An Open Letter from Larry Crabb
A surprising request concluded the opening prayer of a recently streamed church service: “God, deliver us from the idol of certainty”. I don’t think the prayer has yet been answered, but the coronavirus has the idol wobbling a bit.
The pandemic raises interesting questions in the minds of Christians. Some believe this is God’s judgement on a world that has forgotten Him. I find myself asking, not whether the coronavirus was sent by God to wake up a sleeping world to His reality, but rather: what is God up to in His followers’ lives during these long isolating days of uncertainty?
Is He wanting us to count on Him for protection from the illness? I occasionally pray for such protection, but I’m depending more on washing my hands, social distancing, and keeping my hands off my face. Perhaps He is preparing to end the crisis with unmistakably divine intervention, so sudden and complete that medical experts will yield credit to God. If that happens, I’ll join the loud chorus of praise. But a thousand prayers asking God to heal the world of this dread disease have gone unanswered, at least to this point.
What then is God doing? Nothing? Only atheists and deists think either God doesn’t exist and therefore does nothing, or God has removed Himself from this world leaving us to deal as best we can with whatever comes our way.
Christians think otherwise. The God whom we know exists, the God whom we know loves us, “… never slumbers or sleeps”. He “keeps watch” over us as we live our lives (Psalm 121: 4, 8). Is that all? Could it be that our compassionate Father, our saving Lord, our indwelling Spirit are all three merely keeping their eyes on us as we live scared and hurting? Inconceivable! Whatever good work they are up to is continuing in every overcrowded hospital and through the worst economic disaster (see Philippians 1: 6). But what is it? What good is our good God up to?
Taking that question as seriously as I know how to do has put my mind on a roll, resulting in this letter. It’s going to be long. I can feel it. It’s likely to try your patience. My letter will, I think, end up being long enough to qualify as a very short book.
I’ve read dozens of letters written by C.S. Lewis. In only a page or two, he answered difficult questions raised in his own mind and in those of his friends with simple, to the point, clear wisdom. I lack his gift. I strike out on all counts. With apologizes, I’ll get started.
Only a few of you long time church goers will remember opening a hymnbook during a quiet worship service and singing these words:
“In times like these, you need a Savior. In times like these, you need an anchor. Be very sure, be very sure, your anchor holds and grips the solid rock”.
I imagine I have sung that hymn a dozen times during my pre-teen years. Times then were good. Born in 1944, by age ten the horrors of World War Two were only talked about, and not very often. Talked about memories of a country at war against a cruel enemy, with millions killed and with severe food rationing, are not the same as the present experience of living during a time of war.
Today we are again at war, this time against an enemy we don’t know how to kill, the enemy of a life-threatening virus. As I now sit at my desk writing, just a handful of weeks ago things were moving along quite well in America and the world, even better in my days as a boy.
My pre-teen experience of life was pleasant. The war was over. And we had won. Life in America included wearing “I like Ike” buttons; my father parking his car near to the stadium in a rough part of town telling two rascally looking older teens that each would earn ten dollars if they were still watching the car when dad returned from taking me to a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game; and annual Sunday school picnics where I played softball, ate hamburgers, flew a kite, and sort of listened to a brief Bible lesson. They were good times. I miss them.
When I sang the hymn that told me I needed both a Savior and an anchor, in times like those I didn’t much think about it. I knew the Savior was Jesus, and I needed Him to save me – from what? Oh yes, that’s right. I was a sinner. I did cheat once on a spelling test in elementary school.
The anchor part I didn’t get. I understood that anchors were needed by a ship tossed about by wild waves. And I figured the ship represented my life. I would need an anchor when I hit trouble. But I didn’t, never more trouble that mom and dad and a doctor couldn’t handle. My life was a ship sailing smoothly through mostly calm waters. I gave no further thought to my need for an anchor.
Those times are gone, for children, adults and seniors. These times carry us into rough waters, rougher every day. The waves are capsizing ships and claiming lives. And the old hymn again comes to mind, along with one key question.
In times like these, what do I most pressingly need that only God can provide, that He has promised to make available to all of us?
