With apologies to William Shakespeare, it would be fair to characterize the turn of 2020-21 as a winter of discontent.

The global pandemic has continued to surge, leading to ongoing lockdowns and restrictions, even as the development of vaccines has created a cautious sense of hope. In the United States, political turmoil and social tensions boiled over into a violent insurrection within the nation’s capital, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a century and a half. Friendships, families and churches have been torn apart in the angry, divisive cultural atmosphere. The worldwide economy is in chaos, people fear for their health and livelihood, and many are stuck at home, struggling with anxiety and loneliness.

There are no quick fixes or easy answers. But for followers of Jesus, the source of hope and strength in times such as these lies not in looking around, but in looking up. It begins with thoughtful, prayerful consideration of God’s providence, not just as a theological abstract but as a present reality that governs everything going on in the world.

A widescreen view of providence

The common perception of providence focuses mostly on good things: sunny days, plenty of food, comfortable homes, a stable life. But the biblical picture of providence is much wider, encompassing everything, both good and bad, that happens in the world. As God himself says, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

This is not the expression of a capricious national deity, but of the Sovereign Lord of the universe, who ordains everything in his created order according to his good and wise purposes and for the glory of his name. And thus, it’s vital for God’s people to view all our present concerns through the lens of God’s providential care.

Spheres of divine providence

The pandemic: God is sovereign over natural disasters, whether humans had a hand in creating them or not: earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, forest fires, pandemics. Among other things, God uses these disasters, terrible though they are, to shake people and societies out of their complacency and awaken them to spiritual realities. COVID-19 isn’t outside God’s control or purposes; he has ordained the circumstances of its beginning, its unfolding, as well as its eventual end. This isn’t fatalism. God has also given us science and medicine and minds to use in combatting the pandemic. As always, he calls his people to be his instruments of hope and healing to those who are suffering.

Political turmoil: According to the book of Daniel, “the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms. He gives them to anyone he wants and sets the lowliest of people over them” (Daniel 4:17). Whether by birth, conquest or election, it is God who raises up all rulers, both the best and the worst, to accomplish his will. Transitions of power can be occasions for concern or rejoicing, as the case may be. But in any event, God commands us to respect our leaders and submit to them, regardless of whether we like and agree with them or not (Romans 13:1-7). More than that, we’re to pray for them, for their well-being, and that they might lead with integrity and justice (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Social tensions: Civil disturbances are inevitable in a world of broken people with conflicting interests, unequal power and selfish desires. Even so, God allows them in order to shake up the status quo and draw attention to the plight of the marginalized. He uses them to convict society of its personal and systemic forms of injustice, and of its indifference toward those who suffer for it. The Scriptures brim with God’s concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, and with his repeated calls to defend their cause: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

The church: Jesus promised that he would build his church, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). His promise has held true over two millennia, despite brutal persecutions in many cultures throughout the church’s history. By comparison to that history, government restrictions due to COVID hardly qualify as “persecution.” Such a suggestion dishonours our brothers and sisters around the world who are enduring true persecution. Of course, we long for the day we can once again meet, worship, pray, break bread and embrace one another. But we live in a time and place where we have the technology to connect virtually, and this too is from the hand of God.

Our lives: In difficult times, it’s natural to worry about our health, our livelihood and our future. Yet Jesus tells us not to do that. Rather he tells us to pray, knowing that our Heavenly Father knows what we need, and assuring us that his providential care extends to every moment of our lives and every hair on our head. He doesn’t promise that we’ll have health and wealth and a problem-free life. But he does promise to never leave us or forsake us, to carry us from womb to grave, and afterward to receive us into eternal joy in his Father’s presence (Psalm 16:5-11; Psalm 73:23-26; Psalm 139; Isaiah 46:3-4; Matthew 6:7-15, 25-34; Luke 12:6-7; John 14-17; Hebrews 13:5).

Longing for a better country

In his address to the Athenians, the Apostle Paul explained that the Sovereign Creator of the cosmos has determined the boundaries and time spans of every nation on earth (Acts 17:22-31). Each of them rises, flourishes and falls within the limits of his providential plan. No civilization is ultimate or final; barring the Lord’s return, ours will likely decline and disappear at some point, to be replaced by others to whom we’ll be as archaic and alien as the cultures of the Ancient Near East are to us.

We’re to be good earthly citizens who seek the welfare of the society in which God has placed us (Jeremiah 29:7). But as Christians, our primary allegiance isn’t to our society and our hope isn’t in our leaders or institutions. Our actual citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20-21). Our Lord said that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). As his followers, we’re strangers and exiles on earth who desire a better heavenly country, our true eternal homeland (Hebrews 11:13-16).

Wise as serpents, innocent as doves

Jesus gave his disciples the startling injunction to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). It was a more vivid, poetic way of saying what the Apostle Paul would reiterate years later: disciples of the Lord are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We’re to strive to be like our Master, full of grace and truth (John 1:14-18).

In a time of cultural splintering, crazed conspiracy theories and social media outrage, it’s hard to imagine a more vital principle for followers of Jesus. Rather than succumbing to anger and confirmation bias and retreating to our tribal echo chambers, we have an opportunity to engage our culture and its hurting people in a winsome, intelligent and gracious manner. We have a chance to show them we trust the providence of a wise and sovereign God. We mustn’t waste it.

Go for a walk and look up at the sky

In a winter of discontent, we need reminders of God’s providence more than ever. We need it to light our darkness, soothe our anxieties, and give us the strength and wisdom to be channels of hope for others.

During this season, many of us have found that going for walks has practical benefits for our physical, mental and emotional health. As we take those walks, we can also enhance our spiritual health by looking up at the night sky and pondering God’s providence, just like King David did all those centuries ago:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
     the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
 what is man that you are mindful of him,
     and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
     and crowned him with glory and honour.
 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
     you have put all things under his feet,
 all sheep and oxen,
     and also the beasts of the field,
 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
     whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
     how majestic is your name in all the earth!

 (Psalm 8:3-9)

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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