The antidote for despair
David Robertson Sat 2 May 2020 8:47 BST
How are you feeling? Sometimes Christians struggle both at a personal and a corporate level when faced with the challenges to faith that a crisis like Covid-19 brings.
Camus, in his classic novel, The Plague, describes the agony of a priest trying to come to terms with the horrible death of a child. In such circumstances one of the key questions that Christians seek to answer is: where is God in all of this? The answers fly out from the keyboards and on the airwaves. ‘It’s a judgement.’ ‘It’s a sign.’ ‘It’s neither a judgement or a sign. ’‘God is not involved – he’s just weeping and asking us to remember his Son and do good.’
My question is the one that Jeremiah asked: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people” (Jeremiah 8:22).
The book of Revelation ends by telling us that the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. Where are those leaves? This week, although I didn’t discover the vaccine for Covid-19, I did discover a medicine far more precious - something to heal ‘the sin sick soul’.
For me, the Covid crisis is not the only, nor even the major reason for what the 17th century Cambridge pastor, Richard Sibbes, calls ‘The Soul’s Conflict’. In his book of the same name, he gives some deep, beautiful and very helpful guidelines as we wrestle within ourselves when faced with difficult circumstances and daunting questions.
We often start with the wrong end of the stick. We start with ourselves and our circumstances. Then we seek to, in the words of one of Sibbes‘ contemporaries, the poet John Milton, ’justify the ways of God to men'. Sibbes goes completely the opposite route. He begins with God. Here are five principles that I have found, expressed so well by Sibbes, that help me when Satan tempts me to despair.
1) Begin with God
God is the first truth. The truth which faith relies on. He is the chief good which hope rests on. We so often look at ourselves or our standards as the foundational good or truth. But it is only God who is a fit foundation for us to build on. We need a firm foundation so we need to know God better. The firmer the foundation, the stronger the building. The higher the tree, the deeper the roots. Is our foundation built on the solid rock of Christ – or the shifting sands of culture or our own opinions?
We cannot know God without Christ. In Christ, God’s nature becomes lovely to us and ours to God, because Christ has made up the vast gap between us and God: “There is nothing more terrible to think on, than an absolute God out of Christ.”
We must meditate upon and grasp the deep truth of God as our Father. Are we missing the doctrine of the Goodness of God? The devil and the world will always suggest to us that God is not good. Sometimes our ‘apologetics’ sounds as though we are apologizing for God and indeed trying to convince ourselves. But we must start with the goodness of God as given to us in the Scriptures: “What is good in the creature is first in God as a fountain.”
When we think of the goodness of God we strengthen our faith because not only does he have attributes that we can share - ‘gracious, loving, powerful and wise’ - but he has them mixed with attributes we do not have. He is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. So he is infinitely, eternally and unchangeably gracious, loving, powerful and wise.
2) Remember that our God Reigns
There is a temptation for some Christians – in order to ‘defend’ God and preserve their own image of him – to downplay his power and sovereignty – sometimes even to the extent that he becomes only one power amongst many. Sibbes will have none of this: “If God did not rule the great family of the world, all would break and fall to pieces, but the wise providence of God keeps everything on its right hinges.”
Covid-19 does come under God’s providence. But the greatest evil in the world can still be used for good. There is no greater evil than the cross and yet look at how God brought good out of that!
God’s sovereignty should be a comfort to us. Although Covid-19 is a terrible evil, yet we need to understand that God limits evil. He puts bars on its power and limits on its time. The devil is on a chain. The malice he intends – and the malice wicked human beings intend - is not fulfilled.
That does not mean that we understand. Sometimes it seems as though we think that unless we can understand and explain then God has nothing to do with it. But “God’s ways seem often to us full of contradictions, because his course is to bring things to pass by contrary means.”
3) We see ‘as through a glass darkly’ but we shall see fully
God is often ‘wrapped in a cloud’ and we cannot see him, or his purpose until afterwards. But even though we cannot trace the rainbow through the rain we must admire and adore him. When we get to heaven one part of our happiness will be to see the harmony of those things that right now seem really confused and disharmonious. This week a brother and fellow pastor, Dominic Smart, went to be with the Lord. He gave this interview knowing that he was dying. Right now Dominic sees the harmony in that he believed it but did not see fully whilst on this earth. That is a beautiful and glorious thing! He is in an infinitely better place.
4) We need a Spirit-given understanding of spiritual things.
We need to know the promises of God that enable us then to trust God in his providences. But that is not enough. That can be a mere head knowledge. We must receive light and strength from him: “No man can know God, but by God; none can know the sun, but by its own light; none can know the truth of God, so as to build upon it, but by the truth itself and the spirit revealing by its own light the soul.”
We need a spiritual understanding of spiritual things. Our greatest need is to know “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled to all the measure of the fullness of God” (Ephesians 18-19)
5) In Christ Alone our Hope is Found
One of the great difficulties some of us have is that when we despair, we are told the remedy is ‘don’t despair’! We are compelled again to look at ourselves and our own despair – which becomes a never-ending cycle. But for the Christian despair is the reason for looking outside ourselves. It is often the ground of hope I have just finished reading a book by a Christian author whose remedy for our despair is to look for ‘the light within ourselves’. Now that is a counsel of despair! What if the light within is darkness? We need the Light from out-with - to shine within.
