The nation state has taken the place of God … National governments are widely assumed to be responsible for and capable of providing those things which former generations thought only God could provide – freedom from fear, hunger, disease and want – in a word: “happiness”.Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984
Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.
Movies involving national or international disasters tend to have a couple of stock characters that crop up every time: one is the hero who rescues everyone; the other is the villainous, cowardly or incompetent person who should have prevented the disaster. Real-life disasters are no different: the Coronavirus outbreak has seen Captain Tom and the NHS recognised as heroes; and within the first few weeks of the first government response, there were already calls for inquiries and investigations into alleged incompetence because ministers were too hasty, too slow, too unclear, or changing their mind too often. We have a crisis, and we’ve picked our heroes and villains. For many, Captain Tom and the NHS are “our side of the table” and the government are “the problem”.
I’m not a virologist, a statistician or a PR expert, so I’m not in a position to critique whether the government response has been competent or not – the observation I want to make is that as a nation we expect our government to provide us with health and security. This means that when disaster hits, our tendency is not to see them as people fighting alongside us, trying to achieve the same goals as us, but rather as incompetents or worse, who are failing to deliver on their duty.
Over most of human history, these two longings of humanity – health and security, or “peace within” and “peace without” – were laid at the feet of a deity. People called out to whatever god they believed in, and hoped that they would answer. The trouble with this arrangement was that their gods were mostly of their own invention. The prophet Isaiah points out how ludicrous this is, writing:
He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak … it is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself …Isaiah 44:14-17
But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal … he also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’
From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me! You are my god!’
That setup seems as ridiculous to us today as it did then – how can one section of trunk be disposable firewood while another is a god? And yet we do the same – we know full well that none of us can foresee and prevent every terrorist attack or ensure that every cancer sufferer is diagnosed and treated before it’s too late, yet we gather together a group of fellow humans, pay them a high salary, and expect them to deliver it. No human can bear that load, any more than a section of tree-trunk. We want to be protected, but we are looking in the wrong place – the only one who can provide those things is the God who created all things.
However ill-directed it might be, our desire for protection is God-given, because God created us to live under His protection. Before there were earthquakes or terrorists, God created man and woman to live in relationship with Him, trusting Him to say what was good and what was bad – in much the same way that a young child trusts their parents. And we read in the Bible that this current era will end with everyone who is willing to do so putting themselves back under God’s protection by acknowledging His sovereignty, and agreeing that He alone is capable of judging good from evil – “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are His judgments.”1Rev 19:1-2, click here for more Revelation references.
How can this longing for health and security be a gateway for conversations about Jesus? This needs thought, because it’s simply not the case that Christians live in a constant state of health and peace! In fact, the author of our faith died aged around 33, and many of the pioneers of the early church died at the hands of violent men. To this day, you find will fibromyalgia, bulimia, cancer and broken collar-bones in churches around the world. Our message is not “Jesus will keep you safe from coronavirus and ISIS” – rather, the hope of Christianity comes in two parts.
The first part relates to this life. No good parent tells their child that they’ll protect them from all hurt: my two older kids have spent most of their playtime hours doing scooter jumps off a plank in the turning circle outside our house, and their arms and legs are covered in scrapes and bruises. They’ve also fallen out of trees, burned their fingers on cake tins, and been on the receiving end of unkind words. What they do know for sure is that they can run to Caroline or to me, and know that we will sit with them, comfort them, hug them, talk with them, help them process the situation, and in some cases learn from it. Jesus promises us this. We don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but we do know who will walk through it with us.
The second part is harder to get our head around: this life is not the real deal – it’s a pale shadow of what’s to come. As a follower of Jesus, my confidence about my health is not that I won’t get sick, but that after I die Christ will resurrect me to a body that will never be sick again. My confidence about my security is that even if I experience trouble now, it is outweighed by an eternal glory that is wholly dependable and utterly unshakeable.
To think like this requires faith. Perhaps you have had someone say to you “I wish I had your faith, but I don’t” – I know that I’ve heard it a few times. However, faith is simply taking God at His word and acting on that. To put our faith in God’s protection is to make a decision to trust that resurrection life is real, and to change our priorities from pleasing ourselves to pleasing the God who loves us.
The current pandemic brings up all kinds of conversations about health and security, as well as about the people who are “supposed” to guarantee it for us. Have you thought about how that kind of conversation could help someone else find their security in God, rather than in people? Why not take some time to think through what you might say when the topic next comes up!