These are undoubtedly the strangest of days. We are in a state of upheaval and disruption, and we have no idea when or if normal service might resume. We are living in a cultural pause, an on-air silence which becomes more uncomfortable by the day, an interval which is quickly seeming to be longer than the main show, a fidgeting period of inertia and disquiet, a faltering loss of cultural confidence which is excruciating and disconcerting. Our diaries have been reduced to eraser shavings, our career paths have become bouldered, and our children’s emotional welfare is being buffeted by events which we cannot protect them from. All of our normal is now nominal and ephemeral, a shifting world of worry and what-if which yields few answers. These are days when the capital reserves of hyperbole are terminally depleted.
As Christians, these are also days of great opportunity. There is an obvious sense in which this is the case evangelistically. The pretended sophistication of card carrying existentialists is being exposed as morally and pastorally insufficient, the consumerist bubble is close to bursting, and men and women who are not Christians are asking the kinds of questions normally only reserved for the ICU waiting room or the funeral parlour office. We must, of course, meet that need with a fulsome and candid gospel witness. But there is another opportunity, a learning point for Christians which lies so close to the bone of who we are that the path of greater comfort would be to engage in activism without introspection – yet this is a perspective which might just change our view of ourselves and our world.
In this post I want to think through some of the identity-shattering issues which Covid-19 brings to us as Christians, and suggest some deep seated lessons which we can presently learn that might better prepare us to face our world now, and enjoy heaven later.
The broken lordship of our little realms
The past fifteen years have witnessed a gradual human retreat into self-made worlds of our own ordering, the creation of palladiums of consciousness which seemed impenetrable by the outside world. The last five years have watched this intensify to such an extent that the ability of many people to lift their eyes from a screen and engage with a world of contingency and community has been almost destroyed. We have become accustomed to a customised world, we have become realm builders and world shapers who can slide our preference menus in favour of what we want and how we feel, so that reality itself has appeared to be mouldable to our desires and concerns. We have quietly become lords of our own little realms, jealously guarding the fiefdom that big technology companies have conferred on us, exercising autocratic rule on what we consume and what we believe. There is a chance that Covid-19 has altered all of that – if not forever, then at least for now.
Our lordship is now broken, and there has intruded upon us an enemy who has breached the citadel of our solitary domain, and demanded that we bow to its dictation. As 21st century humans we are coming face to face with what intractable means, with the fact that reality cannot always be augmented or dismissed, that events cannot be muted or blocked in the way that those who inconveniently differ from us can. This is a cultural shock unlike anything we have faced before, an intrusion into the inner boudoirs of our palaces of desire, our banqueting halls of self-fulfilment, and we are adrift.
While all of this is true of much of the world in which we live, the shock is that as Christians we have been woken up to this reality as well. Covid-19, and the political response which has been so detrimental to our freedoms as people, is perhaps showing to us that we have assumed a degree of autonomy and lordship in our lives that we were never meant to have. Where we would not allow the gospel to intrude, Coronavirus has, and we are face to face with the theatre of idols we have sponsored.
This kind of shock is seldom ever felt in a communal sense. Individually, significant losses and tragedies often pull us into this real world. The radio is silenced, the white noise of our world is shut off for a while, the inanity of 24 hour entertainment leaves an acrid taste in our mouths. The silence of the hearse and limousine purring into the burial ground, the inhospitable linen on a hospital chair beside the bed of a loved one, are all means by which we become temporarily disengaged from the casual distractions and defections which are ours in the day and daily. Soon, however, the spindle of our lives begins to turn again, and we are slowly sucked into the frenzy of God-forgetfulness, the getting and spending cycle which sets us on an unsteady throne. Now, however, we are all in the waiting room, all of our shoes are clogged with the clods of the cemetery turf, all of the dials have been turned down, and we are left with the ticking clock of tedium and unease.
What an opportunity this is. We have room to take stock of the fact that the ‘other lords beside’ God which have held ‘unhindered sway’ have been of our own making, and that we have consigned the Saviour to the role of being a second rate endorser of our flimsy affections. Covid-19 has pulled the plug on the router, it has changed all of our passwords, and we are left now on the sign-in page, bereft of access to the relief of private worlds in which we are lord. What a providence this is.
Sending for Prince Emmanuel again
In his second great allegory, The Holy War, John Bunyan portrays the backsliding of Mansoul from affection for Prince Emmanuel. The regent leaves off knocking on the doors of homes within the city, withdraws to court, and allows a temporary usurpation of the city. The inhabitants of the city fall sick under the corrupt guidance of Mr Carnal Security, and are soon desperately seeking the good counsel and care of the Saviour again. Bunyan’s literary prowess is matched here by his pastoral precision, his keen and close diagnosis of the fact that the believer is constantly beset by a temptation to fall back on their own reserves, and assert their own right to rule. Only when laid low could Mansoul make heartfelt approaches to her Prince again.
This is precisely where we are today. Our securities have sailed south, our enemies have breached the walls and are laying siege to the castle, and our vaunted independence has made us sick at heart in our current climate. Our great opportunity and our pressing need is to send for our Saviour to occupy afresh the terraces and turrets of our souls again, to lay aside our casual responses to the overtures of his love and grace, and to see afresh that all we truly have is Christ, that reality is shaped by him in every respect, and that true human joy and fulfilment can only be known when he is visibly and fundamentally Lord of our lives.
We do, of course, long that Covid-19 might sweep many into his kingdom, but we ought also to pray that it would be used to sweep more of his kingdom into us. We have had need to be broken and abashed, our hubristic hearts have needed to be humbled, our lives have needed this pause to consider where we have been laying our stress, where we have been placing our trust, where we have been pinning our hopes. In short, we have a window of opportunity now to repent of our pretended self-rule and to ask that Christ Jesus would restore to us the defining reality of knowing him and laying our lives down before his mastery. That is the deeper lesson we are being invited to learn. Church history will be the judge of whether we truly do so.