REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 33: Two other pandemics that face us
There is little doubt that trials test, prove and improve our capacity for endurance. The pandemic has been one such capacity builder. The teaching of our Lord and His apostles bear this out and add to endurance, the growth of our character in Christlikeness. The classic texts include (Matt. 5:3-12; 24:12-13; John 14:27; 16:33; Rom.5:3-5; 2 Cor.1:3-7; 12:7-10; Phil. 2:4-11; Heb.11; James 1:2-8; 1 Peter 1:6-9; 2:21-25; 3:8-15) and are in reality, words of comfort so that we are not only taught, but more importantly, ready to see, even welcome them, as ways of proving God’s faithfulness, experiencing His grace, building our strength by digging deeper into his promises and all the while lifting our hearts higher in adoration. By so doing we are strengthened for future trials and prove to be an encouragement to our fellow pilgrims, not yet home, but running well on the way (Hebrews 12:1-13).
And what are these pandemics, from which we will receive no help, either financial, medical or emotional from our governments? Like peas in a pod they are persecution and prosperity. Both were envisaged by our Lord as potential threats to our perseverance and testimony. Persecution in warnings like Luke 14:26: if anyone comes after me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple, in the stark realism of John 15:18: if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first and in assuring promises like Matt.5:10: blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Prosperity in parables like The Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), encounters like the Rich young ruler (Luke 18:30), teaching (Luke 12:13-21) and warnings like (Luke 8:14: the seed that fell among the thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way are chocked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. How fortunate and loved we are to have a Saviour and Lord who so clearly loves us, that He will neither ignore our temptations, nor indulge us by not warning us of the perils of discipleship in this world, which has been described as a tottering stage. Without the warnings of God’s Son through His Word we are most likely to be content to rejoice in a cheap grace discipleship, cooled by prosperity and happy to avoid the heat of persecution.
While persecution is the lot of the majority of our fellow believers around the world, prosperity is the greater danger for us in Australia. The very air we breathe, and if we are honest, our preferred mindset and way of life, is prosperity and the pleasures it can buy. But we do well to remember our Lord’s teaching and from our own observation [and if we are honest our hearts and desires] His much needed warning from the parable of the sower quoted above. The very snares our Great Physician highlights are those that we are so easily tempted by. Even the worries that we naturally hope to avoid are most likely to be fuelled by either our own, or others pursuit of the riches and pleasures He warns us of. Wisdom and experience should cause us to agree with the observation of Thomas Carlyle: adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity there are a hundred who can stand adversity. To keep us who abhor the preaching of the prosperity gospel from becoming practical adherents to such a falsehood, we need not only heed the reminder of Francis Bacon: that prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament whereas adversity is the blessing of the New, but to back it up with the regular practice of using the prosperity God has endowed and trusted us with, to bring blessings to others. Divesting ourselves of our riches and generously investing them in the long term eternal riches promised by our Lord (Matt.6:19-21) is the only way of insuring ourselves against the devastatingly seductive pull of riches to destroy our discipleship.
The pandemic will have served a good purpose if it has caused us to question a discipleship that is hardly distinguishable from the world’s standards of safety first living on the one hand and outright conformity on the other. Most of the folks that I speak to have coped well enough, indeed many have enjoyed the opportunities to slow down somewhat. The real question is have we coped happily because of a retreat into God and His promises or into diversionary and short term pleasures: like end to end movies and more hobbies or dangerous distractions like drinking, Mills and Boon, pornography or retail therapy? We are creatures of our culture but we are called to be different and distinctive so that we can bring flavour and blessing (Matt.7:13). To do this God uses unusual means such as pandemics and the like, and allows personal sickness, disappointments and trials to sharpen our focus and service. What are some of the ways we can prepare ourselves to stand firm and clear [Phil.2:12-18] in regard to the endemic prosperity around us and to prepare us to be able to stand against persecution. Here are 5 more P’s that might help us grow through the pandemic and prosper in prosperity and persecution:
- Ponder the precious promises is Peter’s prescription. He wrote: through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you [we] may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (2 Peter 1:4). Though this includes knowing and remembering the words of Scripture [since that is where the promises are found], it is for the purpose of participating in the divine nature. This means experiencing the presence and power of the divine Holy Spirit as we take the promises to heart and so experience the Spirit’s presence when we face temptations and trials (2 Pet. 1:21). Scripture taken to heart, so that its divine author becomes our means of experiencing God in our lives is more likely to happen under pressure but is always on offer (Rom. 5:3-5,8:26-27; 2 Pet 3;12-14; Jn 16:5-16).
