I love my church, although ONE&ALL church does not belong to me. I love the people who attend, the staff who diligently make this engine run, and the executive team and elders who give so much of themselves to the cause of Christ. During this coronavirus pandemic, our leaders and servants have stepped up to lead and serve. I’m so proud of our chaplains and benevolence team. They contacted over 1,200 of our elderly members to meet their needs and fulfill their requests. I am pleased that thousands of our members gathered in homes and places of convenience to join our online worship, Communion, and preaching. Honoring the Lord’s Day is vital during this season and all seasons, even if the format changes.
The most challenging aspect of the coronavirus concerns all the unknowns. How long will this isolation last? How many will be infected? How will this pandemic impact the global economy? Will I lose my job? Will my friends lose their jobs? When will it all end?
No one can answer those questions except the One who holds all things in his hands, which begs the question: Where is God? Never do we struggle with the goodness of God more than in the middle of a pandemic. Why does God not put his hand up and say, “This far, no further?” God could stop this disease in its tracks. Where is he?
Christian leaders who attempt to answer these difficult questions respond typically in one of three ways. First, some claim, “God sent this disease to punish our evil doings. We have become an immoral generation and are reaping the ramifications of our freewill choices.” Second, others proclaim that God never sends an atrocity, but takes this disadvantage, turns it into an advantage, and uses it for his glory. Third, others suggest that the presence of evil disproves the existence of God, period.
Each position features inherent contradictions rendering it useless at best and heretical at worst. Assuming we know the purpose of any atrocity is both arrogant and judgmental. If God punishes all evil by sending a disease, why are any of us still here? We should all be sick, yet, some of the worst violators will remain untouched by this virus. Perhaps God needs help with his aim.
The third position, atheism, self-destructs. If there is no God, there is no such thing as evil, and this disease is a matter of random processes weeding out the weak so that the strong may survive. We pose the question of suffering in decidedly moral categories because we believe that all life is sacred, something that is true only if God exists. Finally, the middle position edges closer to what Scripture teaches. Yes, God works everything together for his good and glory. However, the middle position goes too far. Positing the idea that God would never send a storm of correction to discipline his children seems contrary to Scripture.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Hebrews 12:7, 8).
Notice the writer does not say, “God sends a particular hardship to discipline you.” Instead, he says, “Endure hardship as discipline.” That is an important distinction. The author does not tell us that all hardship is discipline but that we should view hardship as discipline. Why? Because this perspective produces significant growth and character. Our finite minds cannot possibly know the full motives of the infinite. An exhaustive understanding of human atrocities is not possible. Therefore, the most effective way to approach this pandemic is to view it as discipline, looking deep into our souls in hopes of discovering any contradictions. Are we who we say we are?
Where followers of Jesus are concerned, three shortcomings should concern us.
First, with the advent of affluence, we have become too busy for God. Church attendance is on the decline, and biblical literacy is at an all-time low. Simply put, we don’t have time for God, the things of God, nor the people of God. Long gone are the Eric Liddells who refuse to violate the Sabbath principle. Are we remembering the Lord’s Day, keeping it holy, separate, and distinct from all other days? The Jews kept the Sabbath (Saturday), but by the time John wrote Revelation (AD 72), the Christians were meeting on the first day of the week (Sunday), the Lord’s Day, the day Jesus rose from the dead. Until recently, Sunday had been a sacred day in America. Sunday brought prohibitions against selling alcohol, restrictions concerning school sporting events, and legal parameters targeting employers requiring employees to work. Sunday was a day of worship, rest, and family—a day set apart from the others.
Unfortunately, Christ followers stood silently as the pursuit of wealth and fame superseded the quest for the vitality of the soul. Eventually, Americans exchanged the foundation for true blessing for superficial wealth and significance. I wonder how many “Christian” parents are more concerned with their child’s athletic, musical, or financial success than their spiritual vitality. How many parents regularly violate the Sabbath principle by encouraging their kids to elevate some other pursuit above it?
Sometimes, to renew our spiritual health, God removes, albeit temporarily, those things that distract us. Could this be part of the reason God allowed this virus to come to our shores? None of us are gifted enough to know with certainty. Yet, the writer of the book of Hebrews instructs us to treat this virus as a wake-up call. In doing so, perhaps when this has passed, Americans, primarily American Christians, will have a renewed passion toward the eternal things and the kingdom that no disease can ever touch.
