The power of “and”

“And” is a powerful word.

In order to understand why, Americans need to read Hebrews 11. But since many won’t, Christians in America should strive to demonstrate Hebrews 11 in our speech and in our use of social media.

Hebrews 11 is the “by faith” chapter. It explains and celebrates the ways in which many people in the Old Testament walked through the world “by faith.” These heroes of the faith show contemporary believers what faith looks like, how it acts, and the ways in which faith responds to trials, hardships, deprivations, unfulfilled longings, and hope deferred.

Among the men and women listed stand Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, and David. Each is described as living “by faith” and is presented as a commendable example of the kind of faith described in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

These men and women are, in fact, commendable. They did, in truth, exercise biblical faith during trying times and in diverse circumstances. Each modeled true faith.

And . . .

“And” is a potent word. It serves to connect things that otherwise might be held apart. It is sunny outside, and it is cold. “And” brings a fuller picture of truth than either statement alone could offer. It is not either sunny or cold. It is sunny and cold.

“And” is powerful.

Abraham modeled true faith, and he repeatedly lied, jeopardizing the life of his wife on more than one occasion. Sarah modeled true faith, and she laughed in disbelief when the LORD revealed to her that she would bear a son in her old age. Jacob modeled true faith, and he deceived his father, defrauded his brother, and swindled his uncle. Moses modeled true faith, and he murdered an Egyptian man, burying his body in the sand. Rahab modeled true faith, and she made her living as a prostitute before serving the LORD. Gideon modeled true faith, and he named his son “my father is king” even though God, not Gideon, was the King of Israel. Samson modeled true faith, and he broke the vows to God he had taken as a Nazarite. David modeled true faith, and he committed adultery with Bathsheba, thereafter arranging for the untimely death of her husband.

And. Each of these people both modeled true faith and committed great sins.

Our nation seems incapable of “and.” The notion that I can be in favor of lovingly protecting the lives of my neighbors and in favor of a robust economy at the same time seems lost on many people. But I like sunshine and I like a summer shower that relieves the heat. I trust God for provision and I work hard at my job. I think pepperoni and black olives belong on pizza. But not pineapple—that’s just an abomination. In any case, you get the point.

So Christian, when you speak and engage on social media, think about Hebrews 11. Christians should refuse to say, “Abraham was only sinful, not faithful.” We should likewise refuse to say, “Abraham was only faithful, not sinful.” Both are lies, because both neglect “and.” In the same way, our public discourse should include lots of “and,” as we refuse to lie or to pit one truth against another truth. I want to love my neighbor by not infecting him, and I want to love my neighbor by making sure he has a job. And.

In a world that has forgotten about “and,” you, Christian, remember to use its power, and use it often.

Is “righteous indignation” righteous?

Righteous indignation. You’ve felt it.

It’s that burning anger that arises within you when a driver flies past you, crossing a double yellow line in a school zone, driving 30MPH over the speed limit, risking the lives of children.

But how do you know that your indignation is actually righteous? We all become indignant. Each of us occasionally mounts our moral high horse, glancing down our nose at those whom we categorize as wicked, chastising the moral evils we see in others. I’ve done it. So have you. But what if your moral high horse isn’t so moral? Would you even know it?

The conscience is a funny thing. Your conscience is your faculty of discerning moral evil. It accuses you when you’ve done wrong. It acquits you when you’ve done right. Your conscience produces righteous indignation when the driver flies you by because it believes that such behavior is wrong. But is your conscience infallible? Sadly, it isn’t.

Your conscience acts like a filter. It lets through thoughts, words, and behaviors that it believes to be good, true, and right, and it prohibits that which it believes to be evil, false, and wicked. But it only acts according to what it knows.

If you were raised in a home in which “doo-doo” was considered a bad word, your conscience will accuse you if you say it. It will also accuse others, believing them to be immoral in their use of words. You might even experience “righteous indignation” at what you perceive to be their crass speech. But if you grew up on a farm, and “shit” was simply the word that you and everybody else you knew—including the leaders at your church—used to describe animal waste, then you wouldn’t think twice about saying it. Your conscience would not accuse you or others.

Individual conscience therefore differs from person to person. What causes righteous indignation in one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. Who’s right?

If there is no God, then none of us ever has the right to exercise righteous indignation. You can only sit back and sigh, frustrated that the man who flies by you in the school zone has a conscience that is—in your opinion—like a colander whose holes are too big. It might work well to strain out big, bow-tie pasta, but its useless for straining small macaroni. But if there is no God, then there is no moral standard, and therefore no way other than personal conscience to determine evil. Then the man in the car isn’t really a jerk, and he’s not really wrong. He simply has a conscience that allows him to do something your conscience would reject. And who’s to say that you’re right and he’s wrong? When there is no moral standard, it’s awfully hard to find a moral high horse to mount.

But blessedly God is, and he alone determines right from wrong. The more you subject your conscience to the Word of God, the more it will function properly. The Bible shapes your conscience, like forming colander along biblical lines, cutting the holes precisely the right size in just the right number, such that your conscience more and more aligns with the character of God himself. The Scripture provides an unchanging moral standard by which to calibrate your conscience.

Proverbs 8:12 says, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” If you fear the LORD, righteous indignation will sometimes rise within your breast, and it ought to. For evil is real, and those who love the LORD hate it.

But before you mount your moral high horse, make sure it’s a biblical horse.

Asking the Better Question

“Why is this pandemic happening?” Maybe you’ve asked this question. Maybe you’ve heard a number of people trying to answer. Me too.

Recently I read an article in which the author asserted that the present pandemic represents a judgment from God against the sins of the world. I also read a different article in which the author asserted that the present pandemic does not represent a judgment from God against the sins of the world. Both authors profess Christ. What is the average Christian to make of such stuff?

The Scripture helps us in a number of ways. First, it tells us that plagues and pestilences will continue to be a part of life until Jesus returns to renew the Creation. In Luke 21:11, as Jesus spoke to his disciples about the time between his first coming and second coming, he said: “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences.” Christians ought therefore to be wary of anyone who identifies a particular disease as a particular judgment from God against a particular sin, for diseases are a part of the fallen world in which we live, and they will remain so until the return of Christ.

The Scripture cautions us, moreover, by revealing that we are not privy to God’s thoughts. We know about God exactly and only what he has chosen to reveal to us, and in his revelation of himself he has said in no uncertain terms: “[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). To speculate about God’s reasons for his providential actions is to pry into something he has not chosen to reveal. Even as Moses declared in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Moses taught that you don’t need to speculate about what God has not revealed, but rather to obey what he has.

To assert, “This virus judges that sin,” is therefore unwise and unbiblical. God interprets his own providences in Scripture, and without his divine interpretation of any given event, man ought not to guess what God is thinking or to assign motives to his actions. You could easily find yourself to be lying about God.

But we can and should warn. Christians should see tragedies, natural disasters, and even pandemics, not only as an opportunity to express compassion, and to offer physical and emotional aid to those who suffer, but also to call men and women to repentance and faith in Christ. You may be thinking: “But isn’t that harsh? Isn’t using human suffering as an opportunity to tell people to repent callous?” No, because that is precisely what Jesus did.

In Luke 13 Jesus used a natural disaster—an earthquake that caused a tower to fall—in order to call men and women to repent. Jesus asked, “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” And he answered, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

That doesn’t sound very compassionate, does it? Certainly Jesus protected those whom the tower crushed from character assassination. He made clear that the tower did not fall on them specifically as a punishment for their sin. Those who died were not morally worse than those who lived. But Jesus did use their tragic deaths in a way that we may find uncomfortable—to encourage others to repent. We tend to define compassion as care for a person’s physical and emotional needs, but Jesus’ compassion is more searching than ours. He loved grieving people enough to offend them by warning them that if they died in their sin a tragedy would befall them greater than that which befell those crushed under the tower. Jesus saw this very real human tragedy not merely as a chance to offer physical and emotional care, but also to offer a deeper, spiritual compassion—to exhort each of us to address our sin before a Holy God and be reconciled to him.

Are you still speculating about God’s providence? Or are you doing what Jesus commands? You may never know the reasons behind God’s actions, or why COVID-19 arrived when it did or for what purpose, but in the end what you do know is far better. You know your Heavenly Father’s character, for he has revealed it at the cross of Christ. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s death demonstrates God’s love toward sinners like you and me, and holds out the promise of salvation to all who will believe. While many are rightly seeking temporary physical safety from COVID-19, they are sadly neglecting the eternal physical and spiritual safety from sin and its consequences that the Lord is offering. But he is offering still. How will you respond?

“Why is this pandemic happening?” Maybe the better question is, “How should I respond to this pandemic?”

Because while providence is mysterious, salvation is not.

Strange Days . . .

These are strange days indeed.

When have the citizens of any nation ever believed it to be the responsibility of their government to prevent them from contracting an airborne virus? Somewhere along the way a paradigm shift took place in America, and we’re seeing the fruit of that shift today.

