Things are Not as They Seem
2020: Crisis! Terror! Trauma!
Crisis! Terror! Trauma! These words (or at least the realities they represent) were as familiar to first century Christians as they are to us today. In some ways, far more. I got to thinking: what did crisis management and terror response and trauma recovery look like back then before trained professionals were on the scene?
Domitian, an insane sadistic monster who took cruelty a step beyond Nero, was emperor of Rome. Jesus-followers had it rough. Government spies were everywhere on the lookout for traitors who refused to worship Domitian as god, an act of loyalty required of all citizens. Job loss, jail time, torture, even death awaited offenders. For Christians especially life was one never ending crisis, terror an everyday threat, trauma a continually re-opened wound.
And then God went into visible action. A letter arrived, a long, strange letter, a letter from God through their pastor of many years now exiled on a barren rock island for refusing to acknowledge the emperor of Rome as his Lord and God. What would God say? Did He know how badly they were suffering? Did He care? John knew. John cared. What would the letter say?
I imagine groups of Christians gathering in secret meeting places, huddled together on dirt floors, waiting to hear counsel from their trusted pastor, their spiritual director seasoned by nearly 90 years of living, their brother who decades earlier had rested his head on Jesus’ shoulder the night before the Messiah was crucified. John loved them. He knew God. He had seen into the heavens. He had received a vision of Christ. What would He say?
No book has been more helpful to me in grasping the meaning of John’s pastoral letter (what we call Revelation) than Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge. Among many enlightening comments, Johnson observes that no command is repeated more by John than “Look!”. Second in frequency is the comforting command “Don’t be afraid!”.
Look! See a throne. Look again. It’s occupied. A power immeasurably greater than Domitian is right now running the universe. Nothing is happening outside of His awareness or without His permission. See! In His hand is a scroll, the record of history from beginning to end. No detail is missing, no event good or bad unrecorded. The scroll, not yet opened, reveals a plan underway now in the unseen world, moving through all that is happening in the seen world toward an unimaginably happy climax in both.
Look! Don’t be afraid! Domitian does not have the final say. Even now he can do no more than God allows, nothing that isn’t somehow part of God’s plan to get you to the party. Wait! Hope! Trust! Persevere!
Bereaved family and friends need comfort and an opportunity to meaningfully grieve. Hurricane victims need practical assistance, lots of it. People living in an unsafe world infested with mad terrorists need protection, and some way to make sense of things when bombs explode. Abuse survivors need deep healing.
But beneath it all, people – all of us – need someone to pull back the curtain, to lift the shades on the bus, and tell us to look. We need to see what God is doing when it appears that He’s doing nothing. We need to see a good plan unfolding in the middle of dark nights, and to feel privileged to be a part of it. We need to see beauty.
And those who look, those who see, can then welcome the command to not be afraid. Fear is real, pain continues, but neither fear nor pain is the bottom line. Both are nudged aside by hope. Why? Because those who look realize that things are not as they seem! And hope strengthens faith. It releases love. Paul spoke of “… the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven.” (Colossians 1:5)
The next time you’re called on to counsel with the grieving, terrorized, or traumatized, ask yourself this question: What will bring God the most glory? If you believe it’s assuaged grief, relieved terror, or healed wounds, aim for that. But if you believe that grieving, scared, wounded people can bring God the most glory by hoping in His unfolding but as yet unseen plan and therefore hanging on to faith and continuing to love God and others, then aim for that. How? Like John, come alongside hurting people without minimizing their pain, let your wounds and fears meet theirs, then say “Look. There is a throne. And it’s occupied, by the One who not only is in charge of your history, your present, and your future, but who also loves you and is committed to the ultimate satisfaction of your deepest desires. Don’t be afraid. The Lamb will open the scroll. The Lion will roar into this world. It’s happening now. A good plan is underway. Things are not as they seem!”