What do I need? Forgiveness makes the list; and self-awareness puts it at the top. Every time I grumble over an inconvenience brought on by social distancing or shortages in grocery stores, something is exposed that needs forgiveness by the only One who can forgive sin. That something is:
An arrogance that feels entitled to better treatment from God, enough better to keep me at least relatively happy, secure, and comfortable.
But is that attitude wrong enough to call it sin? It’s natural for affluent westerners in today’s world to assume things should generally go quite well for us. And when older folks like me contract a disease that threatens to kill us, shouldn’t a lifesaving ventilator and an effective therapy pill be available? Aren’t I right to feel troubled that the risk of an untreated illness is now alive in my golden years?
I sat in a doctor’s waiting room today, sitting six feet away from an 87 year old man. With a wry expression, he looked at me and said, “Seems kinda unfair for a man my age to get cancer. Might have been easier to accept if it was the more predictable coronavirus.”
To him and to me, I hear Jesus say “Let not your heart be troubled”. But if God is up to untroubling me, He’s got some work left to do. I am troubled. And then He adds, “Do not fear”. Could fear and peace somehow co-mingle, weakening my fear to a level where it no longer keeps me awake at night or at least no longer prevents me from falling asleep quickly?
It requires little discernment to see that my troubled anxiety springs in part at least from a sinful spirit of entitlement barking in my soul, an entitlement to a more untroubled life, to less distress. That spirit threatens to do more harm to my soul than the virus can do to my body. Sin distances me from the source of real life. The virus can only take away my physical life. Jesus, referring to whoever or whatever can destroy our bodies, said, “There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in his hands” (Matthew 10: 28 MSG).
With humble skepticism I ponder those words, and I come up with this: Fear rises up in me when I live in pursuit of an uncertain goal. No weighty anchor is available to me if I am chasing after an uncertain goal to which I feel entitled. I then reactively feel anger and fear. If I sincerely asked God to search me, to expose what is in me that offends Him (see Psalm 139: 24), might I see that my real goal is to live an untroubled, disease free, financially comfortable, relationally smooth life?
But suppose through sincere brokenness over my self-serving goal that led to genuine repentance, I committed myself to live for a new purpose, to advance God’s purposes in me and through me. A new hope would rise, that God would be with me, leading me to where I could bring Him the most glory, that the impossible would now be possible, that I could learn to live and love more like Jesus, slowly but surely – a certain goal. That hope would then become the “strong and trustworthy anchor” that Hebrews speaks about (6: 19).
But certain hope lies dormant in a soul unawakened through brokenness, repentance, and surrender. Along with too many other unawakened Christians, I need to more clearly see my sinfulness in its ugly monstrous proportions. I need to lay out before my eyes the attitude lurking in the dark regions of my soul now made visible by the Spirit’s light. I must hear myself thinking as follows:
“I am a committed Christian. Of course I am. I trust God to protect me from an intensity of suffering that would bring about unbearable anguish. Should a crisis arise, in these days the pandemic, I will do my part: wash my hands often, maintain social distancing, do my best to not touch my face even with washed hands. To ward off loneliness in both myself and others, I’ll call, text, and email often, even connect by zoom when I can. Those activities, with God’s cooperation, should keep me healthy. I do my part. God does His. Together, I can count on the anchor I need to keep me steady in this gale, the anchor of having whatever I need for me to live quite comfortably during this terrible pandemic, even more comfortably when it passes”.
Remember the prayer I mentioned earlier, “God, deliver me from the idol of certainty”? I suggest a brief extension: “God, deliver me from the idol of certainty I manufacture through my own proud attitude”. Pride energizes self-centeredness, leading to the goal of managed satisfaction. I live then as a citizen of the Kingdom of Self, unaware that I am a citizen in line for an earthquake in the soul.
“When God spoke from Mount Sinai, his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise. ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also’. This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshipping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a devouring fire” (Hebrews 12: 26-29).
