Life right now feels a lot like A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
On the same day COVID-19 deaths are projected to peak in Texas, my third child will turn seven. Before this quarantine is over, we will have celebrated seven birthdays in our immediate family, without ever leaving home.
Like so many around the world, we celebrate precious days against the backdrop of pandemic.
There are springs of hope all around us, steadily flowing in spite of the winter of despair threatening to freeze our faith.
Countless couples are still getting married, on balconies and in backyards, with a renewed understanding of the vows “in sickness and in health.” Hospital rooms are still welcoming newborns. Anniversaries are still taking place. Families are spending more time together than the past two generations have, both physically and virtually. More people are outdoors and enjoying nature. Letter writing is back in vogue. School teachers, doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery store and sanitation workers have never been more appreciated. Priorities are being reevaluated. Online church attendance has skyrocketed.
Springs of hope.
In the ultimate geyser of hope, the nations are being awakened to the eternal light of the Gospel through this global horror. In many ways, these are the best of times, even if they aren’t taking place the way we had planned.
On the other hand, millions of people around the world have been infected by this virus. Hundreds of thousands have died, many without loved ones by their side. Tens of millions have lost jobs. The economy has been ravaged. Communities have been quarantined from one another, wreaking unknown psychological havoc. Domestic violence and child abuse has increased, along with pornography use. Classrooms sit empty. Athletes and spectators have missed sporting events. Thespians, dancers and musicians have missed performances. High school seniors will likely miss a conventional graduation. Many kids will miss summer camp and vacation Bible school. The bereaved have missed the embrace of loved ones at funerals.
Winters of despair.
These are the worst of times, the suffering Jesus told us we would have (John 16:33).
In times like these, it can be a lot easier to sit in the winters of despair than to let the springs of hope refresh and renew you. Yet, how we perceive and process this trial will affect how it shapes us. Because we will all be different in some way once quarantine is lifted and a vaccine is discovered.
Our contentment lies in our ability to want God more than our own control and comfort.
Living in this pandemic is like living between two cities - between heaven and earth, wisdom and foolishness, faith and secularism, hope and despair, life and death.
Some days my home has been filled with love and light. We blast worship music, we ride bikes, we get along, we encourage one another and savor the slow place that’s become the norm. As Christians, we find joy in this bleak situation, because we know God is at work and God is good.
Other days, I confess, darkness and discouragement have crept at our doorstep. We bicker. We grow weary of being together. We sit inside our home but do not get outside ourselves. We grieve for all that’s been lost and may still be lost.
Sometimes these feelings of hope and despair have teetered on the hour, particularly when routine has been upended and quiet time with the Lord has been sparse.
This novel coronavirus is a crash course on the age-old lesson of contentment.
Everyone’s experience of this outbreak is different, depending on varying circumstances. Not everyone is getting to stay home and teach their children. Not everyone is getting to leave home and help others. Not everyone is resourced the same. Everyone will be shaped differently by this trial, because everyone’s story is different.
But the Author of our story is the same (Hebrews 12:2).
For all of us, there is the physical story taking place, and for most of us, that story includes scenes of sadness mixed with silver linings. When we focus on unmet expectations, disappointments, inconveniences, the what ifs and if onlys, our fatigue and fragility, we grow easily discouraged.
But because Jesus is the Author and Perfecter of our faith, the physical story doesn’t get to be the whole story.
Because there’s a spiritual story taking place, too – the King of heaven at work amidst the groaning of creation, the eternal breaking through the temporary.
God's story is the story we want to focus on.
In the worst of times, God can birth new routines, new priorities and new life in Him.
In the worst of times, God can transform what is bitter into something better.
In the worst of times, God can bring more goodness than we can ask for or imagine.
In the worst of times, God can bring beauty from ashes.
In the worst of times, God can produce the greatest contentment and joy for those abiding in Him.
God will use the worst of times, times like these, to produce the best results for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. God's story is the story of hope, resolution and a promised outcome for ultimate good.
So how can what may be the worst time you have ever experienced physically, mentally, emotionally or financially transform into the best time spiritually?
Become a student of contentment. Learn to be content. Practice holy heart habits that focus on the best parts in the current times and not the worst. Discipline your mind, tongue, heart and body to become bondservants to Jesus, not of circumstance.
Because the worst of times can teach us to be content at all times.
Contentment isn’t a personality type. It’s a choice and a result of abiding in Jesus. This godly contentment will produce Spirit-given joy. And isn't deep and lasting joy what we're all really after, no matter our story?
While in a Roman prison, Paul penned these words:
“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. I know both how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being content – whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need” (Philippians 4:11-12).
How encouraging that contentment can be learned, by spending time with the Teacher.
You, like me, may be a slow student. That's okay. Our Teacher is patient and gentle. But this is not the time for us to become lazy students. This is the time - the best time - to apply His Words in faith and honor Jesus by being people of hope, people of resurrection who get back up again, and people of the alleluia and amen.
I believe Paul would have viewed the coronavirus as a great growth opportunity, to grow closer to the Lord and to be refined to become more like the Lord. Paul knew God’s grace was sufficient for him, and God’s power was made perfect in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paul actively walked out his faith in God, not in himself or his own ability to handle a difficult situation. Paul’s faith wasn’t theoretical. He was encouraging the Philippians that if he could learn to be content from a dark and musty prison, then they could too, because the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead and sustained him in the darkness lived in them.
This same Spirit lives in us if we are believers in Christ!
If Paul was alive right now, I have a hunch he probably wouldn’t jump on the emotional roller coaster of optimism and hopelessness. He wouldn’t numb himself with hours of Netflix. He wouldn’t feed all his feelings with junk food. He wouldn't cower in fear. He wouldn’t avoid his spiritual children while in isolation.
This may be a few of the things this slow student has done in these 40-something wilderness days.
Most importantly, Paul wouldn’t deduce that God had left him when things got rough or his return to “normalcy” was indefinite. No, Paul had learned the secret of being content, and we can and must learn it too as the Holy Spirit guides us in all truth and wisdom.
The secret of being content lies in the good news of the Gospel.
It is God in us, working through us.
The secret, the mystery revealed, is Jesus come to save us.
Paul found his contentment and, therefore, His joy in Christ proclaimed and the Gospel advanced, no matter the circumstance.
Paul was content in all things and could do all things by placing his hope in Christ, and Christ alone.
As Christians, the tale of our two cities is in earth and in heaven. We are in the world but not of the world (John 17:16). We are exiles passing through this earth, sent out to be ambassadors for the Lord, waiting for our King to return (Ephesians 6:20). We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
We can be content, because what happens on earth is not the end of the story.
The secret of being content in all circumstances is Jesus, believing and living like His strength, His glory and His faithful love are enough to satisfy us. Because they are!
Let this Psalm become the banner of contentment we wave in the worst and the best of times:
“God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You.
I thirst for You; my body faints for You in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.
So I gaze on You in the sanctuary to see Your strength and Your glory.
My lips will glorify You because Your faithful love is better than life.
So I will praise You as long as I live; at Your name, I will lift up my hands.
You satisfy me as with rich food; my mouth will praise You with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:1-5).