gospel refuses to be permanently walled in by complacency and finds surprising ways to break out of confinement.
One of the Old Testament psalms reflects on Israel’s exile in foreign lands and celebrates what God did through it. The psalm poetically depicts that painful experience as God’s way of sowing the seed of His promise into the soil of pagan hearts. Those Israelites went into exile weeping, but they took with them the seed of God’s word and scattered it. When the exile ended, they brought back with them sheaves of Gentile believers. What began in human tears, ended in divine triumph.
He who goes forth and weeps,
bearing seed for scattering,
will no doubt come in with a ringing shout,
bearing his sheaves with him.
So don’t forget to take some seeds home. Be on the look out for ways to sow the gospel seeds of faith, hope, and love into the people around you.
This will be a new season for all of us, but if we make the most of it then God, the church, and the world stand to gain through this.
1. Maria Boulding, The Coming of God, p. 23
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 55-56
3. F. Godet, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, p. 449
4. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Philippians, Ch. 33
5. C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8 (ICC), p. 212. See also F.F. Bruce, Commentary on Ephesians, p. 109: “The word translated ‘time’ (Gk. kairos) denotes a critical epoch, a special opportunity, which may soon pass; ‘grasp it’, says the apostle, ‘buy it up for yourselves while it lasts.'”
6. See Katherine Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, pp. 14-30
7. The Recovery Version takes Philippians 1:27 to be a personification of the gospel as an athlete or gladiator whom we need to join in his struggle: “Striving together along with the faith of the gospel” (emphasis added).