It is the Kingdom of God in the soul of every follower of Jesus that is unshakable. A soul alive in that kingdom longs to live in the Larger Story God is telling, even as the world around is badly shaken, and will therefore know the mighty power of God that will provide “the endurance and patience” needed to stay close to God in the worst of storms (see Colossians 1: 11). The result? A soul tasting the Spirit’s fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (See Galatians 5: 22, 23).
I have written nearly 30 books. I have led more than 70 week long Schools of Spiritual Direction, sharing my limited understanding of the journey required to be slowly formed like Jesus, even in times like these. I’ve written much. I’ve taught much. I still believe all that I’ve written and taught, with the caveat that I’ve built on earlier understanding to gain a richer understanding of spiritual formation. I have much more to learn.
But I am now realizing that my confidence in all that I’ve shared has not yet been climactically tested. I have been shaken by my brother’s death in a plane crash, by mother’s tragic Alzheimer’s, by my ongoing battle with cancer, and by other painful suffering.
Yet no test has terrified me into wondering if I would ever return to a restored comfortable life, where most desires would be quite well satisfied. I have not yet been reduced to terminal desperation.
But now, together we are in the middle of a new test. Nature, once a friend held together by Christ (see Colossians 1: 17), though still held together by Christ has become a life-threatening enemy. I’m now in a war I have never before fought, against a pandemic painfully influencing so many parts of my life. I don’t like it. Somewhere deep within me a quiet desperation is forming, triggered though not rooted in the pandemic.
Perhaps Joseph Conrad said it best. This Polish-British author, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, wrote several notable works, all novels. Some were grim, such as Hearts of Darkness written in 1899. In another novel (I don’t know which one), Conrad wrote that humanity has reduced nature to the “shackled form of a conquered monster”. But now, more than a century later, the monster has been set free, and is now violently shaking the Kingdom of Self in each of us. In times like these, when so much is shaking in us and around us, what would it means to remain steady in the anchor of hope?
In a recent book by philosopher John Kaag titled Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, which I’m now reading, and am halfway through, Kaag suggests that pragmatic thinking, which the author believes is healthy thinking, can help us survive whatever sickness may be in our souls. In my reading so far, I’m picking up this message: souls feel sick, lost in a pointless existence, afraid, uncertain, out of control. Healthy thinking built on useful philosophy (that is pragmatic philosophy) can create enough meaning and good feelings to keep us feeling alive, to keep us from going crazy.
Eliminate revelation, dismiss the fanciful idea that truth has been spoken by an outside-of-us source, and we have no other option but to come up with ideas we receive as truth because they have the desired effect, to make us feel good, stable, and aware of our ability to freely choose what we do.
Many tips are being bandied about to help us feel emotionally better and existentially secure during a health crisis. Here are a few: read interesting, inspirational books; develop an exercise routine, maybe yoga; eat healthy and sensibly, with a few enjoyable treats thrown in; stay connected to others via technology.
Without dismissing the value of such tips, Kaag moves beneath the practical – here are some things you can do – to the pragmatic – here’s why things you can do will likely help. He appeals to William James, best known as America’s pragmatist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a contemporary with Joseph Conrad. Simply put, pragmatism is a philosophy that tests the truth and value of an idea by its desired consequences. It’s true if it works.
But this philosophy opens Pandora’s Box. We are now encouraged to disregard any notion of a God who is telling a Larger Story, and instead to exclusively focus on our Smaller Story, the one lived inbetween our birth and our death, with no greater good but to make this life work better so we can feel better, more alive and in control of ourselves.
To someone asking to know the meaning of life, James replied with this: “Is life worth living? Maybe” quipped James, “it depends on the liver”, referring not to a bodily organ but to a person living in this world. If the liver is choosing to live in the freedom of choice to believe in an idea because living the idea results in the desired consequence of feeling good about oneself and life, then yes, life is worth living.
James wrote about a “voluntarily adopted faith”, adopted because the chosen faith produces a certainty one can live with. James expressed it most simply this way: “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact”. Has the pandemic left you distraught? Believe that it is worthwhile to get out of bed and go about the business that needs doing, and before noon you will feel a purpose to your day’s activities. You’ll feel purposeful. What you’ve done is therefore true.
