What is God Saying Through 2020?
These perspectives are not necessarily wrong. But the fact that I have encountered all of them in the last nine months, and that you have too—and that you were rarely surprised by which friend, acquaintance or public figure made which comment—gives me pause. It makes me suspicious that my own analysis of the situation is, likewise, skewed by my priors. It reminds me that the phrase “we have learned” can simply be a way of saying “I believe” that makes it harder to argue with. It makes me wonder whether similar things are true of answers to the question “What is God saying through 2020?”
Having said all that, I want to ask that question anyway. As regular readers will know, I am inclined towards jaundice when I read hot takes about new phenomena and how they will change everything forever; I have a strong preference for cold takes instead. (This is partly a function of personality: some people adopt new ideas quickly, whereas my working assumption when I hear about a New Thing is that either it won’t change the world or it shouldn’t, and if it happens to be a big deal, I can always adjust to it later.) But nine months have now passed. Things have cooled. And I believe in a God who is sovereign over all things, and who speaks today. So as we approach the end of this bummer of a year, it feels appropriate to ask: In the providence of God, what was all that about?
The Wisdom of James
In February I spent a week in India with my friend Jason Shields, visiting pastors from all over the country, worshipping in four or five languages, eating magnificent food, and teaching through the epistle of James. I had never gone through the letter in a systematic way before, and it did me a huge amount of good. But I had no idea how far the wisdom of James would be vindicated by, and needed for, the events of March onwards: Covid, lockdowns, George Floyd, Trump, vaccines, and so forth. Seriously: if you read the letter from beginning to end right now, I challenge you not to marvel at how much it reads like a theological and ethical commentary on 2020. Here are five examples that struck me, although there are no doubt many others:
1. “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness ... Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial, for when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1:2-3, 12). This has been a year in which “trials of various kinds” have come upon all of us. For many of our global brothers and sisters, every year is like that. But for most people reading this, the average year is characterised by a handful of (often fairly predictable) trials, rather than a plethora of ones that could not possibly have been foreseen last January. Speaking personally, it has been very difficult to “count it all joy”: the loss of gathered church meetings, singing, and the Lord’s Supper for much of the year, to take just three examples, has meant that several of my main sources of joy fuel have all but disappeared. But James is right. It is precisely because we are facing trials that we need to count it all joy, because the testing of our faith—which we have all experienced this year—produces steadfastness. So yes, this year has been a bit rubbish all round. But James says that it is producing steadfastness in us which itself will bring us to the crown of life. That’s one thing God is saying through 2020.
2. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). Churches are often complex organisations. We have multiple staff, run dozens of programmes and mobilise hundreds of volunteers to serve thousands of people. But when a pandemic strikes, much of that disappears overnight. Many of our activities cannot be sustained in a safe way. So crises force us to ask the question: what is essential around here? We can do all sorts of things, but what must we do? And the answer is twofold, based on the two things the church is irreducibly here to do: meeting together to worship God and declare the gospel, and serving the poor, or what James calls “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.” Covid has winnowed our programmes. Even though we will quickly reinstate many of them (and I think the loss of some of them, like getting young people together, has been a real challenge for people), that process will have done us good.
3. “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory ... if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors ... faith apart from works is dead” (2:1, 9, 26). There are a great many biblical texts we could reflect on in light of the death of George Floyd, and the protests that ensued, but this is as good a starting point as any. Partiality is antithetical to the gospel. If the Lord of glory died for you, without regard to anything you have done, then you cannot treat some people preferentially relative to others on the basis of their wealth or social status (in James’s context), or race or mental health (in ours). The objection that Scripture does not identify the sin of racism specifically, because in its current form it did not exist yet, is true but irrelevant, for the simple reason that it speaks so emphatically about the sin of partiality, not least in this letter. And if those of us in the majority are tempted to move quickly into yeah-buttery at this point—yeah but I’m not racist myself, yeah but white people are killed by police too, yeah but some of the aims of #BLM are terrible, yeah but abortion, or whatever it is—we might be wise to consider James 1:19 first. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
4. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (3:14-16). This is clearly not a comment about whether a person should vote for Donald Trump (although it will not surprise anyone to hear that I wouldn’t have). But we should note the sorts of consequences that flow from normalising, or even celebrating, Trump-like behaviour—and the uncomfortable ways in which the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated that.
5. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (4:13-15). This is the main lesson I have learned this year, and it is not one I find easy. Every cancelled meeting, lunch, trip, conference, flight or holiday has borne witness to a truth that the biblical writers saw very clearly, yet wealthy middle class Western people like me find very hard to grasp: I am not in control. I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, let alone next year. I am a mist. I am here for a little while, and then I vanish. I have no idea whether I, or someone I love, will catch Covid in the next week, nor how badly. My plans are subject to the will of God, and so is my life.
There are a great many other things we can learn from 2020. (Collin Hansen has a great list here, from a US perspective; I would add the repeated exposure of hypocrisy amongst our scientific, political and media influencers, and the loss to society as a whole when the church stops meeting, among others.) There are also a great many other things we can learn from James: the judgment upon the rich, the power of prayer, the need to control our speech, and so forth.
But in a letter known more for its ethical imperatives than its evangelical indicatives, we would do well to finish by reflecting on the grace that suffuses the text, even when it seems to be about something else. Every good and perfect gift comes from above (1:17). Our faith is brought forth by God’s will and God’s word (1:18). Wisdom comes from above (3:15). The purpose of the Lord is compassionate, and merciful (5:11), and he loves raising people up and forgiving them in answer to prayer (5:15). And in spite of everything—loneliness, confusion, lockdown, Zoom—if you draw near to God, he will draw near to you (4:8). In all the darkness and disappointment of this year, what God is saying to his church is the same as it has always been. “But he gives more grace” (4:6).