Editor's Note: As we face this global pandemic together, the In Touch editorial team will publish a new essay each Friday to help you remember what’s certain in uncertain times.
It started with toilet paper disappearing off shelves, and now, months after the COVID-19 pandemic first hit American shores, it seems as though we’re living in some apocalyptic movie. Makeshift hospitals are set up in abandoned parking garages, and Samaritan’s Purse has set one up in Central Park. I email my friends in New York City, asking how they are, if they can breathe the air. There is nothing on our calendars except a few anchoring practices: daily walks, prayer with our church family, a Zoom call with college friends.
We feel our mortality. Anxiety comes creeping in or overwhelms us like a wave. In the West, we feel stripped bare, barren, and disoriented in the heat of this new reality. Our current cultural moment with the COVID-19 pandemic is a wilderness moment for the world.
Wilderness moments, while they can look and feel like death, can also be where God meets us. In this particular disorienting season, we may feel abandoned, alone, and forgotten by God. The pandemic feels too big. Even as we go through our own losses, anxiety, or pain, we lament the situations of people experiencing poverty or displacement—people who don’t seem ever to arrive in a “promised land” of their own. What are we Christians to do with so much suffering, injustice, sin, and death?
The wilderness place in the biblical story is never simply a place of abandonment. When Hagar ran from the abuse of her mistress Sarai, it’s in the wilderness that she met the Lord, whom she called “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13 NIV). When the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, it was the wilderness wanderings that tested them and reoriented them toward God. There, they were provided for, even as their resources were limited (Exodus 15-16). In seasons such as the one we’re now in, we find ourselves stripped of many comforts, any false sense of control, and other delusions we have about being autonomous from God. It’s here that we’re offered the chance to get to know a God who uses His power on behalf of His people—a God who hems us in, with cloud and fire.
While we use words like omnipotent to talk about God, we see evidence of the world’s fallenness all around us: Less COVID-19 testing and medical care is available in poorer countries and counties; people who are homeless and incarcerated have little or no recourse to care for themselves; and even those of us with stable employment struggle with anxiety about provisions running out or potential loss of work. What is our world coming to?
Wilderness moments, while they can look and feel like death, can also be where God meets us.
The wilderness reveals to us how gospel power always moves us from orientation, to disorientation, to reorientation. We want to skip the disorienting desert now, so perhaps we distract ourselves with entertainment, or certain foods, because we don’t know how to move through loss, lament, and grief. But disorientation is not the end. In His own wilderness temptation, Jesus was brought up on a high mountain and told to worship Satan—to see power as something to achieve without loss. Like His temptation, ours is always to bypass suffering, to get the good life without pain.
I feel compelled to ask myself some questions:
Can I grow without pain?
Do I believe God uses loss to make me more like His Son?
Is it possible this pandemic might reorient my trust in the power of a good and loving God?
The way I answer these and similar questions has everything to do with how this troubled season will shape me—now and in the months and years to come, with whatever they’ll bring.
Invitation Into the Wilderness
Recalling the ancient Israelites, we might wonder if God has brought us out into the wilderness to abandon and kill us (Numbers 20:4). Yet this story shows us God intended the desert as a place to save. In her book A Beautiful Disaster, author Marlena Graves writes, “He brought us out to save us, to show us his power, to offer his comfort, and to put to death whatever is in us that is not of him. ” Being finite, we do not understand how the providence and goodness of God interact with the evil of this virus. But we know that in God's economy nothing is wasted. As with all of the trials we walk through, He makes use of these experiences to sanctify and lead us closer to Himself. The desert will either draw us deeper into the story of a good God or cause us to turn our backs in favor of our own kingdoms of control.
Our temptation is always to bypass suffering, to get the good life without pain.
In times like these, when we’ve been whittled away by this desert, we see that our sense of stability and control was puffed up. We have an invitation: Will we, in the words of Andy Crouch, “expose ourselves to meaningful loss—to become vulnerable, woundable in the world?” Perhaps God can use only woundable things.
Abundant life in Christ is fashioned in barren places. The wilderness—whether literal or figurative—involves a stripping down to only what is essential. It was in this space that Jesus met the temptation of Satan and, in doing so, triumphed over the failed attempts of His people in their own desert temptations. This means that even as we are reoriented towards God, even as we fight the very process (choosing again to numb, escape, or try to control instead), Jesus is more than just an example for us: He triumphed over temptation to glory. He endured the cross. He was raised again to new life—all on our behalf.
This means that when we wake up in a sweat-soaked bed of anxiety, when we resort to numbing ourselves in countless ways, when we feel depressed and powerless at the current global struggle unfolding day by day, we can choose to rest in Christ. Even in this global health pandemic, Jesus—whom we also call Immanuel, meaning “God with us”—lives up to His name.
Art by Jonathan Todryk