As the one year “anniversary” of the COVID-19 shutdowns passes this weekend, we once again took some time away to reflect, write (and eat far too many pretzels + peanut butter M&Ms). Yes, this year was filled with grief, weird documentaries, TikTok challenges, and cancelled plans, but through it all we each have testimonies of greater understandings of God’s character. Whatever you are carrying with you from this year of social distancing and change, we pray these pieces point you to the God who still stands through it all.
The God Who Gives Peace by Michelle Pineau
Last May, on the day I was supposed to be in Europe, I took a walk down my road and picked some flowers. If Covid cancelled my trip, I thought, I’d at least try to redeem my evening. So I strolled. Tiny violets, the veins on their petals shooting shades of lavender and amethyst, sprouted inconspicuously in my even-tinier front yard. Tucked away and blossoming in random patches, or standing singularly in an audience of green, they unfurled their defiant beauty in a world full of shambles and disappointment.
I like to think that the flowers bloomed that spring, not oblivious to the chaos in our world, but in spite of it. Bravely rearing their heads from ice-thawed ground, shaking soil from their leaves, they turned their faces towards joy. Towards light, warmth, and hope.
And that’s how I felt in the midst of 2020. In all the let downs, injustices, and hurts, and through God’s grace alone, I was able to find peace. I was still able to live with joy in our pandemic world.
Prior to 2020, I had stumbled through some dark valleys. There were moments, and entire seasons, when I felt utterly forgotten and forsaken. My outer world felt chaotic, and my inner world did, also. Although a professing Christian, it was only during hardship that I realized my own subconscious desire to rely on outward things for inner security. And it was only during hardship that I learned to rely on the God who neither shifts nor leaves; who is neither capricious nor fickle; and who I could never, and didn’t want to, lose. I emerged from those valleys with a stronger sense of trust and a deeper confidence in the God who works out all things for good (Romans 8:28). That was the foundation I walked into quarantine with, and one I still build on today.
I’m learning that the peace God offers runs contrary to human understanding. It doesn’t make sense. God’s peace looks like wading through deep rivers without drowning (Isaiah 43:2); comfort in dark valleys; and feasts laid out for us in the presence of enemies (Psalm 23:4-5). God’s peace does not equate to the absence of trials. We must take care not to measure God’s goodness by the perceived material gifts and opportunities he presents, but rather by the truth that he gave his very Son for us that we should inherit life. “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you because he trusts in you,” Isaiah boldly declares (26:3). Perfect peace. And not because our circumstances are perfect, or that they ever will be. But rather because God is perfectly kind, and neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate us from his love for us in Jesus (Romans 8:39).
Yet, true joy is not dismissive or careless. Nor is it easily threatened by hard times or difficulty. Most often, joy looks like gazing at pain and devastation right in the face, feeling it all. Picking up the burden and sensing its weight. Then making the deliberate choice to not let it dictate our peace or drain our hope. “The fruit of the Spirit that is called joy,” writes Jerry Bridges,* “cannot be learned in the midst of circumstances that produce mere ‘natural’ happiness.” Rather, joy is defiant and daring. It’s the reason Paul wrote from jail to the Ephesian church, and why Jesus clung to the cross in seemingly agonizing defeat: they saw something more. Their hearts were set on something greater than their temporary losses, however real they were. Joy is an inward shift of the heart.
I ask my heart to remember this as it fumbles for lesser things – my dream job, more secure finances, or a covenant-bound relationship. I ask my heart to remember this as it gazes outward at the wreckage of a broken world and inward at the failings of a feeble heart. My untrained mind won’t lead me to peace.
As springtime circles around once more, my friends remind me that Jesus also spoke of flowers. Consider the lilies, he had once implored. If God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you (Luke 12:27-28, shortened). It’s peace, and I’ve made up my mind: if the flowers burst forth in glorious radiance, so will I. And we shall both orient ourselves towards light, warmth, hope.
*Taken from the book “Trusting God” by Jerry Bridges
The God Who Guides by Alecia Hinston
Disorienting. Much of 2020 for me was disorienting, as I’m sure it was for many others. Webster defines this word as “losing bearings: displacing from normal position or relationship; losing the sense of time, place, and identity.” 2020, anyone? I lost many of my bearings last year including some relationships I relied on, opportunities I was counting on to move me forward, and just an overall sense (albeit false) of security.
When that which we anchor ourselves is not Christ, then understandably we will feel hopelessly disoriented when those things are suddenly or slowly taken away. I found myself many times feebly crying out, “LORD, please.” Italics-type prayers. Prayers from the very depletion of my own resources and inability to determine any clarity in the path forward. In her book God’s Guidance, Elisabeth Elliot writes,
“Our prayers for guidance (or for anything else) really begin here: I trust Him. This requires abandonment. We are no longer saying, ‘If I trust Him, He’ll give me such and such,’ but ‘I trust Him. Let Him give me or withhold from me what He chooses.”
