It's the End of the World as We Know It
. . . and I feel fine.
Anyone reading this who, like me, was in high school or college in the 1980s will likely know that these are some of the lyrics to a song by the band R.E.M. The catchy song was released in 1987. I don't know whether the song had any specific meaning, but it expressed well the anxiety of that time. My generation, like several before it, grew up during the Cold War. We were constantly bombarded during our formative years with the threat of nuclear annihilation (“Duck and Cover”).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, there was a period of relative peace in many parts of the world (not all), but then came September 11, 2001. Another source of anxiety, international terrorism, entered the public consciousness in the West. As I write (June 2020), the world is experiencing a pandemic and the economic fallout of that pandemic. On top of that, my own country is experiencing widespread civil unrest. My country is also experiencing cultural shifts that are causing many Christians concern.
Most of us don’t have a lot of control over the kind of things that are happening in the larger world around us, but what we have to remind ourselves as Christians is that God does have control, complete control. Not only is He in control, but all of what is happening is also part of His plan. God is sovereign. God is not wringing His hands right now crying, “What am I going to do?” He is sovereign and He knows what He is doing. We don’t have to know the reasons for it. We simply have to know that he is good and trust Him. In short, we need to know the biblical doctrine of God. We need to know theology, and we need to trust our Father.
As Christians, we need to think about what we are communicating to our lost neighbors when we join them running around, wringing our hands, and panicking like Chicken Little over the latest news report. What we’re communicating if we do that is that we really don’t believe that God is sovereign and in control of all things. Why should the world listen to us if by our words and actions (online and elsewhere) we are telling them that it isn’t really true?
In addition to theology, specifically the doctrine of God, another thing that has always helped me when these kind of events happen is the study of history. Written history, in one sense, is just the result of people recording (with varying degrees of accuracy) things in our past that were also part of God’s plan and under His sovereign control. So, even history is theological. At the very least, knowing a bit of history helps us put things in context.
For example, because one of my hobbies is working on my family’s genealogy, I often think about the world events that my ancestors lived through. Those born at the turn of the 20th century lived through World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, a decade of the Great Depression and recession, severe drought causing the great Dust Bowl, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. If you go back farther in history, you see that generation after generation around the world and throughout all of history have experienced wars, plagues, famines, horrific massacres, genocides and enslavement, natural disasters – sometimes on apocalyptic scales. None of what we are experiencing now is new. What is new is the ability to learn within seconds about every bad thing that is happening in every part of the world every single day.
I don’t say any of this to downplay the very real suffering and sorrow that millions are experiencing right now because of the events that are occurring in our time. The pandemic has taken the lives of many loved ones. Its economic fallout has taken the livelihoods of many others. Other local events in different parts of the world are causing various kinds of suffering. As Christians, we don’t study historical suffering in order to ignore present suffering, but we can study historical suffering in order to calm down enough to help those who are presently suffering. What I’m saying is that Christians cannot truly comfort and help the suffering if we ourselves are panicking.
Have you ever noticed the way Paul responds to the things going on around him? He takes these things in stride in order to focus on the task to which God had called Him. He lived during the time of the Roman Empire. Caesar and the Roman government were not on the side of the Christians. The culture was polytheistic to the core. It was ethically depraved in ways we can barely imagine and wouldn’t want to if we could. The Church was under attack on all sides. Paul himself experienced all manner of hardships. In one place, he lists some of the things he experienced as a minister of the Gospel:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Corinthians 11:24–27).
His life was one of constant danger. Later he was imprisoned, but even while in jail, not knowing whether he would live or die, he faithfully continues to minister to the church, writing them letters. In one letter, Paul expresses his thoughts about the possibility of his execution. What does he say,
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).
Whatever happens to him, he knows that it will be for the good. Those imprisoning him cannot win - even if they kill him. Paul knows this, and he trusts God, and it gives him peace.
Paul doesn’t panic because of things he sees happening in the capital city of Rome or the world around him. Paul doesn’t panic when he sees a culture swamped in immorality. Paul doesn’t even panic when he faces execution. He simply continues to be faithful to the task His King gave Him. Why doesn't he panic? Because He knows God, His King, is sovereign and in control, and he knows that God brings suffering into our lives for a reason (Rom. 5:3–5). We need to think more about Paul’s response to the culture in which he lived. Does he panic? No. What is his focus? It is always on the Gospel task at hand and on building up the church.
Christians need to be encouraged by what God has revealed to us in Scripture, and that is the fact that the enemy simply cannot win and will not win - even if he kills us. Re-read Revelation 20–22 if necessary. The enemy is already on death row. His judgment is sure. Whatever happens here and now, however difficult it may be to experience, is part of God’s sovereign plan that ultimately ends with the final judgment of the enemy and our inheritance of a new heavens and new earth where we will be face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ forever.
The nations rage. Earthly kingdoms rise and fall. There are wars and rumors of wars. So be it.
Jesus is still risen.
Jesus is still the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
No one and nothing can remove Him from His throne.
Our task remains the same.
When unbelievers look at followers of Christ during the times of upheaval and suffering that occur in every generation, let them not see people who are as anxious and as scared and as panicked as they are. Let them see those who confidently trust their sovereign and holy God come what may. Let them see a people who have the true peace of God that passes all understanding. Let them see us showing love to both God and neighbor as we remain faithful to the task to which God has called us.
Let them see the Light in this darkness.
Let them see Jesus.