There are a thousand things coronavirus chaos has pushed up to the surface of humanity, like old sticks caught under rocks at the bottom of a riverbed. Perhaps some of the most precious are our need for communion with each other and our longing for peace. I’ve been working on my first book of devotionals to help readers find the latter (read a sample of them HERE). But below are three meditations that I think will draw you closer to God and to others. I call them “meditations” because they need to be rehearsed, not simply read. Our souls are stubborn things; they need constant reminders. So, read and re-read.
1. Jesus has overcome the world. That’s the sort of thing that sounds more like a Christian platitude than a concrete meditation. “Jesus beat all the hard things, so we should stop complaining.” That’s not the meaning here. To get at the peace that’s buried in these words, we have to travel. “Overcome” is not just a word; it’s a country. It needs to be explored, discovered, and possessed.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
What does it mean for Jesus to have overcome the world? The “these things” of John 16:33 refer to Jesus’s mission, his being sent from the Father. Pause for a moment to soak that in. All of the aches for communion in the hollow of your chest, all of the wishes for peace and settlement, all of the anxieties that arch your shoulders—God sent himself into the world to deal with those . . . himself. Though God feels distant at times, he did something that will always shout that lie into silence. He came here. He came to us. He came to be with us.
Christ overcoming the world doesn’t mean your experiences of pain and anxiety are trivial; it means they have weight—real, soul-crushing, heart-wrenching weight. And that weight is what God came to put on his own shoulders. It’s what Christ came to carry. On the cross, Christ carried coronavirus chaos, along with every other horrid thing in human existence—past, present, and future. The Black Plague, the lie your brother told you, holocaust horrors, food poisoning, the German Blitz of London, your tooth ache, your mother’s Alzheimer’s. No ounce of pain, no reservoir of ruin, no syllable of sorrow lies outside the frame of his shoulders. He carried them all.
And he overcame those things because he took them all down into the darkness of death and then rose on the third day. He crushed the terrors of time with the fellowship of eternity. He saturated every ugly thing with his own beautiful blood. And he redeemed us all. He set us up to have eternally what we long for temporally, even right now: personal communion and peace.
No matter what happens during our coronavirus chaos—deaths, job losses, depression, anxiety—your eternal future is set, steady as stone. In your longing, remember the shoulders of Christ and the seat he’s saved for you at his own table.
You've overcome all things for me. Your shoulders carried everything. I stare at home and know I'm free. My anxiety is a passing thing.
2. Peace is not just a feeling. It’s not less than that; it’s more. We get so bent on feeling peace that we overlook it as a country, as a place where we live. But when God gives peace, he gives it as a place (and, actually, as a person). Sometimes the feelings follow, sometimes not.
“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.“
This all may sound strange, so let me explain. There’s an external and internal dimension of peace. Think of it in terms of a country. If a country is at peace (external), that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of it’s people feel at peace (internal). The reverse is also true. Now, it’s harder to have internal peace when external peace is absent. It’s hard to feel peaceful if you’re cowering in a basement during a tornado. And, on the other side, if external peace is present, we can still have internal chaos. Ideally, we want both.
The trouble is that we usually only get one or the other. The United States is not currently at war with anyone (though politicians are talking about our “war” against the invisible enemy of coronavirus). But many of us lack internal peace. Why? Because we assume that external and internal peace have to go together. We assume that our situation must be peaceful if we are going to feel peaceful. Scripture seems to say something different.
When Aaron is told to pray the prayer above in Numbers 6:24-26, perhaps one of the most famous prayers in all of Scripture, the Israelites are wandering through the wilderness. They’re not settled and secure (external peace); they’re filled with longing for what will be. And yet this prayer is for the Lord to give them peace. It must be an internal peace, right?
No. But we’re getting closer. You see, there are two “places” in Scripture. There’s the kingdom of men and the kingdom of God. We often link external peace with the kingdom of men—the world we see around us. That’s problematic, to say the least. Look around us right now: the kingdom of men is anything but peaceful: the economy’s crashing, unemployment is sky-rocketing, the death toll is rising, people are isolated from loved ones. This is no place of peace.
