This has probably been the most disturbing year I have experienced. I thought 2020 would take that honour, but 2021 has surpassed it. And I’m not alone in feeling that. It has been disturbing for many people and disturbing on multiple fronts.
The most obvious is the severe impact of COVID-19. It’s been damaging to church life, meeting online month after month. It’s been crippling for most ministry plans, event after event being cancelled or re-designed. Lockdowns have taken a deep toll on personal well-being so that the agonising impact of anxiety and depression has come close to home for many of us. And little wonder, given the strains of losing your job, seeing your business crumple, schooling from home while trying to work from a makeshift office, cancelling every holiday and outing so that there have been few reprieves, and a hundred other pressures we are not used to. Not to mention the impact of endless news bulletins and social media posts daily bearing news of soaring infections, overloaded ICUs, deaths.
Covid alone would have been enough to make it a disturbing year. But there has been plenty more as well. Here in Victoria, government legislation has been deeply disturbing. From the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill that places significant limits on what people can say or pray in regards to a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation; to the current Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill that threatens the freedom of Christian organisations to appoint Christian staff; to the overreach of the Pandemic Management Bill currently being debated, there’s been plenty of political news to sober the mood.
The world scene is no brighter. The year began with disturbing scenes of insurrection on Capitol Hill. Chinese aggression, and responses to it, is deeply concerning. We watched helplessly as the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan and desperate men, women and children tried to flee inevitable oppression. The recent COP 26 meeting in Glasgow profiled world leaders and scientific experts making doomsday predictions about the future of the planet if global warming is not reined in immediately.
To cap it all off, the sexual revolution and advance of “expressive individualism” has gathered further, seemingly unstoppable, momentum. The homosexual marriage debate is almost a distant memory as the next frontier of the secular agenda, popular acceptance of transgenderism, advances at a pace. People holding traditional Christian values feel more on the back foot than ever.
So, 2021 likely qualifies as the most disturbing year many of us can remember. But there is something good about bad days. Disturbing days force those of us who are believers in Jesus Christ to live as we always should. In good days, we do not always feel sufficient urgency to live as we ought, hence the strange blessing of adversity. It’s a familiar theme in Scripture. Trials are to be counted a joy and suffering produces good fruit (cf. James 1:2–4; Rom 5:3–5).
How, then, ought we to live, not just in deeply disturbing times, but at all times? These troubled days may help to remind us of the following.
First, we are always meant to live as a prayerfully dependent people, surrendering every plan and desire to God because we do not know what will happen tomorrow (cf. James 4:13). Endless change and uncertainly has strongly underlined that all we aspire to do is “Lord willing”—and often, of late, he has not been willing for our plans to proceed. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, who taught us to pray, “Your will be done,” himself prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). We never have been masters of our own destiny and this year has reminded us of the arrogance of living as if we have all things under control. We’ll need to remember that when we are back to normal.
Second, we are always meant to live as a grounded people, rooted in the unshakeable truths of God’s Word. When nothing else is certain and little else seems hopeful, we are powerfully reminded that our security was never meant to be in the things of this world: our job, the economy, our health system or our political leaders. Our hope is in God, and in 2021 he and his plans have not changed. The Psalms frequently use the image of God as a rock, a refuge, a fortress, a mountain. An old hymn said, “Change and decay in all around I see; Oh thou who changest not, abide in me.” We need to abide in him in all times, not just in disturbing times.
Third, we are always meant to live as grateful people, valuing the small things of life that come from the hand of our Father in heaven. When life is good, we easily overlook small things because we enjoy so many large blessings. When life is hard smaller things become more precious. Like taking a walk without a mask. Or fresh air, exercise, coffee, and family get-togethers. These are small blessings to enjoy with thankfulness. It would be healthy if, when we are back to normal, we could retain joy in little freedoms and privileges, and live a less entitled life.
Fourth, we are always meant to live as a counter-cultural minority, willing to suffer for our convictions. The rampant secular agenda is distressing but it is no real threat to the future of the gospel. Christianity was born in a hostile world and the plan never was to triumph by taking over the corridors of power. So now that we’ve lost them, we should not think we have lost. Perhaps we are just being forced to be the contrast community we were always meant to be, uncomfortable as that is.
Fifth, we are always meant to be a disciple-making people, proclaiming the message of Jesus as the only truly good news. These disturbing days reinforce how urgent that is. The more people’s lives are swamped by bad news, the more important it is for us to tell the good news. The more sinfulness and selfishness set the cultural agenda, the greater the need for people to hear a message of repentance and faith. The more that people hear of cancel culture, the more they need to hear of forgiveness.
Finally, we are always meant to live as an eschatological community, living for a world beyond this one. When this world seems pretty amazing we think less about the world to come. But the more broken this world is, the more we long for the renewal of all things. This world is in bondage to decay (Rom 8:21) and passing away (1 John 2:15–17), but we are a people of hope because we know it will be superseded by planet earth 2.0, which will be better by far. The church has always prayed, “Maranatha,” Come quickly Lord Jesus.
Disturbing days are not much fun and I pray they will pass soon. But they do force us to live as we ought. We should perhaps be a bit worried about getting back to normal because when things are normal we easily forget how we ought to be living. This year has been disturbing – but in some ways, it’s been disturbingly good for us.