According to Kaag, James is throwing us an “existential life preserver”. Pragmatism is “about life and its amelioration. That’s it. And that is enough”. You are free to believe whatever belief seems to reduce the emptiness of the pointless existence of life in our Smaller Story. Truth above us is no longer needed. Whatever idea that keeps us sane and happy enough to move on becomes our truth.
Pragmatism is a skyhood, its claim to truthfulness tethered to the air. Christianity is built on a firm foundation, the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ, the miracle of the incarnation, God becoming man, still remaining God; the miracle of a life like no other, centered in divine live that released pure other-centeredness in every moment of Christ’s relating; the miracle of a death, undeserved and unresisted, a death that freed a holy God to welcome unholy people into His presence as forgiven holy saints; then the miracle of a resurrection, unique in all history, predicted before death and brought about by no human power; then the miracle of an ascension, the rising of a resurrected Man into the clouds witnessed by several; and now the miracle of a hope, validated by the incarnation, the lived life, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension, a hope that the truth of God will provide meaning and joy in the midst of a worldwide crisis, meaning without uncertainty and joy without pain, forever in another world.
This developing book-length letter has been prompted by my passion to know joy when life is uncertain, difficult, and heartbreaking. My conviction is firm: there is a profoundly Christian way to live and to think our way through times like these, a way that requires living on a narrow road, a way that is supported by belief directed by the Bible. Soul health is available! I want to better understand how to get it. OF course we should all do what is not directly related to soul health, but is rather a practical response to this crisis:
- Are there neither eggs nor milk in the store? Try again later.
- Are you coughing a dry cough? Do you have a temperature? Tested or not, stay home. Call a doctor.
- Are three kids home all day? Do what you can: home school if needed, play games, read books, watch movies, pray together.
- Are you lonely? Depressed? Call a friend, perhaps a counselor for phone appointments. Order take-out pizza.
But do more than manage the crisis! Seize the opportunity. The opportunity may involve sinking into near despair, to a level of impatient gloomy hopelessness that allows only one of two options: quit on God, arrange for whatever relief from misery is available, consider suicide when your pain permits no relief; or cling to God, realizing you are invited to tell the story He is telling, the story of painful joy, painful because life is painful, joy that finds its way into your soul when you live to delight God and be there for another.
Live in hope, the hope of the Gospel. But know this: “if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world” (1 Corinthians 15: 19). Reject the popular false gospel that promises health in the middle of a health crisis, physical health, and as a result, soul health, and that promises prosperity during a severe economic downturn, financial prosperity, not true spiritual prosperity.
The prosperity gospel wrongly promises health and wealth now, in this life, during the time we live in our Smaller Story, the time between our birth and our death. But soul health, in wonderful yet never complete measure, is available now. Spiritual prosperity, spiritual blessings tied to forgiveness, a relationship with each divine Person of the Trinity, the invitation to join God in the story He’s telling, and most of all, the promise of extravagant happiness forever in heaven, no legitimate thirst left unquenched: Soul health and spiritual prosperity are promised in the true Gospel.
Eliminate heaven as your bedrock hope, and the best you can do is manage your way through the crisis. The resources in Christianity will not seem real to you. Your focus will be fixed on your longing for this world to work better: restaurants to open; students again in classrooms; vacations to enjoy; annual physical check-ups; scheduled weddings to go forward as announced; NBA games, MLB games, NFL games, golf, tennis, and soccer tournaments – all available to attend or watch on television.
But: anticipate eternity and an attitude shifts. In New Morning Mercies, a daily devotional written by Paul David Tripp, these words rang freshly true to me: “If eternity is the plan, then it makes no sense to shrink your living down to the needs and wants of this little moment”.
An attitude shift is required if we’re to hear of a million deaths from the coronavirus and of retirement funds depleted, and regard such disasters as only a part of “this little moment”. Paul was seeing things from God’s perspective when he wrote that “our present troubles are small”. If I am seeing my life as boundaried inbetween my birth and my death, I will read Paul and scream, “No! That’s not true. My present troubles are big!”