But the kingdom of God is different. That’s the place that Jesus brought with him. Jesus brought the peaceful kingdom of God into the chaotic kingdom of men. The kingdom of God is simply the “place” where God’s prescriptive will (what he wants to have happen; as opposed to his decretive will, which is what actually comes to pass) is unchallenged.
And here’s the critical point: God’s kingdom is attached to a person. When Jesus denounced the pharisees for being critical of his miracles, calling him a friend of demons, he said, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). Jesus is the kingdom of God; he’s the embodiment of God’s executed, prescriptive will. He does all and only his Father’s bidding (John 5:19-20). Jesus is the kingdom (Letham, Systematic Theology, p. 822).
But if Jesus is the kingdom, and you’ve embraced Jesus, then you have the person of peace. You have the “prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6). That person and prince of peace is also a place of peace (external), even though it’s inside of you. If you carry Christ around with you, then you carry unchanging, eternal peace because you carry around an unchanging, eternal person.
You always have Christ. You always have the person. You always have the external element of peace. The internal element (your feelings) will come and go. And the kingdom of men, the external place of peace that we see around us, certainly won’t offer you much comfort. Our coronavirus chaos has been clear confirmation. But that doesn’t matter. The place of peace is the person of Christ, and we can’t ever lose him. We will always have external peace in the kingdom of God. Our internal peace will come and go.
I long for lasting peace in body and mind. But a place and a person is what I need. Christ, be the person and place I always find When my brittle hope breaks and threatens to leave.
3. Your anxiety burns the fat from your soul. It was Ernest Hemingway who said that war burns the fat off our souls. Anxiety is a kind of war. The weapons are different. Thoughts are land mines or medics. Words strike and wound or wrap and heal. Heat flashes burn; sympathy soothes. It is a war. For Hemingway, war dropped every secondary concern. Like a refining fire, war burned away the dross of lesser loves and distractions. It lifted life to the center and melted away the rest. Anxiety does that, too, as all suffering does. The suffering of anxiety does something in us. And Paul tells us what.
“But we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.“
This is a spiritual chain reaction, and there’s a lot of heat . . . a lot of fat-burning. Suffering is the initial flame. Then comes the air flow of endurance. It doesn’t put out the flame; it reduces it, and then it surrounds the embers, feeding it slowly. The flame of suffering with endurance simmers to coals of character: firmer sources of heat that stay. And when they stay long enough, when our character solidifies, hope rises above us like smoke—mysterious and translucent. People make fun of the hope, but we’re not embarrassed. God has been working. We know it. We have seen it.
Anxiety is often dealt with as a disease. We do all we can to eradicate it. Medication. Counseling. Lifestyle changes. These are all good and healthy tools in themselves. But if our goal in using them is to eliminate the suffering, that may not be the wisest plan. Suffering, for the Apostle Paul, doesn’t enter your life just to be eradicated. It serves a purpose, a very important one: shaping to Christ. That’s what that whole spiritual chain reaction is all about: Son-shaping (Rom. 8:29). The suffering of anxiety is a purposeful, Son-conforming process.
The fact that we’d really rather eliminate anxiety just reflects our deeper heart commitments. I know, we all grow tired. The war of anxiety isn’t an event; it’s often a battle without parameters. It can go on for years, even decades. My own battle with an anxiety disorder has carried on for over 12 years. The weariness whittles us down. I get it. Really, I do.
But I’ve also seen a lot of fat drop from my soul over the years (and it has a way of coming back, too). Things that I used to value and think about—materialism, pride, selfish ambition—have disappeared. Concerns I’ve had have melted away. In their place is the abiding hope of communion with God and his people: the most important things.
If you let it, anxiety can do great things in you. God will wield it for his own purposes, and you will emerge over time more focused, more energized for Christ, more appreciative of the work God does in our weakness. But it all comes back to trust and heart commitment. Do you really trust that God is using your anxiety to shape you? That it isn’t an accident or some physiological malfunction to be fixed? And what do you really want from your life anyway? Do you want the comfort and the peace? (Of course! We can’t deny that.) Are you willing to let go of that for a time so that important work can be done, so that some fat-burning can take place?
Think deeply not just about your feelings but about your finality, about the person God is shaping you to be right now—someone who looks more and more like his Son.
God, my war with anxiety carries on. I want to rest and lay down my arms. But your purpose is where I belong. Shape me to Christ amidst the harm.
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