I'm sitting here on St. Patrick’s Day, rewriting something I've been working on since last week.
Since that time, the threat of COVID-19 to our first-world comfort has disrupted things significantly. As of yet we have not been ordered to stay in our homes, but drastic measures are being taken: church services have gone online, spring breaks are being extended, schools are closing, toilet paper shelves are stripped bare. I also have a daughter getting married in May. Invitations are going out today for an event that may have to be postponed. Who knows?
We Christians still hold to our faith in such times, though none of us in America has ever seen anything like this.
But when we talk about faith during hardships, the question is, “faith in what?”
A few years ago my grandmother, Lilah (whom I called, “Lala”) died suddenly and unexpectedly after a bad fall. She had lived nine decades and had been married over 70 years, yet she didn’t look a day over 75. Though her sudden death came as a shock, she had loved the Lord most of her life, prayed for those she loved every day, and went into Christ’s presence with a sweet countenance.
Sadly, though, she died without seeing the one thing she thought she would live to see: the return of her Savior. Through the years, she and I had numerous chats about the wonder of this upcoming event, and we dreamed together of what it would be like if He came before we died. Lala was almost certain this would happen before she would ever need a casket, but sadly it did not.
Picture another scene from this past Sunday: some churches defied requests to refrain from gathering. One such church even encouraged those in a full sanctuary to shake hands. The pastor and congregation simply trusted God to protect them.
What is the difference between the faith of Lala and the faith of such a church?Perhaps a look at Hebrews 11 can help.
Chapter 10 ends this way: But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (ESV).
But what kind of faith are we talking about? The author continues in chapter 11:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
The conviction of things “not seen.” What does that mean? Does it refer to the invisible God, the after-life, or things like the supernatural world of unseen realities? It could refer to those things, of course. We who trust in the existence of God, Heaven, and angels do so by faith and not sight.
But in the context of what follows in this “Hall of Faith,” unseen likely refers to things unrealized, rather than invisible. It speaks of things clearly promised, but not yet experienced to the recipients. In some cases, the promises come to fruition on this side of Glory. In other cases, they don’t.
For example, verse 7 says that Noah built the ark by faith, “being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen.” The flood, and for that matter, any flood, was still in the future. It was prophesied, but not yet realized.
Verse 8, says Abraham went out, “not knowing where he was going,” i.e. not seeing the end of the road. He had no travel brochures, no photos, no Google satellite view of God’s appointed destination. He just pulled up stakes, trusting in God’s care on a mysterious journey and unseen destination.
Verse 13 summarizes the faith of several saints, all of whom “died in faith, not having received the things promised.” Like Lala, these people breathed their last without seeing the fulfillment of the promises, yet trusting that they would come to pass, even if not in their lifetimes. Their spiritual sights were set on a heavenly country and the city that was to come. Their perspective went beyond what they could see, trusting that in the end, God’s Word would be true—every last bit of it.
The same is true of the saints in v. 35, who endured torture, believing they would rise again to a better life. Though their lives were marked by suffering, their confidence in God never strayed from its moorings. This may sound elementary to us seasoned Christians, but let’s set this kind of faith against the backdrop of a more common version of faith we sometimes witness.
Consider a wife and children rallying around their husband/father who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As he shows signs of certain decline, some family members may (rightly) pray for healing and be ready to move mountains in the hopes of a cure. You might even hear a family member say, “I’m trusting God to heal dad. I just know that God will remove this cancer and return my dad to a cancer-free life.”
I have heard such confidence more than once, even though doctors have said there was nothing more they could do. Those who possess such confidence are certainly admirable, and sometimes their faith actually becomes sight!
But what if God does not heal such a person, even in the midst of rock-solid faith? Should we say that God has been unfaithful? Or could we charge the person of faith with not having enough? Was God not listening? Did the person listen to the wrong voice? Does God, perhaps, not really exist, since he failed to heal?
This is where it is helpful to understand the difference between a faith built on God’s certain promises and a belief that God will do whatever we want, if we just believe hard enough.
Hebrews 11 faith says, “In the end, everything God promised has come to pass. Everything He has done has been good. No Word from His mouth has returned void.”
It is the faith that says, “I believe Romans 8:28–that when all is said and done, we will look back on our lives and on God’s work in history and say, ‘Yes! All things did work together for the good of those who loved God and were called according to His purpose.’”
In the end, Christ will return in Glory (though we can’t say when), every tear will be wiped away, Satan will be cast into the lake of fire, those who trusted in the Lord will receive our reward, death will die, and we will shout in triumph, “Where o’ death, is your sting?”
For now, though, we who belong to Christ have no guarantee our present ailments will be cured. We have no biblical assurance of financial independence, excellent health, job-security or the absence of suffering in this life (in fact, Hebrews 11 and the rest of the NT say otherwise). What we DO have are the eternal promises of God for those who hope in Christ alone—a Day is coming when Christ will return to judge the earth and take His own to dwell with Him in a new heavens and a new earth.
The way I might put this in pastoral situations is: “I don’t know X, but I do know Y.”
“I don’t know if your cancer will be cured, but I do know we who hope in Christ will one day dwell in resurrection bodies, having no need for chemo, hospital beds, or caskets.”
“I don’t know if the spouse who deserted you will ever return, but I do know that you belong to One who will never leave you, nor forsake you. And one day, he will take this immense heartbreak and replace it with pleasures forevermore.”
“I don’t know if your lifelong battle with depression will ever completely heal, but I do know that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory and joy that is to be revealed to us.”
“I don’t know why God seems so silent and aloof right now, but I do know our God is the same one who freed His people after four hundred years of silence. And He did this twice!”
At this point, none of us knows how this COVID-19 moment will shake out. As of this writing, there are acute economic concerns nationwide; there are parents who cannot work from home and cannot send their kids to school when spring break ends; there are senior citizens who are vulnerable and running out of food, yet have real fears about going to the store.
In a week where things seem to be changing by the hour, it’s even hard to know what tomorrow will look like.
But we who know Christ do know this: One Day our Savior will return. He will make things right. And as one author says, “everything sad will come untrue.”
That is a promise we can trust without hesitation. It’s a promise that can keep us going in a world where sorrow and suffering are the norm, especially for those who testify to our Savior.
I don’t know how this virus will affect our nation and our world in the long run, but I do know eternal help is on the way, through a resurrected Savior who has vowed his return, whether in our lifetime or not.
In the meantime, may our good and gracious Father keep His eye on us, provide for us, and shore up our hope in an eternity that far outweighs our earthly lives.
Come Lord Jesus.
Lance Ward is the Pastor of Congregational Care at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak.