Attentiveness: Pandemic Patience
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist
Wise people noted at the beginning of this pandemic that it would not last forever, but it will last for a period of time. It seems to be lasting a very long time, and it seems to be dragging us down: psychologically, socially, economically and educationally. Spiritually, many are depressed.
Expectations. More than anything else, people who endure and thrive in the midst of difficulties and an indeterminate future have the correct expectations. How many children pout and get angry because of false expectations? Children expect to: stay up late; eat more candy; play outside another hour; watch another movie, etc.
Adults also have false expectations. American Christians have many false expectations, largely because we have had it so easy. There is little sacrifice needed to be (at least a cultural) Christian in the United States. Now, these expectations of a fairly easy life are not being met. Many pastors have more sick parishioners and some pastors have multitudes of funerals where there is no proper time to mourn. There is no longer the assurance that kids will be in school and we can work with some room to think and have another espresso. We cannot easily go out for a nice dinner. And, we are hampered by the unknown. Will this last another month? Another semester? Another year? Life is getting difficult.
Scripture reminds us that we need to adjust our expectations. Both Jesus and Paul, and the great tradition of the church remind us that we should expect suffering and even persecution. The normal Christian life is one of patient endurance, and suffering is our Christian companion. It is not an exception, but more like the rule. We need to adjust to live with suffering and rise above its temptations.
What are the temptations of suffering? Suffering would have us made into its image. We suffer and quickly we begin to make others suffer. We are in pain, and rather than rising above it, we begin to succumb to its call to accept defeat, and to draw others down.
Two things need to be said in this time of indiscriminate and undetermined length of global disease. First, Scripture is clear that those who will follow Christ will suffer. I believe these passages are not just about being persecuted because we worship Jesus, but it includes the suffering of loss, disease and death. We are commanded to take up Jesus’ cross to follow him (Mark 8:34). Paul affirms the same: “But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist…” (II Timothy 4:5); “For to you it has been granted for Christ sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” (Philippians 1:29). Close to 30 passages in the New Testament direct our expectations about suffering as part of Christian discipleship. And that is ok, if we remember the second issue.
Jesus promises to be with us. The one who said, “Take up your cross,” also said, “Take my yoke upon you.” Jesus set our expectations regarding suffering, but he also is the comfort and strength in suffering. Such an accompanying God was foretold by David. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)
So, in this long and unexpected, and indeterminate time of pandemic, we need to hold onto these truths and focus on cultivating trust and patience. We can come out of this “pandemic parentheses” more bitter and angry, and then make other people more bitter and angry. Or, we can focus our expectations on this being a time of suffering and persecution, if you will, and pray for patience, endurance and self-control. We can become more like Jesus who, for the joy set before him endured the cross.
It is a matter of spiritual formation which might transform the Church, if we have the right expectations, and if we cultivate the attitude of Christ. It is a high calling, not an easy calling. It requires focus, discipline, humility and community. We need each other, even if it cannot be in a corporate worship service on Sunday mornings.
Lord, grant us patience.
Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.