Unprecedented – no other word describes what is happening in the world through the Covid-19 virus. The world has faced pandemics before. The Spanish flu in 1918 infected an estimated 500 million people with about 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 deaths in the USA. But then, there were no efforts to contain the virus. What happened happened. In 1918, the world population was 1.5 billion. Today the population is about 7.8 billion. We as people and governments are not willing to let what happens just happen. Thus most countries are engaged in some containment effort.
What makes this pandemic so difficult it is that no one knows how it will end. How long will it go on? Will a successful treatment be found? Will a vaccine be found and mass-produced enough to vaccinate billions of people? While we live in this unprecedented time, everything we value seems to be at risk. The physical health of ourselves and our loved ones is under great threat. The economy has all but stopped as social isolation keeps all but people regarded as providing essential services from working. Our social health is threatened as we must isolate from one another. Churches turn to video streaming with no idea how effective it is as instrument of the Holy Spirit. Easter comes to the world with almost all churches closed. Unprecedented. One by one the sporting events that have defined life for many are canceled or postponed (March Madness, NBA, Baseball opening, Tour de France, Masters, Kentucky Derby, NHL, Wimbledon, British Open).
This unprecedented time brings us to perhaps its most important gift, a gift of checking our heart. What does our heart long for? The heart is everything to God, as we are to love His Son Jesus and Him with all our heart. Our heart is everything to God, as there is not room for two first loves. As we look at the threats of the virus what is at risk? Does the virus threaten everything you long for or does it bring gain to what you long for? Is all at risk or is all closer to gain? God uses times of risk to test our hearts. He said through Moses in Deuteronomy 8:2-3, as God led Israel through times of need for basics like food and water, “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” God knows crisis,
adversity, danger, and need tests our hearts.
I don’t believe this crisis is the final judgment of God, but I believe it is a warning that the
judgment is coming, that it is breathlessly close. I believe the USA in prophecy is the economic Babylon of Revelation 18, Jeremiah 50-51. It will be destroyed in an hour during the second part of the seven years of the Great Tribulation. But there is a line that brings the issue of the heart to us. It says in Revelation 18:14, “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you…” What is the fruit of life for which the USA longed? It is described in Revelation 18:7, “As she glorified herself and lived in luxury, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning, since in her heart she says, ‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’’” In her heart she believes she should live a life of entitlement, wealth, security. It is a heart that views its country with a pride that believes it is better than others, ought to always be first before others, and have the entitled life as its right. It is a country that measures greatness by a life of prosperity, pleasure, and separation from the rest of the world and its problems.
We see this attitude of entitlement and wealth, health, and security as the longing of the heart in the church at Laodicea in the seven letters to the churches in Revelation. The Lord Jesus says of them in Revelation 3:17-18, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” The church was very content because in wealth, health, and security it had all it needed for life. Wealth, health, and security were the longings of their heart. But the spiritual results of this heart is that their love for Jesus was lukewarm. They did not hunger for Him, long to know Him, to be like Him, and to proclaim Him to the world. It is the lukewarm heart that Jesus most strongly turns from. The USA right now is praying, but are our prayers for anything more than that wealth and health be restored? Did we pray and care when other nations were gripped by the virus, like China, South Korea, and Italy, or is it only now as it threatens our health and wealth that we pray? Do we believe in our prayers that God should hear and answer us first, because the USA ought to always be first?
In contrast to the church in Laodicea are the churches that Peter wrote to in 1 and 2 Peter. In contrast to Laodicea, the Christians are living in the midst of fiery trials. But the gift of these fiery trials is that they revealed their heart. There are two qualities of the heart that Peter noted in 1 Peter 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” The desires of their heart were the love of Jesus and the inexpressible joy that they will be saved from judgment and be with Him for eternity. Nothing in their lives was at risk, because the true treasure in life is Jesus, and the true gold is the saving faith that makes a person His for now and eternity.
We see how that desire for Jesus worked out in their lives. In 1 Peter 1:18, it was to pursue the call to be holy in character and actions. It led to a hunger for the Word of God like newborn babies hunger for the milk that brings life and growth to their bodies (1 Peter 2:1-3). It led them to come to Jesus as He built them into a holy temple as part of His local church (1 Peter 2:4-6). It led to a life as a spiritual priest offering sacrifices acceptable to God (1 Peter 2:5). It led them to brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. It led them to a readiness and a passion to share the hope they found in Jesus with others (1 Peter 3:15).
When Jesus is your love, and being with Him for eternity your purpose, then nothing that life can bring threatens you. There is nothing in the threats to physical and economic health that can threaten, because they have never been the desire of the heart. The heart centered in Jesus has a contentment because He satisfies the soul and He is always enough. The Apostle Paul said in Philippians 4:11-13 as he is in prison on trial for his life, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The secret of contentment is that Jesus is always enough. He learned there is nothing in plenty that made him richer and there is nothing in want that made him poorer.
When I was in seminary, I met with a man who worked with the underground church in China. A well known pastor, Wang Mingdao, had just been released after 25 years in prison for preaching the Gospel. Though when first arrested he had weakened in his faith, he was soon strengthened. He had been in the worst of prison conditions, even forced to work in sewage. His wife was also arrested and had died in prison, never seeing him again after their arrest. I saw a picture of him and heard a tape him singing a hymn, Safe in the arms of Jesus, that he sang repeatedly in prison. All those years of prison had brought him not loss, but the treasure of life to be safe in the arms of Jesus.
May this unprecedented time in history lead you to a heart that is free, as the longing of the heart you have in Jesus. Don’t fear what life will bring, because all your desires in life are in Him. It won’t be long until we are together with brothers and sisters in Christ like Pastor Wang Mingdao and his wife.