At the beginning of this pandemic, most people were asking questions of a more immediate and urgent nature: What should I do to keep my family safe? What if I lose my job? What are the rules for personal or corporate gatherings? Who will be taking care of my mother now that I can no longer visit her in her long-term care facility?
As more and more countries emerge from lockdown and things slowly but surely begin to open up, thinking Christians are starting to ask an entirely different set of questions: What in the world just happened? Why did we respond the way we did? Have we just opened the door for totalitarianism and tyranny? Will the church come back stronger after being pressed down in the mud for more than a year? Is God angry with us? Has the context of world missions fundamentally changed?
As we begin to address this next set of questions it may be helpful for us to examine a few potential lenses for approaching and categorizing our recent experiences.
At certain points in our journey with COVID19 the various protocols and safety measures prescribed by the government may have felt to some Christians like a form of state persecution. After all, many churches were forced to temporarily suspend their main large group gatherings and normal Christian activities such as singing, taking communion and sharing a meal together were either strongly discouraged or forbidden outright.
Doesn’t that qualify as persecution?
It certainly qualifies as unusual hardship, but in most cases it probably did not rise to the level of formal persecution. Persecution is typically defined as, “hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs.” Is that the best way to understand what we’ve experienced, over the last 14 months?
It wouldn’t seem so.
With a few potential exceptions, the majority of the protocols we’ve had to deal with here in North America appear to have been enacted in the interests of public health. Has there been incompetence? Surely. Have there been missteps? Certainly. Has there been overreach? Probably. But has there been hostility and ill-treatment because of our religious beliefs?
I’m not sure how any reasonable person could argue that.
The simple fact is that COVID19 spreads best in indoor environments, particularly those in which people are exerting themselves either through exercise or loud singing for extended periods of time. This virus almost appears to have been designed to shut down gyms and churches. Had the government only shut down churches, and left gyms open to the public, one might have a decent argument, but in fact, the opposite has been closer to the truth. Churches, by and large, have enjoyed far greater freedoms than health clubs and workout facilities over the last 14 months.
So this has been hard, it has been crushing for many – but it does not appear to have been motivated by religious hostility or malice. Not everything that negatively affects the church can be categorized as persecution. Not everything difficult can be ascribed to evil motives. Life in a fallen world is unpredictable and God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike.
If not persecution, then what about birth pangs?
Jesus said that there would a series of geopolitical events that would open the way for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. He said:
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Mark 13:8 ESV)
Jesus used the metaphor of birthing pangs to describe the intermittent difficulties that would shake the world and position men and women to receive or reject the Gospel. Was COVID19 such a difficulty? Has it shaken and shifted the world in a way that makes the coming of the Kingdom more immanent?
It certainly appears to have done so.
COVID19 has changed the global landscape. Precisely how it is has done so is still being debated. It is unquestionably true that vast sums of money have been borrowed to pay for the protection, vaccination and care of citizens – and justifiably so. But how exactly that will affect the stability of governments and the balance of power around the world has yet to be discovered.
COVID19 influenced a major American presidential election. That election will not be the last democratic function to be so affected.
COVID19 has changed how people feel about the balance between freedom and safety. The population as a whole has submitted to protocols and regulations that may not in fact be entirely legal, but that were, on the whole, greeted as necessary, appropriate and benevolent.
In Canada for example, the majority of people were frequently in favour of tighter lockdowns and greater restrictions than were imposed by the government. They willingly surrendered freedom so as to increase their security and safety. That bargain has many people justifiably concerned. If the coming of Christ is preceded by a beast arising out of the sea who makes war upon the saints of God, then COVID19 may have made such a possibility far more likely in the near term.
On the positive side, it may have also completely altered the landscape of evangelism and mission. Christians in North American have often lamented the fact that their friends and neighbours were simply too rich, too happy and too healthy to think a great deal about their eternal destinies. Obviously, COVID19 has unsettled the soil. And it may well be that the seed of the Gospel will penetrate more deeply and more easily, humanly speaking, than ever before.
It would therefore seem reasonable and potentially helpful to think of COVID19 as a significant birth pang.
Might it also be helpful to think of it as an instance of Divine pruning?
Jesus made frequent use of this sort of imagery as well. He said:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1–2 ESV)
Fruit-bearing branches are likely to be pruned so as to become even more fruitful. Interestingly, a tree that is not bearing fruit the way it ought, is also warned to expect firm treatment from the owner of the vineyard. Jesus told a parable about that as well:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6–9 ESV)
Therefore, it might be argued that a global church doing an excellent job in the task of evangelism and outreach should expect intermittent seasons of pruning so as to increase their overall effectiveness and fruitfulness. At the same time, a church doing a poor job should expect significant upheaval and a generous outpouring of manure. Either way, it appears that the church of Jesus Christ has no right to expect unremitting sunshine and ease.
God is not primarily concerned with our comfort or prosperity. He is primarily concerned with our health and fruitfulness. If a deluge of manure will kick start an underperforming church, then he is not opposed to that. If a severe cut back in freedom and operating space is likely to stimulate humility and maturity, then he is more than willing to consider that as well. Therefore, I’m not sure how any bible reading Christian could view these last 14 months as anything other than a remedial action of God.
We have been cut back.
We have been upturned.
We have been buried in a sea of nutrient rich trial and tribulation.
Not in the short term, but in the long term – good!
Better to be hard pressed than cut down.
If the long-term outcome of COVID19 is a more mature church and a better prepared field then I say, thanks be to God!
I didn’t want COVID, and I didn’t enjoy COVID and I am happy to see it making its way – FINALLY – out the backdoor. But if it is true that God is Sovereign over all, then I am sure that this will eventually work out for his eternal glory and our everlasting good – praise the Lord!
I’ll see you on the other side.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.
 Often understood as a symbol of tyrannical government arising out of the stirred up masses of humanity.