Second, with the advent of social media, we live isolated lives. Ironic, isn’t it? Social media is supposed to bring the world together, yet we are drifting farther apart. Families sitting around the dinner table are present at the table but absent from the conversation. Rather than engaging those present in meaningful conversation, each member watches his favorite television show, checks her private email, or updates his Facebook page. We are experiencing non-communal communities. The light may be on, but nobody’s home.
Moreover, our great nation is truly divided. We continue to snipe vitriolic language from behind the political lines hoping to bring down anyone who disagrees with us. In the past, tragedies brought us together regardless of political bias, religion, or creed. Yet, here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and many (not all) politicians, without genuine care for America or its citizens, are using the crises for political fodder. Don’t underestimate the influence of social media on our willingness to listen to each other. Social media creates a false sense of community. We believe we can be rude to present company, separate ourselves from co-workers and family, all because we have a following of social media that is always on our side. After all, they continue to click the “like” button concerning the things we say. They must be our true friends. We live in a superficial community absent of conflict and accountability. If someone violates my rules in my world, I make them disappear by “unfriending” or “blocking” their access. We feel no need to compromise or genuinely listen to our adversaries in such a climate. Worse yet, growth and maturity do not happen in such quasi communities.
I wonder if God allows this isolation until his people realize that man cannot live by social media alone. We need each other in real-time and in real ways. While I am pleased that because of social media, we can continue to meet together as a church, I wonder what this pandemic will bring. When it’s over, we will be so wary of ourselves that we will long for a personal touch and corporate gatherings. If so, then God used something meant for evil for our good and his glory. Built to live in community—a real, authentic, genuine, transparent community—we need proximity. Social media can never deliver. Isolation has a way of reminding us of our longing for the company of others.
Third, 9/11 ushered in a new understanding concerning the separation of church and state. With most Americans reeling from the type of oppressive religious ideals perpetrated by a radical form of Islam, all religions, including Christianity, were lumped into the melting pot. As a result, the American government significantly decreased the encouragement and support of faith-based organizations. Hundreds of compassion efforts previously sponsored by the local church are now funded by governmental agencies or, in many cases, not funded at all. To distance itself from any perceived Christian influence, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Many Americans now see the church as irrelevant. If she is not an organization of benevolence, then what is she?
Unfortunately, too many church leaders believe the secular press clippings. We neglect first things; instead, we focus our efforts away from the needs of the world and onto the thirst for personal empires. While we warn our parishioners about the dangers of chasing temporal significance, we pastors remain busy trying to make a name for ourselves. We seem focused on the size of our congregations and the beauty and wonder of our properties. Millions of dollars are spent on top-rate facilities while poverty increases in our inner cities. Yes, we need buildings in which to meet, but do we need edifices? I ask myself this question every single day. The temptation to build my empire never goes away.
I most definitely do not have all the answers, but I think it’s time we ask the questions. The last thing I want to do is sling mud at anyone who has a large facility. Many pastors use their facilities as the foundation from which to meet both local and global needs. The question is a matter of proportion. I find it easy to justify gigantic building projects by minimal acts of benevolence. I pray that we at ONE&ALL church, through significant acts of compassion, jar the doors of human hearts open that Christ may come in.
We are supposed to respond to our times in such a way to draw those who are far from God nearer to him. The early church inspired her generation because her people lived uniquely different lives. While everyone isolated themselves from the sick and diseased, Christ followers cared for the dying out in the streets. This selfless act spoke volumes to the Greco-Roman world. In a letter written to Diognetus dated about AD 130, we discover the reason first-century Christians made such an impact on their world.
They marry, as do all others; they beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified.
My prayer during this season of life and ministry is simple. I pray that we Christ followers would renew our passion for corporate worship and the honoring of the Lord’s Day. I pray that we would renew our desire for genuine community and accountability with the people of God and with our immediate families. Finally, I pray we would renew our compassion for the less fortunate and would do everything we can to help the helpless.
Jeff Vines serves as lead pastor of ONE&ALL Church in San Dimas, Calif.