And he responds, “Don’t you know? Everything that is going wrong now is designed to shake you awake. A Larger Story is unfolding through every one of what you think of as ‘big troubles’. And they are painful, at times painful beyond any distress you’ve known. But together they ‘produce for us a glory that outweighs them all and will last forever’” (see 2 Corinthians 4: 17).
Take heaven out of the picture and as a senior citizen, I’m dependent on geropsychology to respond well to the pandemic. Geropsychology, a new specialty that treats older folks, is led by Dr. Brian Carpenter who offers this professional wisdom to encourage me:
“If older folks can keep their focus on what they can do to promote their physical and mental well-being, that can help to reduce anxiety… a focus on what we all can do can help reverse the kind of pessimism and hopelessness that’s at the root of so many mental-health symptoms.”
I’m pretty sure Paul had something different in mind when he told us to “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12: 2).
We need an attitude shift, a way to think that can slowly but surely form us into “little Christ’s”, men and women who with both pain and hope welcome whatever crisis comes our way as an opportunity for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven; His will for us to fix our hope on the day Jesus returns, a hope that frees us to demand nothing now, to replace our spirit of entitlement to a better world now with a spirit of love that builds relationships now, even while our ships are rocking in high waves.
The Needed Shift: An Attitude Correction
The needed shift is revolutionary, a shift that makes it possible, in times like these or in times yet to come, to value soul-care above self-care, no longer committed to care that provides comfort but care that strengthens endurance.
The resources available from God are not intended to guide us into more effective strategies of self-care when a crisis leaves us helpless, lonely, scared, and despondent. Rather they intend to guide us through desperation to the realization that our dependency is solely on God. In order for heaven’s resources to become real, God may remove all sense of His presence from us, leading us into spiritually dark nights that open our eyes to see and our minds to believe and our souls to trust – the light of God, revealing what God is up to in our lives, the story He is telling, always on track.
But do hear the central point: nothing opens our eyes to see and our minds to believe and our souls to trust God’s good and loving purpose quite like desperation. Until one Thursday night, Jesus was never struggling more painfully than in Gethsemane. The prospect of death in all its body and soul ugliness, the death deserved by sin, was facing Him. Only a scrap of hope remained, “Father, is there any way Your story can be told without My crucifixion? With the infinite resources of Your brilliance, Your power and Your love for me, can You take this cup from me?”
In the agony of nearly lost hope “an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him” (Luke 22: 43). Perhaps it was the angel who brought the Father’s answer: “No. You must suffer the sinner’s death”. Luke doesn’t tell us what the angel said that was intended to strengthen Jesus. Could it have been the message of no hope?
We would expect an angel’s strengthening would have empowered Jesus to stand up, resolved to obey the Father’s will. But instead we’re told Jesus “prayed more fervently, and he was in such an agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (Luke 22: 44). I wonder: what if during His even more intense prayer for the cup of suffering to be removed, after the angel strengthened Him, His hope disappeared? Was Jesus then feeling the desperation that it truly was His Father’s will that He should die the most terrible yet consequential death in human history? In the absence of hoped for relief resulting in our Lord’s ultimate desperation, His “agony of the spirit” allowed Jesus to focus on His truest hope , to do the Father’s will, to see His Larger Story unfold in people’s hearts until He would return and make everything new.
Apparently Jesus was on His knees, perhaps having fallen flat on the ground, as He was praying more fervently. For how long, we don’t know. But Luke puts it this way: “At last he stood up again”, aware of perfect soul health, and moved forward toward Golgotha. At last, after He was strengthened to suffer the anguish of all hope gone but one, the one hope that eternally mattered, Jesus found the strength within Himself to obey His Father, and die.
We’re told “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8: 20). To do what? To feel better? To quickly subdue fear and confidently do what’s right? Or might the cost of discipleship include being strengthened by the Spirit to feel the emptiness of life, the absence of certain hope that everything will turn out well in the days ahead, to experience a level of desperation that fixes our attention on the hope of the Gospel? A good story is being told. For now, only painful joy is available. But then, sheer delight forever. Again, the point: suffering is required for maturity, suffering intense enough to drive us to desperation, to the realization that things may not get better, and to then in the absence of certain hope for better days ahead in this life, to fix our hope on increasing soul health now, no matter what, and on the coming of Jesus.
