All things come from the Lord’s hand – and they come for a purpose. The problem is that we mortals on Planet Earth don’t have the insight to get to the bottom of why the God of heaven let’s certain things happen.
As the Lord said it, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:9).
That comforting truth doesn’t take away from the fact that we are fully responsible for how we respond to whatever the Lord puts on our path. That raises the question in relation to COVID-19: are we responding as the Lord wants us to? Of the multiple angles from which one could come at that question, I wish in this Bit to Read to ask attention for the foundational Christian concept of compassion for the other. I fear that on this point we’re not quite passing this test….
In full accord
The glorious and wonderful result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was the blessed gift of unity and unanimity among the saints (Acts 2:42ff). Luke put it this way: “those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). This blessed gift implied a responsibility: the saints were to make a point of “being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2). That responsibility was not limited to the saints of long ago or of one city but was obviously to characterize all who had received the Holy Spirit over the ages and places of history. Ourselves included.
But COVID has divided us in a way I’ve not seen in the years I’ve been in Smithville. The most obvious illustration of this division concerns the subject of masking. Some of us are insistent that Yes, we need always to wear a mask (outside the home while in proximity to other people) and others of us are equally insistent that No, that’s not strictly necessary – and we have all kinds of nuances in between the two extremes and a host of arguments ready to defend our chosen position. Another illustration, though less evident, is the question of whether we should receive visitors into our homes or restrict ourselves to porch visits. Clearly, the latter limits social interaction and hence complicates the effectiveness of the communion of saints. These points of contention (and there are others) have eaten away at our congregational solidarity to the point that our unity is well and truly stretched. It pains me to see it.
What’s to be done about it?
There are, I suppose, a number of options; a few come quickly to mind:
- We can live and let live. Meaning: let the other have his opinion. After all, we remind ourselves, we shouldn’t judge.
- We can engage in debates on the issue of masking, or of receiving visitors, or of alleged government overreach, or of supporting a Charter Challenge, etc. Arguments in favor and against each position abound and we can use them in order to convince our discussion partner that he really ought to improve his view on things.
- We can insist that Consistory give more firm leadership, to the point of legislating precisely what each Christian ought to think and do in relation to such issues as mentioned above.
The apostle Paul was aware of divisive issues in the church in Rome. “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (14:2). “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike” (v. 5). It’s striking, and so very instructive, that Paul did not engage the arguments of the pro-eaters and the con-eaters, nor the arguments of those who esteemed this day over that one. He rose above the two sides of the debates to insist to both parties that “none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (v. 7); instead, whether we live or die, “we are the Lord’s” (v. 8) – and we all need to justify our actions to the Lord (v. 12).
With what behavior, now, is the Lord pleased? Paul insists that Christ Jesus himself has set the standard: “let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For (!) Christ did not please himself…” (15:2f). If the Son of God did not focus on what worked out best for himself, but focused instead on what was beneficial for the weak, how much more -this is Paul’s argument!- should those who have tasted the mercy of the Son of God focus not on what’s agreeable to ourselves but instead on what benefits the neighbor. “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (14:13).
Today in our congregation the behavior some see in others on so much fallout from COVID forms an actual stumbling block in their service to God and to another. The question is not whether the other is right or wrong to stumble. The fact is the stumbling is happening. And the fact that someone is tripping over my foot is defeat – for me. Our precious Savior emptied himself of the eternal glory he possessed and entered our broken world to save the lost, the weak, the wrong, the sinners – me. He didn’t observe strong and wrong opinions among people and decide to live and let live. He didn’t engage in debates on the issues of the day (eg, taxes to Caesar or not, Mark 12:14) to improve humanity’s views on such matters. He didn’t wait for strong leadership from the authorities of the day. He bent down from his heavenly throne to wash the feet of badly misdirected sinners, took their place on the cursed cross so that the arrows of God’s judgment pierced him instead of us, and so illustrated the gospel of redemption. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (or masking or visiting or protesting or …) but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).
Are we passing the test the Lord has set before us? The test is not whether we wear a mask or not. The test is not what we think about government regulations. The test is not whether we’ll visit one another or not. The test is love – and I mean love for the Lord. Do we feel safe with what he has put on our path – including the risk of getting this novel virus, including the discomfort of wearing a mask, including the fallout of a lockdown? Do we love him enough to follow his example when emptied himself of his divine rights in order to redeem stubborn sinners who were clearly in the wrong? Surely it isn’t so that the gospel of Jesus’ compassion is simply a doctrine we embrace intellectually but hasn’t found a home in our hearts….
Hence a vital question we all need to think on: would the Lord say that we’re passing the test he laid upon us? Given the division in our midst, is the coveted “Yes, we’re passing” truly the correct answer? Why would you think that?
We have our different thoughts about so many matters flowing from COVID. Love for the Lord means that we entrust our day-to-day affairs to him, confident that we are safe with him no matter how/where he leads us. Love for the Lord also means love for the neighbor – and removing from his path whatever there is in our conduct that he might trip over (rightly or wrongly, in our opinion). Love for the neighbor means we respect that his behavior -built as it is on his (as yet imperfect) Christian conscience- is “to the Lord” (Rom 14:6f) – as is ours. So we pull in our toes for the sake of his stability.
One possible response to the argument of this Bit might be: the other needs to be more empathetic to me. Meaning: he has to change his position because I’m tripping over his behavior…. The result, of course, would be that not much changes….
The apostle Paul followed the example Christ set. He writes, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel…” (1 Cor 9:22f). He adds this instruction: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
The neighbor -in church and out- is meant to see Christ’s kind of love in how we respond to what God has put on our path through COVID. That’s when we’ve passed the test.