“You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes . . . . You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”James 4:14-16
“We are living in uncertain times.” “The future seems so unstable.” These are refrains all around us, and not without reason. There are stories of otherwise healthy, 60-70-ish parents suddenly contracting COVID-19 and perishing. This is true of otherwise healthy 30-year-olds. Jobs have been lost, business are shutting down. Certainly this is not what most of us were anticipating 5-6 weeks ago.
The question is, are things really more uncertain now than they were before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11? From a human perspective, the short answer is no. We have just been taking “normal” for granted, because, while people around us have been experiencing personal tragedies everyday, these have been limited to their relevant circles. For example, 38.8K people lost their lives in 2019 while driving. For most of us, that is just a number, and we are thankful that our children or spouses or parents, etc. are not a part of that statistic. Those who have experienced tragedies lately tell the rest if us not to take anything for granted. “You never know how much time you have.” Uncertainty. Instability.
If we’re honest, however, without faith in and a relationship with with the one, true, and living Triune God, uncertainty and instability are the best we can hope for. Sure, very few people live their lives with the uncertainty and instability of life in the forefront of their minds. In order to function, most people set that reality aside and focus on those things that they can rely upon reasonably. Something simple as knowing that when you squeeze the toothpaste tube, toothpaste will come out, can give us peace of mind. But what happens when the one you love is taken from you? Can you, right now, guarantee that your family will all be alive when we come to the end of this pandemic? Can you guarantee you will be alive? And if not, what is your hope?
I am not speaking about fideism – confidence in our faith itself, which so often is fickle. “You just have to have faith,” some will say. But, what happens when you can’t? The God of the Old and New Testaments tells us about His faithfulness toward all who turn to Him, even when their faith falters. Faith, along with repentance, is our entrance into this relationship with the eternal, infinite, and changeless God of all things. But even faith and repentance are gifts from Him. He does not take back His gifts.
What I am not arguing is that we have any more certainty about tomorrow as Christians than non-Christians have. Above all, the Christian should know there is nothing guaranteed to us tomorrow. As James said, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . . You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Or consider Jesus’ words: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).
What I am arguing is that, while Christians may not have any more certainty about tomorrow, we have certainty within any situation on any day. God is sovereign. A passage I memorized early on as a seminarian is Isaiah 46:9-10:
“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose.'”
The context of the passage is not a positive one, by the way. It was not designed to make the Israelites feel good about themselves. He is actually rebuking them for their idolatry, which in this case included putting their trust in other people and political powers and idols they had made, rather than in the one, true, living God. James is arguing essentially the same point: when we make plans, we so often take God for granted and ignore Him entirely. We make our plans to increase our prosperity, failing to remember we are but a mist, and that God determines the length of our days and the success of our enterprises. This is always true.
In other words, the Christian should be the last person to take anything for granted, because we ought to be people who acknowledge our frailty and God’s sovereignty in every thought and plan and step we take in our daily lives.
Rather than seeking after our comfort, certainty, and stability here in this fallen world – a world in which pandemics can occur, because Adam sinned (and so our doctrine of sin ought to mitigate against over-confidence as well) – as Christians we ought to be pursuing God’s will every single day with renewed determination. “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills . . . .'” Or, to use Jesus’ words again: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). This is a constant, regardless of the changing circumstances, whether that change is actual or potential; it is always one or the other.
A man I admire tremendously is Eric Liddell. Some of you know his story: Scottish Olympian who refused to run his event because it fell on a Sunday, but who ran in a subsequent event, twice as long, and still won the gold; missionary to China, because he understood his life to be a race for a much more significant prize; trapped in China during WWII and sent to a Japanese internment camp in Weihsien, Shandong, China, where he would perish from a brain tumor. One of my favorite quotes of his is:
“We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ.”
While he was in the internment camp, he wrote a manuscript titled A Manual of Christian Discipleship, which you can now find as The Disciplines of the Christian Life. One of the children in the camp with Eric Liddell, David Mitchell, recalls in his remembrance at the beginning of the book: “Not only did Eric Liddell organize sports and recreation, but throughout his time in the internment camp he helped many people by teaching and tutoring. He gave special care to the older people, the weak, and the ill, for whom the conditions in camp were especially trying. He was always involved in the Christian meetings which were a part of camp life. Despite the squalor of the open cesspools, rats, flies, and disease in the crowded camp, life took on a normal routine, though without the faithful and cheerful support of Eric Liddell, many people would never have been able to manage.” By the way, Eric Liddell and another man had hour-long devotions every morning in their tiny living space through reading the Bible by the light of a peanut oil lamp and praying together.
In The Disciplines of the Christian Life, Eric Liddell defines discipleship as knowing God personally and learning from Jesus (p. 27). The one word he uses to describe discipleship is obedience, which is to the moral law, through active surrender. On page 29, he challenges us to ask ourselves:
“What am I living for – self, money, place, power? Or are my powers at the disposal of human need, dedicated to the kingdom of God on earth?
There is a direct correlation between the extent to which we are shaken by situations like this pandemic and a life focused on self, money, place, power, etc. This is true for the Christian as well as the non-Christian. Christians who are shaken by these uncertainties demonstrate that they have not been focused on God’s kingdom, but rather the things of this world; they have not been seeking God’s will and guidance each day, whatever may come, but their own ability to understand, organize, plan, and create stability, devoid of James’ qualification that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” On the other hand, far from being shaken, those who focus first on God’s kingdom and righteousness will be seeking ways to follow Christ and serve others, seeing this pandemic as a great opportunity. They will not feel like anything has been stripped away from them, because in their hearts they’ve already stripped away everything except following Christ. They will not be shaken or moved. “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).
Furthermore, as Christians, we know that the things of this world are perishable, defiled, and fading. And at the same time, we know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “according to His great mercy, has caused us to be born from above to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). Of course things will be uncertain here; but in heaven they are absolutely certain.
Are we in uncertain times? Yes, just as we are every single day. Let us not, as Christians, try to find our stability and certainty in our daily lives here on earth. Even worse, let us not ignore our God and Father when He allows life to cruise along uninterrupted. Let us, however, truly seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, whatever the consequences, each and every new morning. Let us repent for living for self, money, place, and power rather than following Christ and serving others. Let us keep our hope in heaven.
Are you not a Christian? I hope this pandemic is helping bring life’s uncertainty to the forefront of your mind, that you are thinking about it every day. What will you do? I hope you feel powerless in the midst of this pandemic. I also hope that you will turn to God through Christ. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). The invitation is open. I hope you will accept it.