Communicable diseases and bacterial infections, along with the deaths they cause, comprised a familiar feature of American life not so long ago. Typhus, typhoid, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, polio, and cholera exacted their cost yearly, and generations of Americans lived and labored under the pall of disease. Death never stood far from our forbearers, and the risk of contracting a life-threatening illness loomed over everyday social interactions.

Basic sanitation, clean water, and the emergence of vaccines and antibiotics radically reduced or eliminated many common diseases of generations past, and our life expectancy has blossomed as a result, stretching from 36 years in 1800 to 47 in 1900 to 75 in 2000 to 78 today.

Whereas improved hygiene, sanitation, and waste management helped to eradicate diseases like typhus, typhoid, and cholera, and while mosquito control helped to end seasonal malaria and yellow fever epidemics, the widespread availability of penicillin beginning in 1945 and the polio vaccine in 1955 helped to usher in an era in which death from disease and infection rapidly waned. Vaccines multiplied, medicine advanced, and America forgot.

The last yellow fever outbreak in the United States occurred in 1905. Malaria is unheard of. Cholera is a third world disease. Only the WWII generation remembers suffering through scarlet fever, mumps, measles, and rubella, while only the eldest of the Baby Boomers can recall a childhood with polio. Smallpox has been eradicated worldwide for over forty years, and virtually no American child for twenty years has endured the itchy misery of chicken pox.

Americans now expect to live largely disease free. That expectation is barely seventy years old, but it saturates the air we breathe, and we have become an entitled people—entitled to health, entitled to freedom from disease, entitled to a long life, so much so that we now expect Uncle Sam to prevent us from contracting an airborne cold virus.

COVID-19 has exposed this paradigm shift.

The rise of AIDS in the early 1980s threatened our entitlement, but pharmaceutical salvation came quickly and our superiority over disease resumed. But then came SARS, MERS, Zika, and the reemergence of measles and pertussis. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are multiplying, as are deaths from hospital infections. And now, COVID-19 has paralyzed the globe. Our mastery over nature seems less complete than it did even a decade ago.

The future will not get easier.

As strong as American entitlement to personal health has become, something older, stronger, and deeper undergirds American culture—individualism. Fierce, independent, vigorous individualism, bursting forth in every manner of self-expression and personal freedom, runs in American blood. But for generations, the ethic of Christianity tempered and shaped the average American’s use of the individual freedom he or she enjoyed, imbuing individualism with altruism, self-sacrifice, morality, and self-control. But the wane of Christianity in America has largely coincided with the rise of health-entitlement. As a result, the individualism that thrives in American culture today runs free from all fetters, having abandoned the moral and ethical constraints of prior generations. As the 21st century progresses, as new diseases emerge while old diseases reappear, as the global community becomes more global, and as individual actions increasingly affect community wellbeing, American entitlement to health and American individualism will increasingly collide, compete for dominance, and spark deep social divisions.

Already those who privilege freedom and those who privilege health stand at loggerheads. Some parents demand the personal freedom not to vaccinate their children. Others demand the vaccination of all children in the name of public health. Some students assert their right to enjoy spring break during the midst of a pandemic. Others demand that those same students forego spring break for the sake of public health.

American culture offers no solution to this impasse. But Christ does.

Jesus teaches personal freedom tempered by a deep personal responsibility to love and protect our neighbors. Jesus supports public efforts to eliminate diseases and the suffering they inflict on our fellow man, but he also teaches that the man who escapes disease today will nevertheless stand before his Creator tomorrow, for death will find us all. Jesus offers eternal health in the face of temporary health that is sure to wane. Jesus promises eternal freedom—not freedom to sin, but freedom from sin—the freedom of the sons of God, full of the responsibility to glorify God.

Ultimately, freedom and safety only coexist in Jesus Christ, and if America wants both it must first have him.

“Distancing” Double-Talk

Some double-talk is too hypocritical not to mention.

St. Patrick’s Day revelers. College spring breakers. Any person in any public group of any size. What do they have in common? All have been shamed and excoriated on social media for refusing to comply with “social distancing” guidelines.

One young man lashed out via Facebook at a photo of college students on a Florida beach, writing that these were “the worst kind of humans,” while another agreed, saying to the students in the photo, “You’re killing people!”

“Idiots,” “dumbsh*ts,” and “*ssholes” are just of few of the more vulgar insults I’ve read recently as people virtue signal their support for “distancing.” The less-than-delightful meme, “Stay the F*ck Home!” has also been making its rounds.