- Build a perspective that will encourage patient perseverance. Earthly prosperity keeps us tied to the earth whereas Scriptural prosperity will keep our eyes glued to eternity. We see this truth set before us in: Psalm 73, 121, the Lord’s Prayer, 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Heb.9:27-8). Bishop Ryle sets out the implications for us: Think not to have your reward on earth, do not draw back because your good things are all yet to come: to-day is the cross, but tomorrow is the crown; today is the labour, but tomorrow is the wages; today is the sowing, but tomorrow is the harvest; today is the battle, but tomorrow is the rest; today is the weeping, but tomorrow is the joy; and what is today compared to tomorrow? Today is at most but threescore years and ten, but tomorrow is eternity. Be patient and hope unto the end. (J C Ryle The True Christian page 163).
- Prayer is our proven privilege. We lift our heads and hearts upwards to our real home and hope when we pray. At the moment we are dual citizens, who live ‘in Christ’ and ‘in Australia/NZ/Uganda/USA’. We betray our true and primary loyalty when we like Billy Bray used to exclaim, say: I must talk to Father about this [as our recently departed brother and mentor J I Packer reminds us in Knowing God, as a wonderful fruit of our adoption through faith in Christ [Chapter 19]. It is sad but true, that we are more likely to pray when in adversity and opposed, than in prosperity and peace. Thankfulness in all circumstances (1 Thess.5:16-18) can be counted on to help us overcome this dangerous imbalance.
- Persecuted believers can be relied upon as timely guides and mentors. There is something about persecution and troubles that gives credibility and reliability that prosperity rarely does. I have been reading a little book by Richard Wurmbrand titled: Preparing the Underground Church whose realism was born out of torture and 14 years of imprisonment. Who of us would ever think of taking our confirmation class or enquirers group to the zoo and explaining to them that being fed to the lions was not an uncommon experience for many who confess Christ! But is this not the reason for Hebrews chapter 11 and Peter’s carefully chosen exhortation: therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God (1 Peter 4:1-2)? Books on self-esteem, self- fulfilment and the like are never going to prepare disciples who will stand up under the pressures of prosperity or persecution. The examples of believers pressing on through the difficulties of poverty, sickness, opposition, sickness and trials can be counted upon to deliver strength, confidence and back-bone. Diluting the power of exhortations like this with reminders of our being justified by faith is counter-productive.
- Only a richer prosperity gospel will keep us from the poverty of prosperity. The example of our Lord Jesus, given by Paul, the apostle of contented thankfulness, for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who though He was rich for your sakes became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9) will keep us on track. Written as his primary prod to the consciences of the tight fisted Corinthian believers, who having promised to contribute to the collection for the famine stricken believers in Judea were slow to come good with the pledged cash, introduces us to the deepest motivation for decided discipleship. The real prosperity that any of us can find depends on this conviction. It holds promise for the future and present. Unsurprisingly and paradoxically, fully in line with the apostles approach to the proud Corinthians, so prone to boast of spiritual superiority, we find a new measure of prosperity. Rather than having its basis in accumulation it is found in the two great events of our Lord’s humility: His taking upon Himself our humanity, and then on the Cross, with the full weight of God’s judgement due to us sinners upon His back [2 Cor. 5:16-21 spells this out]. True prosperity, modelled on our Lord and Saviour, was seen in the sacrificial generosity of the far poorer, yet far richer, Macedonian believers [2 Cor. 8:1-7]. His intentional downward trajectory, from riches to poverty, when emulated, will deliver to us true riches and prosperity. A prosperity that will keep us from tight fistedness, meet the needs of poorer persecuted believers, promote Jesus and bring glory to our generous Father. The demise of many a bucket list through the pandemic, can prove a blessing, more so if its contents were to be prayerfully emptied into the empty pockets and sad hearts of many around us. The author of the hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, with its Christ shaped focus and challenging final verse deserves the final word: Were the whole realm of nature mine/ That were an offering far too small/Love so amazing so Divine/ Demands my soul my life my all.(Isaac Watts)
Peter Brain 22nd July, 2020