A shift in our thinking is required, from depending on self-care and a well-managed life to provide the blessings needed for personal comfort, to depending on soul-care and a meaningfully surrendered life for God to provide all that we need to live for no greater goal than to cooperate with the story God is telling.
The Needed Shift:
An Attitude Correction to Spiritually Flourish During a Life Crisis
Shortly after the Second World War, British historian Herbert Butterfield looked out his window from Cambridge University on the ruins of war in England. His mind traveled to the Bible’s Old Testament. Much pondering led him to observe that “the power of Old Testament teaching on history”, a history unique to Israel, “lay precisely in the regions of truths which sprang from a reflection on catastrophe and cataclysm”.
In 1949, Butterfield published Christianity and History. In it he wrote, “Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having to come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realizing the problems and paradoxes with which human history often confronts us.”
He then adds that a comfortable life too often leaves us without “a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe”.
It is really this “terrible awareness” that has invaded my consciousness with fresh force as I now live through the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic itself is not the ultimate test of my convictions, the test I referred to earlier. The test now appears to me to be the terrible awareness of my existence in a chancy, risky universe. No protection is guaranteed, not from God, government, medicine, or fate, from what I dread may happen in the Smaller Story of my life.
Butterfield continues, “Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny”. Without Gospel truth lodged in my mind and soul, I have no interest in understanding my destiny. It’s simply too frightening.
One more quote from the British historian: “It is only by a cataclysm that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself”. It was Kierkegaard who somewhere said that distraction from the dreaded possibilities of existence on this planet is necessary to survive this life without God.
I assume Butterfield is not speaking of a medical safety net, or the net of social security payments. I’m grateful for both. The net he is speaking of that we have woven around ourselves is either shallow thinking or philosophical conjecture, maybe even more the distractions of busyness, money, humor, amusement, and recreation, even ministry.
I thank God, not for the coronavirus, but for the opportunity it provides for me to become desperate enough to rest in an eternal safety net, a net in which my soul can safely rest.
Jean-Paul Sartre, French existentialist, believed that every finite point derives its meaning from its infinite context. For an atheist like Sartre, the infinite context surrounding all the finite points of life must be chance, sheer out-of-control randomness. For Christians, the infinite context moving through every finite point of our Smaller Story is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Larger Story they are telling, whether the finite point is as terrible as a pandemic or as petty as a shutdown barber shop, the infinite story rolls on without a hitch.
Butterfield yet again:
“It would seem that one of the clearest and most concrete of the facts of history is the fact that men of spiritual resources” (update men to men and women) “may not only redeem catastrophe but turn it into a grand creative moment.”
Believe that and the needed shift is made. It lies within our Spirit-supplied power to put catastrophe to good use even as our lives are ravaged by heartbreak, terror, and anguish. A grand creative moment can be embraced with joy as we redeem devastation into a display of a life lived in the Larger Story of God, a life revealing the reality of spiritual fruit even as we trudge through the weariness and sorrows of life.
If we repent, not of our pain but of our spirit of entitlement to better treatment from this world, we will then learn what it means to live the abundant life that Jesus came to give:
- an abundance of love, even for those who mistreat us;
- an abundance of joy, sometimes of painful joy when a son or daughter breaks our heart;
- an abundance of peace in the midst of chaos;
- and abundance of patience when the highway resembles a parking lot;
- an abundance of kindness although we’re too tired to care about anything but a long nap;
- an abundance of goodness that we can reveal in the presence of badness;
- an abundance of faithfulness when a deliciously sarcastic comeback has such great appeal;
- an abundance of self-control though a favorite addictive urge threatens to take control.
All the time? Of course not. We will sometimes wrongly, sinfully, enjoy a moment of fleshly pleasure. But in times like these, a developing pattern of godly living is possible. Our calling is to LIVE THIRSTY, groaning inwardly over all the struggles of life, but waiting eagerly for the eternal version.