“In a hopeless state a Christian will see some door of hope opened because God shows himself nearest to us when we stand most in need of him.”
Our darkness, despair and confusion cause us to look away from ourselves and to cry out in prayer to the One who is the hearer and answerer of prayer. Our Father, the good God; the gracious Christ; the Comforting, Counselling Spirit, loves to hear our prayers. We are the beloved in the eyes of the Father. How will he not listen to the cries of those for whom he gave his Son?
I wonder how many Christians are in despair because they watch far more 24/7 news telling us how many people have died, than they do reading about the beauty of Christ in his word? I wonder how many of us are in despair because we look to our own hearts and circumstances rather than the heart of God and the promises he has made to make all our circumstances work for our good?
Sometimes the Lord lets us see and experience the darkness that is there – in order to enable us to look beyond our own fading light and to behold his glorious face. When the darkness of the night is deepest, then the morning begins to dawn. God’s infinite power and goodness can sometimes be seen clearer from the pit, than the mountain. Christian – whatever circumstance you are in – never despair or give up. Underneath are the everlasting arms.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
David Robertson is director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com
Theologian John Piper has offered Christians four ways they can biblically understand the coronavirus, which has infected about 87,000 so far and killed more than 3,000 people. - 2 March 2020
The family of viruses known as coronaviruses infects mostly bats, pigs and small mammals, but they mutate easily and can jump from animals to humans, and from one human to another, as The Wall Street Journal explained recently, adding that the mortality rate has ranged between 2 percent and about 3.4 percent as of now.
More than 50 countries have reported cases of coronavirus and the World Health Organization has upgraded the global risk of the outbreak to “very high.” Amid the outbreak, Piper said in his “Ask Pastor John” podcast that the coronavirus, which originated in China last year, is not stronger than Jesus.
“Jesus has all knowledge and all authority over the natural and supernatural forces of this world. He knows exactly where the virus started, and where it’s going next. He has complete power to restrain it or not,” he said.
He shared four biblical realities that could be used as building blocks in developing an understanding and making sense of it.
1. Sin subjected the world to futility
Quoting Romans 8:20–23, Piper pointed out that when sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, “God ordained that the created order, including our physical bodies, as persons created in His image, would experience corruption and futility, and that all living things would die.”
However, Christians, who trust Christ, do not experience this corruption as condemnation, as their “pain for us is purifying, not punitive.”
“We die of disease like all men, not necessarily because of any particular sin … We die of disease like all people because of the fall,” he explained.
2. Sometimes sickness is God’s mercy
Some Christians can die of illnesses “so that we may not be condemned along with the world,” Piper said.
The pastor said his view is based on 1 Corinthians 11:29–32, which deals with misusing the Lord’s Supper. “But the principle is broader,” he underlined.
“The Lord Jesus takes the life of His loved ones through weakness and illness — the very same words, by the way, used to describe the weaknesses and illnesses that Jesus heals in His earthly life (Matthew 4:23; 8:17; 14:14) — and brings them to Heaven. He brings them to Heaven because of the trajectory of their sin that he was cutting off and saving them from — not to punish them, but to save them,” he explained.
3. Sickness could come as judgment
“God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin,” Piper said.
Referring to Acts 12, the pastor cited the example of King Herod who exalted himself in being called a god. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.”
He said God can and does use illnesses to bring judgment sometimes upon those who reject Him and His way.
4. God’s thunderclap
Quoting Luke 13:1–5, Piper said all natural disasters are a “thunderclap of divine mercy in the midst of judgment, calling all people everywhere to repent and realign their lives, by grace, with the infinite worth of the glory of God.”
He concluded that “that’s the message of Jesus to the world at this moment in history, under the coronavirus — a message to every single human being, … saying, ”Repent."
Coronavirus and Christ
‘BEHOLD THE KINDNESS AND SEVERITY OF GOD’
It matters little what we think about the coronavirus. But it matters forever what God thinks. He is not silent about what he thinks. Scarcely a page in the Bible is irrelevant for this crisis.
Our voice is grass. His is granite. “The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Peter 1:24–25). His words in Scripture “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). What he says is “true, and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9). Listening to God, and believing him, is like building your house on a rock, not sand (Matthew 7:24).
His voice is not only true; it is perfectly wise for every situation. “He is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (Isaiah 28:29). “His understanding is beyond measure” (Psalm 147:5). When he gives counsel about the coronavirus, it is firm, unshakable, lasting. “The counsel of the Lord stands forever” (Psalm 33:11). “His way is perfect” (2 Samuel 22:31).
God’s words in these times are not only true and wise; they are also precious and sweet. “More to be desired are they than gold . . . sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). They are the sweetness of life: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). And with indestructible life come words of unshakable peace and joy: “Your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16).
