1 April 2020
Where are you as you read these words? More specifically, where in your life are you right now? Are you where you thought you’d be, just a few short weeks ago? Or has your applecart been overturned? I’ve been hearing several such applecart-overturned stories: students who were anticipating graduations, only to have them cancelled; weddings – and even funerals – that are (in some cases, by law) postponed or attended only by the most essential participants; business meetings and functions relegated to Zoom or Skype; and on and on it goes. As for me and my family, we are stranded in one country (Malaysia) unable to get to where all our possessions are (the Philippines) so we can complete our scheduled move in three weeks to a third country (the USA). Certainly not how we envisioned things a month ago! The world in April of 2020 is not the world it was a short while ago.
Next question: how does all of this make you feel? More specifically, how does it make you feel about the future? Do you lose sleep at night out of concern that you or a loved one may become a virus statistic? Do you hold your children closer and longer? Do you perhaps even conduct a personal inventory and discover that you have wasted far too much time before now, investing it in things that, now, seem less important? Do you, perhaps, ache in your heart as you consider the difference between, on the one hand, “sheltering in place” in a comfortable suburban home, with a nice yard for kids and maybe even a pool and, on the other hand, forcible quarantine in a hot, tin, one-room shanty, for a family of 8, who won’t have food tomorrow if they aren’t allowed to peddle their wares along the street today? Do you find yourself wondering if COVID-19, social distancing, face masks, and quarantine will become part of the warp and woof of all of the cultures of the world? (Imagine that! Despite all of our vast cultural differences, this – of all things – could be a common denominator that transcends every boundary and border.)
Final question: how does all of this affect your relationship with God? More specifically, are your circumstances driving you to despair or hurtling you into the shelter that only He can provide? Are you focused on your troubles (or, at the least, your inconvenience and discomfort) or are you prayerfully seeking to discern how God would have you to respond to your situation – and that of others? Are you resting in His sovereignty and His grace, or are you (be honest, now) disquieted by fear and anxiety?
Jesus asked, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life” (Matt. 6:27)? That’s the crux of that matter: worry. We call it different things, of course, such as care or concern to make it more palatable, or we couch it in more noble terms, by suggesting that what we are really doing is fulfilling our responsibility to be informed, to not be caught off-guard. Still, for most of us, most of the time, it’s pretty much just worry. Worry about what we can neither understand nor control. And rather than giving us a peek behind the veil, so to speak, the Bible just reinforces that helplessness: You do not even know what will happen tomorrow! What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:14). Well, by itself, that’s not very reassuring in the best of times – how much less when the fabric of our life seems as if it is being unraveled?
Yet, this same Jesus also said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). And Paul expounded on that: And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7). So, how do we exchange our worry for peace? The answer is, I think, right there is those two verses. First, Jesus says that He gives us peace – but not as the world gives. What’s the difference? Well, to begin with, it means that this giving is sincere. It is not a gift given with ulterior motives; it is given genuinely. Also, it means that it is given really. It is not an offer that may be rescinded nor a gift that may be retaken. Finally, it means that it is ours. Now. If He has sincerely and really given His peace to us, we have it (we just don’t always grasp the significance of that). This is why Jesus says that trouble and fear should not characterize our hearts; rather, peace should define us, govern us, keep us from those troubling and fearful temptations.
For his part, Paul not only describes this peace as so immense as to exceed our perception, but he gives us the beautiful truth that this peace will guard our hearts and minds. What a promise! That means that the fear and worry that lurks in the shadows must first conquer this peace – given to us sincerely and really by Christ – if it is to affect our hearts and our minds. What greater guard could we imagine than that which is planted by God between us and our fears? Yet, Paul’s exhortation is qualified. Yes, the peace of God has been sincerely and really given to us, but we have to lay hold of it. We have to know that it is ours.
Paul’s qualification, his instruction to grasp this incomprehensible peace, is threefold: 1) Be anxious for nothing, but 2) in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, 3) present your requests to God (Phil. 4:6). The first is what we are talking about, isn’t it? But we can’t just say it and have it be so; we have to believe it, to strive toward it by faithfully putting the other two points into action. Taken in reverse order, we must present our requests to God. These should be specific, honest, and yet contingent upon our submission to the will of God: that is, we must desire our good as He defines it, not as we desire it. And we must do so in prayer – soul-searching, self-denying, Christ-longing prayer. This must be coupled with thanksgiving: for the grace of God that saves us, the Spirit of God who seals us, and the peace of God that guards us.
Thankfully, Paul doesn’t leave us merely with abstract principles and theological truisms; he offers practical, pastoral guidance, which is perhaps never more relevant than it is in the midst of this storm. He writes, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things (Phil. 4:8). Beloved, do you crave the peace that Jesus has given to you? Do you long to have it overthrow a troubled mind or a worried heart? Then, consider: what are you thinking about these days? What consumes your mind? Is it true? Is it right? Granted, we often justify our passions with these categories. We can be quite convinced that what we are pursuing is right and true. However, is what you are reading, watching, and pondering also pure? What about lovely, and admirable? I don’t think that much of the evening (or Internet) news passes this test! I do know two things that do, however: the written Word of God and the Living Word of God, Christ Jesus. Think on these things! Read the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word – meditate on it day and night (especially if you are stuck at home!).
The Psalmist understood the importance of a wholehearted focus on these. As to the written Word: I will meditate on Your precepts and regard Your ways. I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word (Psalm 119:15-16); and as to the Living Word: I have set the LORD continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken (Psalm 16:8). Let us do so, as well, and we will not be shaken, either! The peace given to us – sincerely and really by Christ – will keep us and guard our hearts and minds from the fear and anxiety that threaten to consume us in these days of uncertainty. Know this: there is no uncertainty in the mind of our glorious God and Savior. Rest in that, and in the peace that comes from knowing Him.
Steve Curtis, DMin, PhD, is the Founder and International Director of Timothy Two Project International (www.timothytwo.org).