A Pandemic of Loneliness? Part II
In Part I of this article, we looked at the impact of one aspect of the coronavirus pandemic – isolation and loneliness – and explored how a passage like Proverbs 25 shapes our response by first alerting us to our deep need for intimacy and closeness to God. However, once God fills our fundamental need for relationship in the self-giving service of his Son for us, it cannot help but spill over and drive us to turn outward from ourselves, to self-giving service of others.
If You Know the Righteous God Rules, then Use Your Position to Serve (v6-15)
The second section of Prov 25: 6-15, focuses on the formal role the court officials have in supporting their righteous king. In summary, the section says that if you truly grasp that God uses his position of ultimate power to serve you, then the only proper way to use your position of power is to serve others. In other words, with humility (v6-7), and integrity (v8-10) so that through your role, others experience the beauty and refreshment of righteousness (v11-15).
I love the beautiful image of v13: ‘Like a snow-cooled drink on the day of harvest, the faithful messenger to the one who sends him; he refreshes the spirit of his master.’
This part of the chapter thus calls on God’s people to look and think carefully about the formal positions and organisations they are in, their dynamics, decision-making processes, and how and with whom power flows in the structure. However, this is not in order to manipulate it for personal gain, but rather, so that whatever position we find ourselves in the pile – whether we are the king’s right-hand man or the court jester, the CEO or the coffee boy, we understand God has placed us there to do good to others from that position.
Thus, if we are at the top, we are not to be proud, or think it’s because of our own brilliance or merit. And if we are at the bottom, we are not to snatch and grab your way to the top. Those selfish impulses come so easily to us, especially in a crisis, when the pressure is on. But as we’ve seen across social media in the last few weeks, they are so ugly and out of place when we see them on our screens. Thus, we must fight it in our hearts. We are not simply to use our position to reach and grab for what we can from our vantage point. We are to stop, look, and think about the opportunity the God who uses his power in humble service of others is giving us to share in his good work, by placing you where he has. And we are especially to seek to support and refresh those God has placed over us, and given responsibility for our care.
And I think this attitude is also so important in our context of social upheaval. It is critical at this time especially to uphold and support our members of government and those particularly responsible for providing care and distributing our basic needs, and minimise our criticism of those in such formal positions (which, let’s face it, we’re not very good at). God’s people ought to encourage and support those who use their power in such ways, and seek to further their righteous aims by inhabiting our place in the system in accordance with them – for example, by not emptying the shelves when it is our turn.
And Use Your Relationships to Bring Grace (v16-27)
V16-27 move to the way God’s righteous love should flow out from the official power structures of a righteous kingdom, to impact everyday informal life and relationships. God’s righteousness should penetrate not just our structures and systems, but into our very hearts, in the up close, in your face interactions with those around you. He wants us to love our neighbour as ourselves. And in fact, this section is driven by a play on words on the Hebrew word for neighbour (re‘a).
V16 begins with the metaphor of eating honey.
The point is simple: honey is tasty, energising, and gives you strength. But if you don’t discipline your consumption and just keep going, it undoes what it was meant to. It comes back up, and leaves you sick. But in v17, the proverb is then applied to ourselves, and the impact we can have on others in how we relate to them.
This proverb is not an excuse to be anti-social or seek to shut ourselves away from others. A closer translation is: ‘Be precious about setting foot in your neighbour’s house.’ In the Bible, a neighbour is a good thing. We are meant to be part of each other’s lives, deeply committed to giving and receiving and supporting one another. A couple years ago my wife Chrissie had leukemia, and we’re so thankful for our neighbours – our family, friends, our literal neighbours in the Moore College community, constantly being in our house to clean, cook, look after the kids, and simply be with us for company. It was a huge part in us getting through a very difficult period in life. So these verses aren’t primarily about keeping to yourself.
