We are certainly facing problems in our culture today as we talk about pandemics. What I’m referring to at least in our current cultural context is COVID-19, the coronavirus. We have become very accustomed to those words and that language to describe this virus. It’s interesting to me how easy it is for us as a culture to feel a facade of peace when we think we’re in control of something. Right now we see that control slipping away. It begins to reveal what we hope in. When this facade of having some semblance of control of our own health begins to slip away, we can be prone to fear.
Fear is a symptom that demonstrates we’ve been trusting in the wrong thing. When we think about COVID-19, it’s a new name for a different type of pandemic. This is certainly not the first pandemic that our world has seen, and we are not the first Christians to walk through such a dangerous prognosis of what could be. But I want to encourage us today on the podcast to think about this idea of fear.
What we’re seeing are two extremes, or what I would call two manifestations of fear. This is similar to what we see in counseling a lot, where we see that our attitudes and heart issues manifest themselves in a bunch of different ways. At base we want to target the heart with the Scriptures, because that’s where answers are found for the different types of behaviors, attitudes, actions, and emotions that we see coming from ourselves in response to this pandemic.
A Cavalier Attitude
Let’s slow down to think about the way we see fear manifesting. First we see a cavalier attitude, where people are not paying attention to public health officials, social distancing, and that sort of thing. How is something like that a demonstration of fear? Ultimately, I think there is a fear of losing what you think is normal in life. There’s a fear that normalcy is going to go away or “I’m going to lose an opportunity to enjoy parts of life that I’m accustomed to enjoying.”
There’s a very selfish nature behind this cavalier mindset. It’s certainly a selfish attitude in relation to caring well for others—and Scripture gives us a warning against things just like this. I can remember as a young man having a cavalier attitude about a lot of different things, and my dad would often confront me with words from the Scripture. He would remind me that the Scripture warns us that while we’re free to do the things that we want to do, we need to be careful that we don’t test the Lord.
I think of Jesus’ statement when He’s being tempted by the evil one in Luke 4:12, he actually reminds the evil one that we are not to tempt the Lord our God. Or in Exodus 17, we see in the Old Testament that the children of Israel are fed up with leaving Egypt and they’re complaining and grumbling. Moses now is fearing for his life saying to the Lord, “Lord, they’re going to stone me. What am I to do?” And Moses describes them as “testing the Lord,” they are testing the plan of God. They’re testing the wisdom of God as they complain about their current situation, as if God is not going to do what He has promised to do. We’re consistently warned not to test the Lord our God.
I think in a situation like this we must remember that God is sovereign. We believe in a God who is over everything. None of COVID-19, or any pandemic for that matter, is outside of the purview of God. This is not some sort of contingency plan that God has to now recreate to combat what’s going on in the world. This is part of the plan that our sovereign God has given to this world. We have to be prepared and ready. For us to go out not thinking about other people, or acting as though there’s no issue, saying, “I’m not concerned about myself,” is truly testing the Lord our God. May we never be found in a place where we’re tempting God.
A Response of Hysteria
The second—and probably the most predominant thing that we’re seeing now—is a response of hysteria. People are responding on two opposite ends of the spectrum, but there’s a central heart attitude underlying both responses. Both of these have a sense of self-preservation. With a cavalier attitude, we want to preserve what we think is the enjoyment of our life. With a response of hysteria, we fear the preservation of our very life. We respond in fear—even paralyzing fear.
And what happens is we begin to fear the things around us. Kris Lundgaard, in his wonderful book called The Enemy Within, makes this statement, “The flesh plies deceit to knock out the watchman of your soul: your mind.” That’s exactly what’s happening in the world around us today. The Scriptures actually tell us over 160 times to, “Fear not.”
When our circumstances are out of our control and we see dire warnings everywhere, we can begin to fear in such a way that it becomes paralyzing, or we respond in hysteria. The Scriptures try to help us understand that we are to “Fear not.” Fear not the things of the world—even in the cursed world as it is groaning and decaying. We are called not to fear the things on earth. We are called to fear God.
Remember God’s Character
What is the answer to something like this? It’s to understand the character and the nature of our God. We did something this past week in our staff meeting where I paused for a second and I wanted our staff to recount the character of God. We spent several minutes with me writing names of the character of God—who He is, who this great God is. Doing that exercise was so helpful and comforting to all of us, to know that no matter what—no matter how the world and the shadows of the world shift and change—the person that we’re anchored to for our hope is this immutable, unchanging God.
Jesus actually tells us to combat legitimate fear with the truth of who God is. He says, “Don’t fear the one who can destroy your body, but fear the one who can destroy both body and soul.” In Philippians 4:8 we’re told to think on things that are true, right, just, noble and of good report. What’s happening is we’re believing the speculation that’s going on in the world. The fact of the matter is that even if the worst-case scenario becomes true, in those days the Bible actually says that God will give us grace that’s sufficient for that moment. He can’t give us that grace today for something that’s going to happen in the future. We have to be anchored to what we know to be true: who our God is, what He says He will do, and the promises that He has given us. We are called to pay attention—to not allow our minds to be deceived into flowing after what we believe to be happening in the circumstances around us.