The implication seems clear: Socially responsible human beings do not brazenly risk other’s lives.

But at least in my social media sphere some of the most vocal shamers of those who violate “distancing” rules are at the same time vocal supporters of abortion. Evidently, Joe McIrish is directly responsible for making sure that no grandmother gets COVID-19, but an abortion advocate is not responsible to protect the unborn. Mary from State U is supposed to set aside her freedoms for the safety of others, but the abortion advocate won’t set aside hers for her own baby. What happened to socially responsible human beings not brazenly risking others lives?

After all, abortion does not simply risk life. It destroys it.

Personally, I’m happy to participate in “social distancing.” I believe that love for neighbor compels me to seek the welfare of others, even if that means setting aside some of my “rights” for a time.

But if you’re in favor of slaughtering 2,500 babies each day, every day, which is the butcher’s bill of abortion in America, then please don’t lecture anyone on hand washing, “social-distancing,” or the need to protect the vulnerable.

Because you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.

A Guaranteed Inheritance

Some things cannot be taken away.

In the last two weeks, each of us has learned that a pandemic can take away many more things than we’d prefer to give. It can take away your favorite restaurant. It can take away your gym. It can take away your school. It can take away airline flights, vacation plans, wedding ceremonies, and an eager 12-year-old’s epic Nerf gun backyard Rambo birthday party. It can take away March Madness, the NHL, and the Master’s. It can take away your job, your paycheck, and your economic security. It can take your friend, your neighbor, your grandmother.

But it cannot take your inheritance.

Even as Paul teaches in Galatians 4:4-7, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

Did you catch that? You who trust in Christ possess, and are possessed by, his Holy Spirit, for you are adopted sons and daughters of God, and if sons and daughters then heirs of your Father’s estate. And what does your Father possess? All things. What will you inherit? All things. A renewed and perfected Creation awaits you, a land flowing with milk and honey, in which neither disease nor age nor injury nor death stalk the living. This inheritance is guaranteed to your faith, for by his death Christ has purchased it for you. It is bought and paid for. No pandemic can take it from you. It is secure, for he who holds it for you is God Almighty.

Not even death can take this inheritance. So hold your head high, Christian, and be not afraid. To live is Christ. Yes, and to die surely is gain.

For some things cannot be taken away.

Boot Camp, COVID-19, and Busyness

I am often way too busy, and so are you.

COVID-19 has interrupted the busyness, imposing upon most of us some form of “social distancing,” isolation, or even full quarantine. None of us is happy about it, save for the most ardent introverts. But an empty schedule and a slower pace of life offer blessings, especially for Christians.

For three years I served as a chaplain aboard Parris Island, SC where Marine Corps boot camp takes place. Recruits face a radical life change when they arrive on the island. No cell phone. No laptop. No iPad. No television, Netflix, or Amazon Prime. No communication with the outside world, except for snail mail. And no talk with other recruits. At all. For weeks.

Young men and women whose lives toggled from one entertainment to the next, and who had never before known a day without digital technology at their fingertips, suddenly find themselves alone with their thoughts and feelings for the first time. Rather than simply turning to the next entertainment to alleviate painful emotions, personal shortcomings, or family struggles, recruits must face them. The quiet suffocates them.

And then something amazing happens. They grow. Many recruits come to Christ, most come to a new peace in themselves, and all come to understand the poverty of living moment-to-moment in a fog of digital distraction.

The Scripture has taught the value of seclusion, quiet, and stillness for millennia. Even as Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” But it’s hard to be still when you’re constantly distracted, entertained, and scheduled to the hilt. Busyness intrudes.

Not unlike boot camp, COVID-19 has imposed on many of us a measure of solitude to which we are unaccustomed. It has enforced a slower pace of life. And while we, unlike Marine Corps recruits, continue to have access to countless digital distractions, I want to encourage you not to use them. Rather than seeking solace in Netflix, reengage with your family. Talk with your spouse. Write a letter to your nephew. Read the Bible, and a good book as well. Complete a puzzle. Take a nap. Play a board game. In short, slow down. Be still before the Lord, and be present with your family.

Sometimes we talk about “the calm before the storm”—that eerie moment of silence before storm winds crash into the trees. But maybe we ought to talk about the storm before the calm—the storm of busyness, distraction, entertainment, and work that so often consumes us, but which has suddenly, and maybe blessedly, given way to stillness.

COVID-19 may have forced you to be still, but I hope you use it, and increasingly choose it over all-consuming busyness.