One of the biggest questions that I keep being asked by people across Everyday Church right now is: What is God teaching us as a church through Covid-19? To answer that question, I’ll be posting a few thoughts over the next few weeks from our conversations together as whole-church elders, but we don’t claim to be the only ones who can answer this question. If you are part of Everyday Church and you sense something that God has been saying to you then you can write a blog in this series too. It’s called Everyday Voices (plural) for a reason! In this blog, I want to highlight to you what I believe God is teaching us about sacrifice and suffering.
If you are part of Everyday Church and you are observant, then you might notice something a little different about the image that accompanies this blog. Before lockdown, whenever we taught about how we can each connect up with God, we would emphasise the importance of studying God’s Word, of being filled with God’s Spirit, and of responding to whatever God says to us through worship and prayer. All of those things were entirely true, but one of the things that I believe one of the things we are meant to learn from the coronavirus crisis is that these four things are not the entire picture. There are two additional building blocks to our walk with God – things that we don’t talk about much in the Western world – and those two building blocks are sacrifice and suffering. Without these two things, people tend to remain immature and self-centred in their walk with God.
I don’t want to overblow how much we are suffering through the coronavirus crisis. Some of us have lost our incomes. Some of us have lost loved ones. All of us have had our busy plans and social lives wrecked by this wretched virus. But on a global scale, our suffering has been relatively restrained. It has been a gracious, gentle nudge from the Lord towards a gritty discipleship that is very normal in parts of India and China and Africa. It has been a beginner’s invitation towards the path of sacrifice and suffering onto which Jesus calls all of his followers. Suffering describes any trial that is thrust upon us, whether we like it or not. Sacrifice describes any suffering that we inflict upon ourselves in the path of our obedience to Jesus, saying yes to Jesus no matter how much it inconveniences us. The Apostle Paul tells us that such sacrifice and suffering are essential aspects of how we grow up into Christian maturity. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
I have spent lockdown wondering how much of the pain in our lives is caused by our failure to understand that this is true. Jesus never promised us that following him would be easy. On the contrary, he tells us up front that “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Following Jesus means believing that he laid down his life for us and that he now calls us to lay down our lives for him. “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
The Bible does not merely call us to accept sacrifice and suffering as followers of Jesus. It calls us to rejoice in them too. This feels pretty hard to swallow in our consumerist society, but I’m convinced that the coronavirus crisis gives us the best opportunity that most of us have had in our lifetimes to embrace the glorious fruit of suffering with Jesus. I believe that God is teaching us how much suffering can open our eyes to see the riches of the Gospel and how much it can humble our heart to receive them. I believe that he is turning our attention to the many Scriptures that encourage us to welcome sacrifice and suffering, as the refining of our faith in Jesus. (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:3-9)
I believe that there is an added urgency to this when it comes to our leaders. Jesus warns us in Matthew 13:20-21 that, when leaders fail to teach people that following Jesus entails sacrifice and suffering, those people will fall away from the faith when suffering comes. Sadly, we have seen that happen to a few people during lockdown. Let’s therefore open our eyes, with a sober urgency, to this warning from Jesus, and to the other Scriptures that suggest that the extent of our fruitfulness as Christians is linked to the extent of our willingness to suffer with Christ.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)