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"See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
And streams in the wasteland." Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)

How do you respond to suffering when you see both the immensity of the pain and you already have a glimpse of how God is using it for good? For Christians, the answer is simple and yet stretches our faith to its limits: We have to look both suffering and hope full in the face. We have to both sit and move. We have to lament and rejoice. There are real dangers to neglecting one or the other.

All over the world, Christians are talking about the good that God is bringing out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Google is registering spikes in spiritual search terms like God and church online. Anecdotally, pastors (like me) are talking about their Sunday attendance doubling or tripling literally overnight.

It looks and feels like there is a spiritual revival happening as a result of our global crisis. And that’s exciting!

But not so fast. We need to be careful about glibly proclaiming God’s blessings in a season of suffering. Why? Insidious dangers lurk behind look-on-the-bright-side theologies.

Wrestling in a Season of Suffering

First, we can paper over the very real disaster and long-lasting pain of real people with our positivity. This is classic grief avoidance. The church is too often guilty of taking our cues from "the power of positive thinking" gurus and the school of silver linings when we should be learning from psalms of lament and our Lord, Jesus, who grieved personal and communal disasters.

Second, while we celebrate the new or renewed spiritual curiosity of others, we can smooth over the spiritual questions that disasters should cause us to ask ourselves. Am I living for what really matters? Is my relationship with God vibrant and active? Have I turned away from God and toward my own desires for security, success, or status?

In Revelation 9, John shows us that failing to ask these questions is its own kind of catastrophe. He has a vision of plagues that swept over the earth, disasters beyond the scale of Hollywood blockbusters. Yet he sees the real disaster at the end of the chapter—the people who were left did not turn back toward God, even when their mortality was staring them in the face.

If we are serious about the church being filled with the spiritually sick, if we mean it when we say that churches are filled with imperfect people like us, then we need to be the first to assess our own sins in a season that reminds us starkly of our own mortality.

Remember the double caution Jesus gives us in Luke 13: “...those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Suffering doesn’t come to people because they are worse than other people, but disaster should drive all of us to consider our relationship with the one who holds our lives in his hands.

Moving Toward Hope

But even though we must sit in the suffering, we can’t stop there! This is the middle, not the end, of our story. Once we sit soberly with grief and sin, we have to move toward hope. Just as glibly skating over grief is dangerous, we also run risks by not seeing and proclaiming the amazing things God does in and through our suffering.

First, our souls will waste away. If we can’t recognize that God is doing something new through these challenging times, we will miss the opportunity for our faith to be renewed by his power and goodness. We will miss the opportunity for our worship to be inspired by gratitude for all that God is doing right now!

In Isaiah 43:19-22, God says to his struggling people:

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland... give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise

Yet you have not called on me, Jacob,
you have not wearied yourselves for me, Israel.

Watching God bring life and restoration out of death and destruction is the centerpiece of Christian worship. That’s the good news of the resurrection in this Easter season! This is our story. Once repentance has turned us back to God, seeing God doing a new thing has to bubble over in worship. Grief and sober reflection are not the same thing as cynicism and stoicism.

After COVID-19

Not only do we need hope to fuel our worship, we need it to motivate us to get on board the train that the Holy Spirit is moving. Consider this:

  • The church has never been so attentive to those who can’t leave their home than it is right now…and there have always been people who couldn’t leave their homes.
  • The church has never been so creative in supporting those who have lost their jobs or had their wages cut…and there have always been people struggling financially in our communities.
  • The church has never been so accessible to people who don’t know Jesus and probably won’t go to a physical church, but might watch the gospel being preached on YouTube or Facebook out of sheer curiosity…and there have always been people who were curious enough to listen but perhaps too afraid to come into our space.

The examples are endless, but the point is this: the "New Thing" God is doing has caused the church to be the church in ways we might have never chosen to be on our own (thank God!). And if we don’t let God’s new thing create our new normal—instead reverting back to business as usual once our states re-open—then the train of God’s mission will have left, and we’ll be there standing on the platform.

A season like this tests our emotional and spiritual capacities to their limits: grief, repentance, gratitude, worship, and commitment to change. Holding all of that at once is a challenge. But it’s always been a challenge for a people whose faith is centered on the cross—the disaster that is also our hope. 

5 tips to help believers and churches continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath, even after churches can gather in-person again:

  1. Instead of skating over bad news articles, consider taking one news story per week and lifting the situation up to God in lament.
  2. Pray Psalm 139:23-24, then ask the Holy Spirit to help you turn toward God and away from anything that has been drawing your attention, focus, or heart away from God.
  3. Name two things you have learned, or two things your church has done, that you want to continue to build on when the crisis seems to be over
  4. What habits, or ministries in your church, can you build now that will continue to serve your neighbors after COVID-19?
  5. Identify two groups of people that you have more compassion for now than you once did. Put time on your calendar to sit down and brainstorm ways you can support them even better. 

Kyle Brooks is a pastor of Tapestry Church, a Resonate Global Mission partner in Oakland, California. 

If you and your church want to explore how to engage your community during (and after) COVID-19, Resonate Global Mission is here to help. Contact us, and we'll connect you with a ministry leader near you.