The seasoned church lay leader was not known for making overblown statements or grandstanding. On the contrary, he was relatively quiet, always ready to help and dutifully discharge his responsibilities to the best of his abilities.
That was the reason, perhaps, that his reply during a virtual small-group discussion left his local church believers in awkward silence and at a loss for a follow-up.
The question posed was What do you think you have learned during 2020?
After stroking his chin for a few seconds and looking directly into the camera, he answered. “I have learned,” he said, “that our pastor is not such a great preacher after all.”
Even though the “lessons” some of us might have been led to learn during 2020 so far could be less prosaic than what the good old brother gave away, he had a point: His time away from in-person worship services at his local church had moved him, in a sense, to reassess his options, and to question what his future relationship with his local congregation would look like from now on.
To a lesser or greater extent, many seem to agree that the COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdown have somehow forced most people to pause and reassess the validity of their assumptions, values, and pursuits. COVID-19 is moving countless people to question long-held beliefs about their lives, jobs, and yes, their faith.
Even in a mostly secular world, an increasing number of reports share stories of people who, during the 2020 lockdown, have felt a call to do things differently. After realizing they had mostly been “grasping the wind,” those people have, during their forced stoppage, reflected on what they will consider essential from now on. As a small business owner selling high-end items recently put it: “I felt compelled to reassess the meaning of making ends meet by providing stuff no one actually needs.” In his case, his reflective stance led him to a drastic change in his business model, to embrace one that he feels can somehow appease his ethical uneasiness and help him sleep better at night.
The worst mistake Seventh-day Adventists could make in 2020 is to end the year with limited reflection and no significant reassessments.
Another area often cited as part of this “new reality” reassessment relates to professional sports. This is not about practicing a sport for recreation and physical exercise, but rather about the ongoing bleeding of resources to support a system that cares less about sports than about cold business. The lockdown stoppage of professional sports made many fans realize what they already suspected: it is quite possible to live without wasting countless hours and dollars a week watching or attending professional sports events. “I realized I was spending obscene amounts of money to support people who make obscene amounts of money and who, in many cases, see us fans as mere commodities,” a disenchanted fan recently commented.
The list could go on and on. Early indicators seem to show that the current reassessment goes beyond the fleeting moment when a passing ailment affecting the ones we love, or us ourselves, leads us to weigh and rank our priorities again. For how long a society without God can sustain this process is anybody’s guess. It is something, however, that certainly should not be off the radar of those “on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
Any crisis hides the potential for sifting through the chaff to lay people’s motives and motivations bare. It is something that includes the new reality of life within the Seventh-day Adventist community. From the crisis resulting from the Great Disappointment in 1844, new junctures in the Adventist denomination have often prompted reactions probably as varied as the people groups within its walls.
Regarding the Advent movement’s early history, Ellen White believed that the progressive unfolding of events around the Advent message’s initial proclamation helped to strengthen those who remained faithful. Years later she wrote, “If the message had been of as short duration as many of us supposed, there would have been no time for them to develop character. Many moved from feeling, not from principle and faith, and this solemn, fearful message stirred them. It wrought upon their feelings, and excited their fears, but did not accomplish the work which God designed that it should. God reads the heart. Lest His people should be deceived in regard to themselves, He gives them time for the excitement to wear off, and then proves them to see if they will obey.”1
What about 2020? This year, in countless places, church leaders and members are discussing how the new reality will affect the way we do church, outreach, even evangelism. In some churches, followership of some Adventist livestreamed services has been steadily declining since the beginning of the first lockdown in March. Noting this, some wonder what church will look like when restrictions are eased. Some have even begun to entertain the sad possibility that scores of church members may never return to their local congregations.
At the same time, in this context, could the current crisis hide some easily overlooked benefits?
In a review of Israel’s history just before entering into the Promised Land, one of God’s direct statements to the people points to one more possibility for the trials His followers must endure. God says, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deut. 8:2).
In case we wonder how the punishment during those 40 years could connect with God’s assertion, Ellen White makes the point clear. “The wilderness wandering was not only ordained as a judgment upon the rebels and murmurers, but it was to serve as a discipline for the rising generation, preparatory to their entrance into the Promised Land.”2
Even though we know that every evil in this world—including the novel coronavirus—comes from the enemy of all good, we also accept that, in His infinite wisdom, God sometimes allows His children to go through paths they would never choose themselves. At the same time, God seeks to use those walks through valleys of shadows of death for His greater purpose.
Seeing our current conundrums from this reviewed angle, could it be that God is allowing 2020 to try us so that we may know what is in our hearts? Could it be that He is using the current pandemic to “rattle our cages”? Let’s listen once more to Ellen White: “God leads His people on, step by step. He brings them up to different points calculated to manifest what is in the heart. Some endure at one point, but fall off at the next. At every advanced point the heart is tested and tried a little closer.”3
By all accounts, the worst mistake Seventh-day Adventists could make in 2020 is to end the year just as many of us probably started it—with limited reflection, no significant reassessments, just basking in the soothing comfort of the status quo. Even without jumping to forecast doom-and-gloom scenarios, an increasing number of people are concluding that this first global pandemic in modern history can potentially affect us for longer than we can know, and in ways we still don’t fully anticipate.
What will Seventh-day Adventists do? Live in a constant state of alert and fear? Jump to the latest conspiracy explanation? Downplay the human and economic toll of the pandemic? Limit themselves to discuss online worship “rankings” or the preaching capabilities of their local church pastor? Ignore the whole ordeal altogether?
There may be a better way, o
ne that is triggered when we ask God to help us see the whole picture. We may then start hearing God’s voice telling each of us personally, “Remember . . . [My purpose is] to humble and test you . . . to know what [is] in your heart” (Deut. 8:2), “to prove your character” (verse 2, NLT),4 “to uncover your motives” (verse 2, Voice).5 Then, just like Job, we may proclaim confidently, “When He has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
Marcos Paseggi is senior news correspondent for Adventist Review Ministries.