If the world is running a marathon, we are now entering into the more difficult part of the journey towards the finish line. The first half of the race was not too difficult, but now it is becoming painful, increasingly harder to keep pressing towards the finish line at mile 26.2. It is the uncertainty of when and how the pandemic will end that creates the greatest amount of anxiety, frustration and fear in our lives today. Family members and friends who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus are grieving in shock and deep sorrow. Those who have been hit hard economically are waking in the middle of the night in utter panic not knowing how ends will meet. Those living alone with just their own thoughts to comfort them are suffering especially. Suicide, increased drug or alcohol consumption, blaming someone else for their misery, or battering or abusing the person next to them are serious temptations for a lot of people right now. From the ends of the earth, a collective cry and plead is being heard, “How long, Lord, will this last?”
A number of different times in his epistles, the Apostle Paul uses the word “endure” or “endurance.” He places a high value on finishing any race that anyone has begun. He considers endurance to be a trait that is essential in becoming more like Christ in our character. Jesus endured more than anyone of us can imagine when he was attacked by the Roman and Jewish authorities who viewed him as a threat to their earthly powers. Paul aspired to achieve the same goal when he endured an equally cruel resistance to his proclaiming the Good News throughout the Mediterranean area. When confronted with unjust cruelty, neither Jesus nor Paul ever struck back or complained; they simply walked more confidently in the truth and even loved their enemies. Paul endured numerous physical trials, including the many times he was jailed. To encourage himself and the growing number of believers in Rome, he wrote these now famous words; “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” (Romans 5:3-5)
In order for us to apply these wise words of Paul to our own lives today, given the ravages and uncertainties caused by the coronavirus, we must place our fears, grief, and anxiety in the loving hands of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, much in the same way as the first Christians did centuries ago. In the silence of our hearts, we are being asked to turn, trust, and acknowledge him afresh within an environment that has never been more out-of-control or desperate for many of us. To do otherwise is to invite into our souls greater anger, angst and a need for retaliation against someone who created these messes. In other words, trust in Christ enables us to endure our trials with hope and grace in a way God wants us to.
For the last few months, I have spent a lot of time on Zoom calls with my friends in the Middle East. The country which is suffering the most is Iran. Before the pandemic, Iranians were undergoing terrible hardship due to the self-serving and inept leadership in their country. On top of that, the economic sanctions and deteriorating economy were pushing some families into abject poverty, limiting food intake for some individuals to one egg per day. Being on the lowest rung of the social ladder, the Christians of Iran have suffered the most. They continue to be jailed, harassed, and abused simply because of their faith. Now, with the coronavirus ripping through their country, Christians are suffering more than ever. The crippled health care system and corrupt government in Iran are crushing the spirits of many Iranians, causing them to lose hope. Many Iranian families are confined to their homes with little to no money in either their pockets or banks. As a result, daily abuse, depression, drug and alcohol consumption are pervading the country. The Christians of Iran are clinging to the words of the Apostle Paul, striving to endure and not losing hope.
Soon after Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans, severe persecution began in the Roman empire against Christians and those who refused to worship the Emperor as God. Emperors Galigula and Nero were particularly cruel. The Christians were blamed for every social and political ill plaguing the Roman empire at the time. However, the followers of Christ in the First Century remained obedient to the words of Jesus and Paul to endure hardship with faith rather than strike back against their enemies. The cruelty against the Christians was unimaginable. Early Church historian, Eusebius, wrote; “Whatsoever the cruelness of man’s invention could devise for the punishment of man’s body, was practiced against the Christians – stripes and scourgings, drawings, tearings, stonings, plates of iron laid unto them burning hot, deep dungeons, racks, strangling in prisons, the teeth of wild beasts, gridirons, gibbets, and gallows, tossing upon the horns of bulls. Moreover, when they were killed, their bodies were laid in heaps, and dogs there to keep them, that no man might come to bury them, neither would any prayer obtain them to be interred.”
Christians endured 300 years of Roman rule and oppression before they were finally recognized as legal and became full citizens under Emperor Constantine in 337 AD. They had endured and their faith had triumphed in the end. According to the Apostle Paul, endurance produces character because doing the opposite, i.e. complaining, retaliating, and letting anxiety get the best of us, runs contrary to what the Holy Spirit wants from our hearts. By being patient, faithful, hopeful, and bold, the followers of Jesus eventually toppled the other religious and philosophical belief systems of the Roman empire. The same holds true for the growing number of believers in Iran. If they can hold tightly to their faith and resist the temptation of despair, they can hope that the self-serving, cruel and authoritative regime in Iran today will eventually implode and collapse.
The Bible also tells us what it looks like when people panic and are no longer willing to endure hardship and suffering. They build golden calves and worship predictable and tangible objects rather than remain true and faithful to the living God who emancipates us from captivity and ruthless, unjust oppression. The Israelites in the Sinai Desert were unwilling to trust in God and the divinely appointed leadership of Moses. They wanted to take matters into their own hands and build a religious system they themselves could control. Furthermore, they were attracted to the golden nature of the calf rather than trusting in the treasures God was offering them from heaven and in the Promised Land which was awaiting them. They panicked instead of endured. As a result, their character was severely compromised.
Because of the pandemic, many of us have grown weary. We are tired of Zooming and being inside all day; tired of seeing the same faces on a daily basis; tired of trying to find or save money; tired of worrying so much about a virus that can potentially kill us. We are grieving multiple levels of loss in our lives. The entire world is on edge, ready to snap and fall apart; but that does not mean that we need to do the same with our spirits. If we dig down deep right now and claim the faith that is available to us, we can experience all the blessings and spiritual treasures associated with finishing the race. We are half-way through a marathon which none of us expected to enter. Disaster and ensuing trial have descended upon our world like lightning in the middle of the night. It is very tempting for us right now to want to stop running and give up; our legs, minds and souls are very weary. However, now is not the time to throw in the towel. Rather, we are being asked to dig down deep and trust the Lord with our lives as we have never done before.
The prophet Isaiah asked the people of Israel to do the same thing when they found themselves surrounded by the powerful nation of Assyria on all sides. He implored and urged the Israelites to renew their faith and strength in the Lord when he said these inspiring words about not giving up and trusting God; “God gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:29-31)
My prayers are with you as you and your loved ones run this marathon. May none of us lose hope that somehow God will see us through into an even more glorious future full of greater strength, character and hope. May the Lord be with you as we finish this race together.