I understand this is a legitimate fear. We need to be very pastoral in the way we respond to people and help them. We can’t just say, “Well just have peace,” or “Just have faith.” Those things are true, but we need to help people walk through the process of how to, by faith, cling to who God is. What breeds that faith is reminding them once again who God is, what His character is, how He treats those who are His. Those who are found in Christ are no longer at war with Him. We are at peace with God (Romans 5:1).
As you think about those two extremes, I would encourage you to examine your own heart first. Where are you on that spectrum? Are you responding in faith with proper caution with proper prudence? Are you living motivated to honor the Lord, to be at peace at this time, to show the world that the church of the living God can walk at peace no matter what? Our life and our peace is not dependent on the circumstances around us, for our peace is dependent upon an unchanging God one who is firm and steadfast to the end. What are we clinging to? Do we see ourselves drifting in one of those two directions?
As we do, we need to properly apply the Word to our own hearts. Properly apply the truths of God’s Scripture to your own heart. Allow the Word to confront you if you’re being cavalier and running about as if things are normal right now. Things are not normal. Let’s learn to love our neighbor and to love him well.
If you find yourself responding by cowering in fear of the circumstances around us, remember who our God is. Remember His character. Pray through the names of the character of the living God. Read the Scriptures, and discover the beautiful nature and the character of this God that we serve. Every single time we see the deep infections of sin unfold in the world, we also see our God come in as a redeemer, a healer, and a rescuer. He’s a refuge and He’s a rock. He’s one that’s unchanging. Meditate on fearing that God who can destroy both body and soul. When we begin to do this, we can have a peace and a calm that the circumstances of the world can’t shake who we are.
Pay Careful Attention to Yourselves
The final thing that I want to do is not only a personal examination, but I also want us to think about how to minister to other people. Pastors particularly, I’m talking to you. How do we minister appropriately? Of course, we take the precautions that are necessary, but we can’t cease to minister in moments like this where we see people’s faith shaken. We have truths that can help sturdy the faith of people. Places like James 1 or Romans 5:1ff where we see what suffering is for. When we’re confronted with situations just like this, the Lord can anchor us to Himself to sturdy us in our life. As Paul says in Romans 5, it builds an endurance, a steadfastness, a character, and a hope that will never put us to shame. We can trust in him.
Pastors, I want you to think particularly about the way Paul describes his ministry in Acts 20:26-28.
“Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
There’s so much to say in this passage, but I want to say very carefully to pastors how important it is that at this moment you not shrink back from sharing the totality of the counsel of God. The wisdom of God is not just for intellectual and cerebral ascent, but for the purpose of God revealing Himself, so that we can respond appropriately on the ground in moments just like this.
In verse 28 that he tells us to, “Pay careful attention to yourselves.” Pastors, I know that you’re going to be challenged in a thousand different ways to do all sorts of things to try and muster up different types of “ministry” in these moments. I want you to be careful not to spend yourself to such a degree that you become useless to anyone else. I don’t say this as a point of first order, but to pay attention to yourselves, because what allows you to minister is not the gimmicks out there in the world. What allows you to minister is the way you walk carefully with the Lord. The way you have ability to pour yourself out to other people is when you’ve died to yourself and been filled with the love, grace, compassion, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Take moments now to be still and know that He is God. Even outside of your wisdom, He knows all things. You can die to all the gimmicks that are out there in the world, die to yourself and efforts of trying to work up ministry. But die to yourself in such a way that the Lord by His Word begins to fill you with peace, wisdom, grace, mercy, kindness, compassion, and love. When that happens, what will begin to flow naturally out of you is grace, compassion, mercy, and true ministry. So pay attention to yourselves and use these moments to step away from our busy world to be still and know who this God is.
As you learn to know him, what will happen is you will be filled with His Spirit. As you’re filled with His Spirit and filled with His Word (as Paul says in Colossians 3:16, “allowing the word of Christ dwell in you richly”) what naturally will pour out of you—in God’s proper time—to your people will be the words that come from God. The words that are the bread of life, which sustain people and gives them hope during moments just like this.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” Do that in proper order. I know for me, my ministry is most effective when I see the Word of God doing effectual work on my own heart first, and then I walk into ministry situations with a confidence in the power of the Spirit and a confidence in the Word of God. What begins to overflow is true ministry. I can give people the true bread of life, and I’m confident that it is effectual for people because I’ve seen the work that it’s done in my own heart.
Pastor, I want to encourage you not to fear, not to walk with trepidation. Walk with sensibility. Walk with prudence. Walk with wisdom that is found in the treasures of the knowledge of Christ. As you pour yourself out, be sure that you are being filled consistently with the Word. Be still, walk before Him faithfully, so that you can be all in all to your people. As you shepherd your flock, be careful to walk faithfully with Him in intimate ministry.
This pandemic is legitimate. It is real, but through this pandemic, we will see that our God and the peace that He brings is much stronger than any circumstance in life.