And the sweetness is not lost in this moment of bitter providence — not if we have learned the secret of “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). The secret is this: Knowing that the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus and doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it. Indeed, more than sustains — sweetens with hope that, for those who trust him, his purposes are kind, even in death.
“Behold the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22). His providence is sweet and bitter. Naomi did not sin when she said, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). That was true. And it was spoken at the very moment when all her fortunes were about to change.
This is not a season for sentimental views of God. It is a bitter season. And God sent it. We know this, because he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). All things. Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from our heavenly Father (Matthew 10:29).
Nature is not sovereign. Satan is not sovereign. Sinful man is not sovereign. God rules them all (Luke 8:25; Job 1:12; 2:6; Acts 4:27–28). So, we say with Job, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
Therefore, God not only comprehends the coronavirus; he has purposes for it. God does nothing, and permits nothing, without wise purposes. Nothing just happens. Everything flows from the eternal counsels of God (Ephesians 1:11). All of it is wisdom. All of it is purposeful. For those who trust Jesus Christ, all of it is kindness. For others, it is a merciful wake-up call: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).
Our hope and prayer in the resources below, which we plan to supplement weekly, is that we might be of some help in anchoring your soul in the word of God. That you might see the greatness and beauty and worth of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:8). That you might treasure him above health and life (Psalm 63:3). And that God would be glorified in you, as you are satisfied in him.
This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:21–24)
Some thoughts from way back to challenge and encourage us!
Richard Sibbes was born at Tostock, Suffolk, in 1577
“God sees fit that we should taste of that cup of which his Son drank so deep, that we might feel a little what sin is, and what his Son’s love was. But our comfort is that Christ drank the dregs of the cup for us, and will succor us, so that our spirits may not utterly fail under that little taste of his displeasure which we may feel. He became not only a man but a curse, a man of sorrows, for us. He was broken that we should not be broken; he was troubled, that we should not be desperately troubled; he became a curse, that we should not be accursed. Whatever may be wished for in an all sufficient comforter is all to be found in Christ.”
- Richard Sibbes
"Measure not God’s love and favour by your own feeling. The sun shines as clearly in the darkest day as it does in the brightest. The difference is not in the sun, but in some clouds which hinder the manifestation of the light thereof.
- Richard Sibbes
Pandemic isn’t a word that brings peace to our souls.
There’s so much we don’t know; so much has been put on hold, postponed, and cancelled, possibly never to return. Bogus advice mingles with crucial information and it’s easy to get lost in a maze of media coverage.
Maybe you have elderly loved ones dealing with health concerns that live far away and you carry the heaviness of whether you’ll see them again.
Perhaps you’re immunosuppressed, dealing with OCD, or live with the daily struggle of chronic health issues, and now the increased uncertainty of who’s healthy and safe hovers over you like a piano swinging from a balcony.
Even before I’d heard of Covid-19, I’d been in that place more times than I like to remember. Whether it was my battle with cancer or simply being run ragged by the relentlessness of life, living in survival mode and fighting to catch my breath easily became my new normal.
I remember the last time I was caught in the unknowing. The mammogram was over, the biopsy was over, but the waiting wasn’t.
In a closet-sized room where I’d been asked to wait while the radiologist examined the grey and white images, I perched on a sofa that squeaked as I nervously shifted position.
Given my recent run in with cancer and having lost both my mum and my sister to the same disease, I was asked to wait while they checked whether the ominous grainy spots they’d seen were sinister.
Even scrolling on my phone couldn’t distract me.
My palms were clammy, I was sore from the biopsy needle, and all I could think was, “Not again Lord. Not again.”
Maybe you’ve had moments like that. Where the air gets sucked out of the room or you’re left hanging in the void between before and after. The not knowing.
Maybe that’s how this pandemic feels too. Like your world is shrinking and like a submarine trapped on the ocean floor, your oxygen levels are slowly declining .
The pandemic will hopefully, at some point, move on. However, those moments of unknowing will always be with us.
Your teenager misses curfew and your head spins with images of her car wrapped around a lamppost.
The phone rings to say your dad has slipped, fallen and broken his hip while caring for your mum with dementia.
Another month passes and still the pregnancy test refuses to celebrate what you’ve been longing for.
Whether it’s the relentlessness of life or the panic of the pandemic, what are we meant to do? How can we pray at times like these?
I wish I could tell you I have a 3 Step Fail Safe Prayer for When Panic Wins, but I don’t.
When fear and uncertainty fuel anxiety and then crescendo into full-on panic, I don’t have the capacity for too many words.
All I can do is stop and breathe.
Breathe in Jesus, breathe out the fear.
Breathe in Jesus, breathe out the anxiety.
Breathe in Jesus, breathe out panic fermenting inside.
I even close my eyes, lower my shoulders so I’m not wearing them as earrings, then visualize Jesus filling me up, and then all the fear leaving as thick grey smoke.
So next time you haven’t got it within you to pray, simply breathe Him in. It’s amazing how the act of stopping, breathing and visualizing calms the heart rate, swaps our panic for His peace, and strengthens us with His presence for whatever may come.
If we want to breathe again, we must breathe in the One who is the very breathe of life.
- Niki Hardy