Do I trust Him? Will I abandon self-sufficiency and my own ideas of what is good for my life in exchange for a heart of surrender to the Lord’s guidance?
Lately, I’ve been spending time in Psalm 25. The psalm opens with a declaration of orientation: “To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul,” which is a Hebrew idiom for “I direct my desire.” David positions himself, desires in hand, towards the true north, “the God of [his] salvation” (v. 5). With his “eyes ever toward the LORD” (v. 15), David then asks for guidance: “Make me to know Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me.” Psalm 25:4-5a
In this psalm we see God’s character expressed as trustworthy (v. 2-3) and merciful (v. 6), “good and upright” (v. 8). He is One who steadfastly loves (v. 6-7, 10), pardons sin (v. 11), shares counsel as a friend (v. 14), and delivers the distressed (v. 15). Standing on this firm foundation of God’s character, David is able to petition for guidance, receiving direction and promises in return. Such promises include “none who wait for the LORD will be put to shame” (v. 3) and “all the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (v. 10).
I’ve read this psalm before and I’ve believed these words to be true, but through the disorientation, ever-descending unknown, and grief over what’s been lost in 2020, the truths in this psalm resonate much more intimately. Like the protagonist Much-Afraid in Hinds’ Feet on High Places, we too must at times journey with the twin travel companions, Sorrow and Suffering. Yet, as the Shepherd in this story reminded Much-Afraid, these are often the best teachers, leading us to new heights of victory and strength.
As followers of Christ, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13-14). We do not wander aimlessly, tossed to and fro by the waves and winds of the everchanging news stories, self-help mantras, or popular opinion (Eph. 4:14). Instead, we can cling to the promise that “the LORD will guide [us] continually and satisfy [our] desire in the scorched places and make [our] bones strong” (Is. 58:11). We can move forward confidently as we keep our eyes on Him, knowing that He will establish our steps (Ps. 37:23; Prov. 16:9) and is able to keep us from stumbling (Jude 24). As the paths of our lives are cleared away of unnecessary weights entangling us — unforgiveness for past hurts, misplaced worship of seemingly “good” things, the need for perfection in our professional or relational performance — as well as weeds of sin — public or secret — that cling so closely (Heb. 12:1), we are better able to see. The path is cleared, the noise is quieted, and we can hear the still, small voice of the Spirit “saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’” (Is. 30:21).
The God Who Perfects by Sarah Lagpacan
Perfect, I thought to myself sarcastically. It was July 2020, and this was the second time Alecia and I had discovered gravity-defying sewage coming up through the drain in our shower (yipee). But God knows I like to make poetry out of even literal crap, so I have to look back and laugh at what felt like the most appropriate microcosm of the most imperfect year I could never have imagined.
Up until very recently, I don’t think I understood what James was getting at when he wrote:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
So I’m supposed to be happy and say “yay” when my house’s plumbing is broken, when an unknown disease is wreaking havoc across the planet, when the economy’s tanking, when culture wars are raging, and when I’m isolated from everyone I know and love? How exactly does that work, James?
Thanks to this video created by the Bible Project, I’ve recently discovered that the word “complete” that James uses there in verse four is the Greek word teleios – perfect. “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and teleios.” But it doesn’t connote the same things I associate with the word “perfect”: put together and flawless in a way that’s unapproachable and inauthentic. Instead, it’s used to communicate the complete alignment between one’s beliefs and one’s conduct – complete integrity.
James is capturing the truth that life is not perfect – in fact, it’s hard. But, if we let him, God works through it to perfect us, to fully integrate the truth of who he is and what he’s done for us into every single aspect of who we are and how we live. And that opportunity is something to be joyful about.
The thing, though, is that being made perfect starts with having the ways we aren’t perfect – our inconsistencies – pointed out to us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been made all too aware of mine over the past year: I would say, “God will take care of me,” but I’d also find myself becoming deathly afraid of the virus, panicking when I perceived even the slightest symptoms in myself. I would say, “My worth is found in Christ’s fully sufficient work on the cross,” but I would also work myself into the ground with my job and ministry involvement to try and prove my worth, becoming frustrated when I was not as productive, especially as everything shifted to virtual platforms. I would say, “God’s plans for my life are good – I’ll follow him,” but I would also make plans and set timelines based on what I wanted or deemed appropriate and be devastated when they didn’t work out.
It was precisely through the imperfections – indeed, the deep disappointments – of this past year that my eyes were opened to my hypocrisies, my falsehoods, and my inconsistencies. And for each one, the Lord has given me grace upon grace upon grace, as well as opportunities to get back up and try again. He really is the author and perfecter of my faith, and I’m learning to take the stories he’s writing through the pandemic for what they are: trial-filled, faith-testing, perseverance-producing, and for my, your, and our ultimate and true good.