By now, many of us have acclimated to the COVID-19 social-distancing protocols. Churches are learning how to serve people online, schools have shifted to virtual home-based learning, and families are doing their best to stay in touch and support each other. As this crisis persists, we will need to address continuing needs of physical well-being and mental health.
In addition to these needs, there are some real spiritual needs that are surfacing. I agree with those who say a door is opened to share the gospel and love of Jesus. While we can share that love in many ways, there are three specific spiritual challenges that we will face. We should remember that as spiritual leaders ministering to these needs, we are not immune from them. We might be facing these same challenges in our own hearts.
1. The Old Problem of Evil.
If God is wholly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, how can this pandemic have happened. How can any tragedy happen? These are not new questions though they will become more acute. They are faced by Christians and wielded by skeptics perennially. They nag at us any time the innocent and righteous suffer. An entire theological study called theodicy has been devoted to it.
It will be tempting to respond to these questions with the extremes of indifference and presumption. Indifferent responses come out in exhortations like, “We can’t know the ways of the Lord. We should just pray and praise him all the same.” The opposite error of presumption is expressed in broad pronouncements about the judgment of God or conspiracy theories. If we are honest, we have to admit these answers fail to calm our own hearts. Why would we ever think they would satisfy the people who come to us in their suffering?
We can lead in the face of this question by leaning into the biblical narrative. The Bible does not give us pat answers for the problem of evil. It does, however, give us stories of people who have faced these challenges and found the sustaining grace of God. This is an opportunity for us to pray through the Scriptures of Job, Lamentations, and the Psalms of Lament. Allow the full range of human emotion to be expressed as we wrestle with God. We will find the Spirit groaning in and through us on behalf of creation (Romans 8). As we enter into this brokenness with this kind of honesty, we will find God waiting for us. Follow through by praying through the sufferings of Jesus, the joy of His resurrection, and the promise of the new heavens and new earth. Our answer to the problem of evil is not so much a technical explanation as it is the true story and hope of redemption. In addition to the Scriptures, this would be a good time to revisit resources like C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God.
2. The Problem of Economy.
In the United States alone, millions of people have suddenly lost their employment and their businesses overnight. Pastors and ministers are hearing these heartbreaking stories at every turn. As ministry leaders, we have to be honest that we know the economic hardship of our congregations can spell economic hardship for us as well. We are all in this together. This presents a spiritual need in two ways: provision and identity.
The most obvious need is the anxiety that arises as we must trust God in new ways. What will happen to us? Will we have what we need? In addition to providing aid as possible, we should take care to ensure that we are resting in God’s faithfulness and encouraging others to do the same. Jesus was serious when He said that God would care for us, so we need not be anxious about what we will eat or what we will wear (Matthew 6:25-34). Paul, who knew hardship as well as any other, meant what he said when he instructed us overcome anxiety with peace received through prayer (Philippians 4:6-7).
Beneath this need, the economic hardships might present another kind of fear: who am I? Humans have a particular temptation to identify themselves with their possessions. We may be able to have peace that we will have the basic needs, but will that be enough? What about the luxuries? What about the status that comes with those luxuries? Does my “net worth” really define my true worth? Again, Jesus answered that: life is more than food or clothes (Matthew 6:25).
As ministry leaders, we will be challenged to remind people that they are more than their possessions. It might be good to adopt a saying in our congregations: “I am not my money.” Though painful, this season can allow us to rediscover our own souls and our worth before God. Richard Foster’s thoughts on simplicity (see Celebration of Discipline) and Dallas Willard’s various writing (especially Divine Conspiracy) can help us to trust in God’s eternal kingdom and our worth in his eyes.
3. The Problem of Self.
The social distancing protocols have given people an unexpected amount of time on their hands. Those who live alone have their own thoughts that are not so easily silenced. Those in families are suddenly forced to pay more attention to and make space for their close relationships. As a result, behaviors rooted in brokenness may become more apparent and more problematic. Angry words and actions, self-medication, and pornography use are only a few of the ways this brokenness will manifest. With less ways to be distracted, frustrations and guilt will increase. Sadly, this creates a cycle of more anger and reliance on pain-dulling false comforts.
As ministry leaders, it will be important to be ready to lead individuals and families in repentance, healing, and renewal. It would be wise to brace for more troubling stories, confessions, and marital difficulties. Yet this can be a good thing. Our healing begins with repentance, and that requires honesty about our own sinfulness. Rising pain can provoke us to seek help. This is a time to soak in the biblical assurances of God’s forgiveness as well as his faithfulness to restore. Texts like Renovare’s Devotional Classics can be helpful resources in renewal.
These are only a few problems that will arise, but they will be serious ones. Thinking about these problems is daunting if we do not look through them to see God in the midst of them. The Holy Spirit is never far and is not inhibited by these challenges. We can see Him do wonders. They will also tax our reserves as leaders and quickly deplete us if we attempt to meet them in our own strength. It is vital that we take care of ourselves. Our strength is in the Lord. He is sufficient for the task and ministers that through us.