Philippians 4:12-13 says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Paul wrote this from a prison. In fact, he wrote a lot of beautiful, perfect words from prison.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…”
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing…”
“Do not be anxious about anything…”
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
And that’s just a snapshot from Philippians. Paul is credited with writing at least seven other books in the Bible, and in each book there are countless tidbits of wisdom. Because we have access to so many of his letters, we tend to think we understand who he was. First he was a murderer until he encountered God on the road, then he became the saint who praised God in his suffering and told the churches exactly how to conduct themselves as followers of Christ.
But we weren’t privy to all of Paul’s thoughts while he was in prison. We only heard the few words he believed wise and worthwhile enough to share with Christian churches. You see, Paul knew he had a finite time to preach to these congregations, so he didn’t mince words. He didn’t add descriptive flourishes of emotion. He got to the point, and presented the characteristics that Christians should immulate.
In times of despair, we like to turn to Paul’s words for encouragement. When tornadoes destroy homes, when the economy tanks, and when disease is rampant, we like to immediately move forward using Paul’s words of wisdom. After all, Paul experienced plenty of tragedy in his life! So if Paul can write melodious lines like, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” (Philippians 1:21) then we ought to be able to march through the storms of life without stumbling or blinking an eye.
Somehow, our society views grief as a sign of weakness, something that we should bury in our daily lives. It’s a stark contrast from the biblical mourners who tore their clothes and wailed in the streets. Even Christ on the cross cried out to God and said, “Why have you forsaken me?”
I believe we need to stop plowing through as we realize that the coronavirus is wrecking our stable society. We don’t know what regulations will be put into place when we wake up tomorrow. People are losing their jobs. We can’t visit our grandparents or hug our friends. We don’t know when the virus will reach our towns, or if it’s already here. We are walking through a storm that no human can chart or control. I’m not a crier, and I’ve already cried multiple times this month.
All this to say, Paul might not be the biblical figure to turn to right now. By the time Paul wrote these letters, he was no longer grieving his circumstances. He accepted his fate and had found comfort in it, and was following God’s call to impart his knowledge on others. Paul sent his letters to healthy, strong people.
But there are many, many godly people in the Bible who cry out, grief-stricken and broken. In Esther, the Jews fasted for three days, crying out to God for deliverance, before Esther approached the king and begged him to save her people. Job grew so depressed that he wished he was never born. There is an entire book called Lamentations where a prophet (assumed to be Jeremiah) grieves the literal destruction of Israel. And David, ever the dramatic songwriter, dared to write the heathenist words,
“Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
And through all of these tears, complaints, and pains, these followers of God never sinned. By keeping their hearts open to grief, they were keeping their minds open to wisdom. If you keep reading David’s song, he adds,
“Then I thought,
“To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.
Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.”
When the coronavirus first hit China, Americans denied its strength. As it hit Italy, we became angry as our vacation plans were cancelled, and our grocery store aisles were emptied. There are many people still trying to bargain, suggesting they can stop it by following strict guidelines. Others, myself included, have gone through bouts of intense depression as our freedoms are slowly taken away in the name of the greater good. If you pay attention to social media, everyone is posting black and white blanket statements, creating a savior complex for those who voluntarily quarantine, and crucifying those who are still stumbling and trying to make the right decisions.
This process we are going through is called grief.
NEWSFLASH: We are not going to save the entire world by adhering to every proposed regulation. The life of the sick is not solely based on my ability to create a well-stocked bunker in my house. I am not responsible for the future of our country, and “doing my part” does not make me a hero in these trying times. It just makes me human. The eradication of this disease will not come by the works of my hands, but by the Power of His.
In a matter of weeks, our world has turned upside down. For all our qualms about the problems in the world, the majority of Americans had a certain comfort in their daily lives. We don’t have that anymore. Some people fear contracting the virus. Others fear losing their jobs and their security. Still others fear that the government will use this opportunity to overturn many of our democratic rights. We aren’t comfortable anymore.
And in the middle of this discomfort, we are being told to avoid the people who know us and love us. Phone calls can’t replace a grandmother’s hug. Skype doesn’t replace playing games with our friends. This is hard. The world is spiraling into a depression that we cannot reverse or change. And it’s okay to grieve.
There’s a huge call to action right now. People are scrambling to make sure everyone is fed and educated. Churches are calling for massive mission projects so that communities can see the greatness of God. It all sounds really good on paper. But I’ve seen churches crumble when they try to do too much. I’ve seen people fall into deep sin when they take on external responsibilities without fixing their internal turmoils first.
If you’re not yet in a position to be His hands and feet, that’s okay. Your end goal is to serve, but your first step is to pray, to get rid of your anxiety, and to find your rest in Him. An exhausted, beaten-down servant is no good to the kingdom of God.
If someone entrusts you with their heart enough to say, “I’m struggling. I’m frustrated. This is too hard.”
DON’T tell them about how some people are immunocompromised so they should willingly do whatever it takes to protect those people because AT LEAST they are healthy.
DON’T tell them to be thankful they can telework or that they get extra time with their kids because AT LEAST they have a job and a family.
DON’T belittle them for having a desire to go on vacation or see friends because AT LEAST they can connect with the world online.
DON’T tell them to stop grumbling or feeling anxious because AT LEAST they have food on the table.
The art of comparison is never an adequate weapon to combat grief. By quoting the words of Paul to a friend who is struggling, all you are telling them is that their grief doesn’t matter to you. You are telling them that they need to accept each new circumstance blindly, which is actually awful advice. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that the wise search for truth and wrestle with the difficult questions. Let them wrestle. Cry with them. Pray with them. Ask them if there is anything you can do to make them feel stronger. And trust that they will find the right solution.
There will come a time in the next few weeks when your heart says, “I’m struggling. I’m frustrated. This is too hard.” That grief you feel is valid. Let yourself work through it, through prayer and study and (virtual) fellowship.
At some point, like Paul, we will look back on this tragedy and say, “What has happened to us has really served to advance the gospel.” (See Philippians 1:12)
But right now, perhaps we need to lean a little more on the pleas of David, and cry out to God,
“Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.”