When everything’s uncertain
Drawing from the book of James and the Psalms, Colin Sedgwick offers this reflection in these strange and unsettling times
James the brother of Jesus was nothing if not a practical man; his letter – just five chapters – is full of down-to-earth teaching. And nowhere is this more so than in these few verses at the end of chapter 4…
Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’ (James 4:13-15).
He’s talking to people who are good at planning ahead. He seems to have trades people particularly in mind; but what he says is relevant to anyone who imagines they have a strong handle on the future: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow!”
Among other things, this is a warning against arrogance and self-centredness. It reinforces the teaching of Jesus in his story of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:16-21); it also echoes the words of various Old Testament passages, such as Proverbs 27:1: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring”.
But most of all, it reminds us that the future is uncertain. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind as coverage of the coronavirus outbreak keeps unfolding.
Like many of us, I am used to making plans and expecting them, generally speaking, to happen. But suddenly that is just no longer the case. Sports events I was looking forward to… meetings I expected to attend… people I was hoping to see… responsibilities I was due to fulfil… little treats I felt I was entitled to… suddenly all these things are shrouded in uncertainty. And I don’t like it very much!
In all my life, this is something I have never experienced before. A few days ago people over 70 were asked to “self-isolate”. I vaguely thought to myself, “Oh well, yes, I suppose that might be a good precaution to take”. And then I thought, like a four-year-old told he can’t go to the park, “Hang on a minute – that means me! Boo-hoo, not fair”. Again, I didn’t like it very much…!
Two main thoughts came to mind.
First, this is exactly how it has been for untold millions of people down through the centuries – and how it still is for vast numbers today. Those of us who have enjoyed the luxury of filling our diaries in confident expectation that those entries will be fulfilled are in a very small and privileged minority.
Without in any way making light of the present crisis, that thought helped me to get it into perspective. This is a time for clear, calm faith in God – and for practical action to respond to what’s happening, especially for those most at risk. And not for feelings of self-pity! I have no entitlement to that luxurious way of life I have unthinkingly enjoyed.
My second thought was to wonder just how much, in reality, God is generally involved in my planning.
It isn’t wrong to plan, of course – I don’t think James is suggesting that. Indeed, it may be irresponsible not to. But it is wrong to plan as if we are the lords of our own lives. If we are Christians, we aren’t: Jesus is Lord (as we perhaps rather glibly sing). And that means that if we make our plans without reference to him we are saying one thing with our lips but something else with our actions. Which means we are hypocrites.
As James puts it: we ought to say, “if it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this and that”. We are not to take anything for granted.
Like everyone else I very much hope that the present emergency will be short-lived and more limited in its effects than we are being led to fear. Our chief thoughts must be for the sick, the frail, those who suffer with depression and other mental health issues. Of course.
But having said that, I think it’s right to add this: surely, in the long run, it’s no bad thing for us all to be reminded of the uncertainty and shortness of life. Still more, if a situation like the present one has the effect of driving us afresh into the arms of God, that can only be good.
I started with a no-nonsense word from James. Perhaps it’s appropriate to finish with a reassuring word from the psalmist… “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging… The Lord Almighty is with us” – Psalm 46.
And something like this seems a reasonable prayer to pray…
Dear Father, please help me in this difficult time to be a trusting believer, a calming presence, a responsible citizen, and a good neighbour.
Have mercy upon our world – and in the coming weeks may many make that life-changing journey from fear to faith as they reach out to Jesus, who died and rose again. Amen.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com
Image | Matthew Henry | Unsplash
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