Rather, they say don’t selfishly impose yourself on your neighbour’s hospitality. These verses challenge us to reflect on whether there are people in our lives where the relationship is a bit one-way. Where we have taken their good-will for granted, and imposed on their patience a bit too much. Is there a relationship in our life where we need to change the way we relate to them – even out the giving with the receiving, so that our neighbour doesn’t become our hater?
And in fact, we see this in v18-20, in the original Hebrew a string of metaphorical plays on words, that illustrate how failing to discipline your drives towards love for your neighbour leads to destruction of relationships.
As I reflected on these words, I found so much resonance with some of the behavior we’ve seen around us in the panic and fear, driving people to selfishly take away things others need, or spite people to their face. The Bible proves so true to life, like an expert doctor for our souls. This is the point we arrive at in v21-22. The solution to the neighbor who has become our hater, is to lay aside our pride, and instead meet them with grace, at their point of need.
V22 is challenging to understand, and the word ‘heap’ could be taken as expressing either the notion of ultimate punishment, or, in fact, of grace (the word can mean both ‘put on’ or ‘take off,’ i.e. remove). In context, I lean towards the notion of grace, in other words, it is a proverb about grace taking away the neighbor’s cause of anger. The overall thrust of the verses remains the same: If we have experienced God’s self-giving love for us, it cannot help but transform us from hater, to neighbor, from self-serving, to self-giving, from looking out for number one, to looking out for one another. However, by its proverbial, repeated insistence, the chapter also makes clear being a neighbor is not an automatic thing, but something sinful people like us need to keep working at, committing to, and praying about.
Love in the Time of Coronavirus
‘Love in the time of coronavirus’ is now the title of several articles, and it’s quite a clever spinoff of the famous book Love in the Time of Cholera. I have found one, written by Andy Crouch, editor of Christianity Today, thought-provoking and challenging about the opportunity that coronavirus presents to sow the message of Jesus’ love into a world full of fear and isolation.
Crouch highlights the work of Rodney Stark, on how the early church grew, The Rise of Christianity. And he notes that one of the key factors was how Christians responded to epidemics and plagues. Unlike the rest of the people, they didn’t flee and abandon the weak and vulnerable to their fate. They stayed, and served, and cared, often at great cost to themselves. And this was a major contributor to more and more people becoming Christians. Here’s what Crouch says, and note how his language ties in to Prov 25:
When this plague has passed, what will our neighbours remember of us? Will they remember that the Christians took immediate, decisive action to protect the vulnerable, even at great personal and organizational cost? Will they remember that…their Christian neighbours were able to visit the needy (while protecting them by keeping appropriate social distance!), provide for their needs and bring them hope?
This all sounds great in principle, but the pressing question for God’s people is how do we actually do it in our particular setting? There have been some great practical suggestions starting to trickle out. It is also encouraging to see churches going to great lengths to call each member, or develop online meetings and services – not as a replacement for physical gatherings, but as the best means for maintaining some of the face-to-face contact that characterises the true, physical Christian fellowship we yearn for. Even the rise of invitations to ‘virtual meals,’ parties, and online games, has been an unexpected blessing that I have seen used as a highly effective vehicle for extending the gospel to others. These are real demonstrations to the world that the true antidote to the isolation and fear of coronavirus, is to reach out with the life-giving love to our neighbour, because in Jesus, God first reached out in life-giving love to us.
I conclude by repeating Winston Churchill’s characteristically rogue-ish insight: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ The real value of this pandemic for God’s people is the way that it has ‘blown up’ many of our assumed and accepted structures and patterns of activity, and given us an opportunity but also what we might retain and build on. I leave these final questions for you as points for reflection and discussion:
What practical examples have you seen, or can you think of, to love and serve those around you in Christ’s name, that have impressed you? How might you incorporate them into your fellowship and outreach in our current context? What might you retain or develop into the future? What will you leave behind?
What are some other possibilities for your fellowship that this situation has raised, to strengthen and develop relationships, both within and without?
How might we use technology to further, rather than hinder, gospel fellowship? How do people’s different ages, stages of life, and familiarity with technology impact our considerations?
By: Dan Wu