What if God’s message of care in 2020 is not what we first thought?
Among the current doom and gloom and some experts predicting bleak prospects for the months ahead, many Christians are quick to point out a silver lining.
The year 2020, they say, has provided unparalleled opportunities for them to be living examples of God’s care to others. Few times in history have we seen so many millions in need of a helping hand, a word of courage, and a steady — if virtual — embrace.
For the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it has been, once again, an incredible privilege to step out, reach in, reach across and out, to serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). From initiatives to tackle the pandemic's mental health issues to plans for children’s education around the world and disaster mitigation efforts, Adventist caring ministries and organizations have thrived in 2020.
Opportunities for giving a helping hand are endless, be it on the other side of the world or just around the corner.
Fundamentals of Caring
Adventist efforts are based on the biblical philosophy of caring, which is relatively straightforward. As brothers and sisters of every human being and as children of the Father of us all, Adventists strive to emulate the example revealed in the life and work of Jesus, who, according to the Bible, “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). For Adventists, caring for others is not a goal; it’s a given. Adventists don’t care for others because they are good but because they serve a good Master.
Bible scholars often point to the many instances when, according to the Bible, God looked down to His children in need and reached out to heal, comfort, and embrace. The God of the universe, higher than the highest, often stooped to connect with a person and encourage them in pain, uncertainty, or distress.
Making Sense of What Is Going On
A paradigmatic case is Asaph’s experience described in Psalm 73. He says that his feet “almost stumbled” when he saw “the prosperity of the wicked” (verse 3, ESV). In his discouragement, Asaph felt that he had cleansed his heart in vain, as he felt plagued and chastened every morning (verses 13, 14). He felt grieved and vexed in his mind (verse 21).
But then, Asaph recounts, he went into the sanctuary of God and understood the evildoers’ end. Coming into the presence of God made him feel embraced and comforted. In the stillness of God’s presence, the Lord soothed his soul.
What Asaph went through is what we as Jesus’ followers can also experience when we seek the Lord and wait for His enduring presence to calm our fears and show us a way forward. He is our peace, our shalom (Ephesians 2:14).
And yet, sometimes God answers in a very different way.
In Distress, Looking for Comfort
The life and work of the prophet Jeremiah illustrate well that in God’s dealing with His children, it is not “one size fits all.”
Jeremiah 11 reports that residents of Anathoth, Jeremiah's hometown, threatened the prophet’s life. In his words, he felt “like a docile lamb brought to the slaughter” (verse 19, NKJV). Jeremiah calls upon the Lord for help, but after God’s deliverance, the prophet questions God with words that echo what Asaph had expressed many years earlier. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” he asks the Lord (Jeremiah 12:1, NKJV).
Once more, one of God’s children is in distress. Once more, one of God's followers needs to make sense of the world around him. He is a struggling son of God, waiting for the Lord’s caring embrace. How does God answer in this case?
In one of the perhaps most baffling messages from God to a human being, the Lord tells him, “If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses? And if in the land of peace, in which you trusted, they wearied you, then how will you do in the floodplains of the Jordan?”(verse 5, NKJV).
Can we hear God’s voice here? The Lord seems to be telling Jeremiah, “So, your neighbors and acquaintances are threatening your life? This is just the beginning. You are still in eretz shalom, the land of peace. Wait until you eventually get to the floodplains [or thickets, in other versions] of the Jordan. Running there is much harder. That will be the acid test.”
According to the Lord, Jeremiah’s current trials and tribulations are just like running with ragelim (footmen). “Do not get tired now,” God seems to be telling the prophet, “because there are susim (horses) in your future. So, you’d better keep training.”
I find it intriguing that God never promises Jeremiah a horse. He never tells him that as long as he keeps running with the ragelim, he will get a sus, a horse to compete on equal footing with his enemies. Implied in God’s answer is that Jeremiah will still be running on foot, while his enemies will go after him with horses. Apparently, it’s not a very comforting thought for the worried prophet, who, at the time, can’t even anticipate the life-threatening trials that await his ministry (see, for instance, Jeremiah 38:6).
A Glimpse of Things to Come?
Jeremiah’s experience is not a cop-out for our Christian duty to care. Perhaps more than ever, in 2020, the call stands for Bible-believing Christians to go to any length to “comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God”(2 Corinthians 1:4, NKJV).
At the same time, Jeremiah’s conundrum should serve as a wake-up call for God’s end-time people. It should be a reminder that for all the challenges 2020 has so far pushed us into, they may be just the tip of the iceberg, a glimpse of things to come. In Jesus’ words, “the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:8).
The Lord’s message to Jeremiah tells God’s people that this is not the time for idleness and handwringing. On the contrary, it’s time to “put on the whole armor of God”(Ephesians 6:11) and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus”(Hebrews 12:1, 2, NKJV).
It’s time to put the ragelim to shame and keep pushing forward, training hard and consistently. Training every day, rain or shine.
After all, susim may be just around the corner.