Though several people expressed appreciation for my article “Christian Reflections on the Pandemic: Some Preliminary Thoughts,” one reader said, “There is not enough good news here! Where is the cross of Christ?”
He is right, of course. Paul said that when he went to Corinth, he “determined to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Some have asked, “Where is God in this pandemic?” I have already suggested some possible answers to this question, but the fundamental key to understanding how we should face trouble of any kind is found in Jesus Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
First, we believe that Jesus, while he was on earth, was “in all points [in every respect] tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), so he is able to sympathize with us in all our trials. Even if he did not have exactly the same experiences we do, he fully knows and understands how we feel.
Jesus bore our judgment
All suffering results, ultimately, from the sin of Adam and Eve, and manifests the judgment of a holy God against disobedience to his righteous commands. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’s glory, and we all deserve punishment.
In his surpassing love for us, however, God has given us his “only-begotten Son, so that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) God “gave” his Son supremely by allowing him to be handed over to wicked rulers and crucified for our sins, bearing the penalty we deserved: “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). He “suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). When on the cross he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me” (Matthew 27:46), he was absorbing the wrath of God in our place.
Since he has fully paid the price for our sins, all who trust him have “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our transgressions” (Ephesians 1:7).
So, when Christians suffer along with others, it is not as a punishment for our sins. God has other purposes for our pain, but it is not to make us pay our unpayable debt to him. Jesus paid it all.
Jesus prays for us
Now, risen to God’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us constantly as our great High Priest (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25).
Whatever happens to us, therefore, we can be assured that our Savior is praying for us, and that the Father will hear and answer his Son’s prayers.
Jesus lives within us and among us by his Holy Spirit
Before ascending to heaven, Jesus said, “And lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How is he with us? Before he died, he promised his disciples, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you,” and he made it clear that he would “come” not only in his resurrected body but later as the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:17, 18, 23, 26; see Romans 8:9-10).
If we get sick, or have no money; if our nation is defeated in war or convulsed by riots and revolution; if we face persecution or death – in any circumstance, no matter how awful, Jesus is with us and even in us. Thus, nothing can separate us from the love of God for us and other believers in Christ Jesus around the world (Romans 8:38-39).
Jesus set the pattern for our life on earth: suffering with him
Some people claim that God doesn’t want Christians to suffer. They are wrong.
Very early in his ministry, Jesus clearly said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Peter, who heard these words and went through persecution himself said, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you and example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Later, he tells us how to frame our purpose in life: “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourself also with the same mind [or, purpose” (1 Peter 4:1). He doesn’t mean that we should seek trouble, but that we should be prepared for it.
Paul went through fire and water, compiling a resume of pain that probably stands unrivalled in Christian history (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-29). Writing to the church in Philippi, the scene of one of his trials, he said, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29).
Unlike the experience of Christians in the West since the end of World War II, suffering has been the normal lot for believers. And not only for them. Most people, most of the time, have had a hard life. Our easy existence in recent decades is statistically abnormal.
We Americans have moved into a different phase in our national life, one that has already brought sickness, death, isolation, loneliness, unemployment, uncertainty, and danger. In the opinion of many, these are just “the beginning of woes” for Americans. Things will get much, much worse, and may not get better, for many years to come.
We can mourn over this, but we must not wallow in self-pity or wonder whether God loves us. Now we have the chance to show that we are followers of Jesus, who walked a very hard road that ended at Golgotha.
Jesus governs all things for the sake of his church
As I said in the earlier essay, our risen Lord now sits at God’s right hand, where he rules the universe with justice and love. God “put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to [or, for] the church” (Ephesians 1:22).
In other words, everything that happens does so under the active rule of Jesus Christ, and for the good of his people, those who trust in him. “All things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose,” and that purpose is that we might be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:28-29).
Calamities and disasters occur for many reasons, but one of them is to make Christians more like Jesus in every way, as we learn how to glorify him in and through times of extreme difficulty and distress.
We could illustrate this truth in countless ways. Perhaps you have already seen some of the ways that your sufferings have worked out God’s good purposes in your life. When trouble comes, we must remember that it is all being guided and governed by the hand of Christ, so that his people will become more like himself and the church will testify to him as the only Savior and Lord (see Acts 1:8; Philippians 1:12-14).
Jesus is refining and purifying his people
Our gracious Lord transforms us into his moral likeness in many ways, one of which is pain. We are not being punished for our sins, but Christ may be chastening us and disciplining us as beloved children, so that we may grow in grace, forsake our foolish ways, and bear more fruit. “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous [eager to do good] and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
He and the Father cooperate in this process. “I am the Vine and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). “God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? . . . Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7,11).
Jesus will return to raise us from the dead and give us new bodies
The apostle Paul, writing before he had drunk the full draught of the cup of suffering, wrote, “We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light [!] affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).
After a few more beatings and nights in jail, he said, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body” (Philippians 3:19-20).
This is our true hope: The return of Christ to renew all things and to give us glorious, deathless bodies. We should not expect things to go well for us in this world, but we should “rest [our] hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
Jesus will judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:31; 2 Timothy 4:1)
We must be careful here, however. Those who do not trust in Christ and follow him are those “having no hope and without God in this world” (Ephesians 2:12). The awful reality of the Last Judgment confronts all of us, but especially those who refuse to repent of their unbelief and disobedience, trust in Christ alone, and follow in his steps.
For them, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire [he will be] taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8) Many so-called Evangelicals deny the clear teaching of Scripture that persistent unbelief and rebellion will lead to eternal punishment in hell (see Matthew 25:46; Romans 2:5-10; Revelation 19:11-16, 20; 20:10, 13-14; 21:8).
Where is the “good news” here? The good news is that God is just. He will reward those who, by reliance on the Holy Spirit, are able to walk as Christ did (see Matthew 5:11-12; 25:34-40; Romans 2:5-7, 10; Ephesians 6:8).They are not without sin, but they confess their sins, receive repentance, and find God’s help to be more faithful to him each day (see 1 John 1:8-2:2).
Others, who have committed offenses great and small against God and their neighbors, but who do not repent and trust in Christ, will receive just punishment.
The terrible wickedness that we witness with fear and loathing now will be repaid in full when Christ returns. Unrepentant idolaters, despisers of authority, abusers of authority, killers, racists, those who hate and those who incite others to hate, oppressors, exploiters, fornicators, adulterers, rapists, sexual predators, rapists, sexual abusers and traffickers, thieves, liars, those who covet– unless they truly repent and turn to Christ, all will receive a righteous recompense from God.
Now is the time to
· Turn to Jesus again, or for the first time, in repentance and trust
· Forsake our folly, renounce our idolatries, mortify our sinful passions, deny ourselves, turn from the love of this world and follow Jesus in holiness, truth, and love.
· Deepen – or develop for the first time – our habits of daily systematic Bible reading, meditation, study, and memorization. Only then will we be able to bear fruit in a time of drought and stand in the day of judgment (Psalm 1), be true disciples of Jesus (John 8:31-32), and enjoy communion with Christ that leads to answered prayer (John 15:7).
· Prepare to suffer, and thereby to come to know Jesus better (another “good” that pain can bring; see Philippians 3:10).
· Expect to know the resurrection power of Christ as we continually trust in him for wisdom, strength, joy, and the grace to represent him well in this dying world (see Ephesians 1:18-21; 6:10-20; Philippians 3:10).
· Ask God to glorify himself in and through us, always being “ready to give a defense to everyone who asks [us] a reason for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Peter 3:15).
· “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature “ (Mark 16:15).
· “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
· “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Corinthians 13).
· “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let [our] requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep [our] hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).