A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power alongside threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. Part Three is another reflection and some questions I sent about God’s help in a time of pandemic.
April 4th, 2020
Dallas Willard has been famous for saying, “We have no reason ever to be anxious” and “This present world is a perfectly safe place for us to be.” You wrote something similar: “I believe our world is the right environment for what God is doing, the right environment for personal repentance and abandoning ourselves to God’s grace.” I really resonate with that and yet those statements seem so radical right now in the face of a global outbreak and other more difficult losses around the world. Like you, I don’t see a “slow transfiguration of our violent world” in the Bible or Jesus’ teachings. I do, however, see lots of patient waiting and anticipation–perhaps a very long wait–for the big changes we need in our society.
At the same time, I don’t want to forget the biblical witness and my own experiences of God’s power, hope, and change (like Jesus’ resurrection, my own freedom from addictions, or the Israelite’s liberation from Pharaoh’s hands). God has faithfully ordered things in such a way that we can pray for help and receive “far more abundantly than all we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). These graces do not always happen with such dramatic intensity as the day I gave up drugs or when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden, yet I still pray as Jesus taught: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Could our experiences of grace be a foretaste of the New Jerusalem that will come?
In reality, it’s probably easier to look back on God’s power than to claim it is happening right now. You wrote, “In the end, God will give us the perfect environment, the perfect society. But I don’t think that’s what God is doing here and now.” So the question I keep asking myself is what does it mean to receive the power of God today? Can we expect our environments to change at all? Individual repentance and grace are definitely what we need, but I also think about the justice we long for and need. During the late 1950s, for example, many young black students in Little Rock prayed for an end to Jim Crow and the terror they experienced from lynching and white violence. Some took steps to integrate the schools in spite of the danger. They refused to comply with “White only” laws. They believed God gave them dignity and strength and that He heard their prayers.
I remember you saying at some point that Jesus never taught us to divide the kingdom of God into “the already” and “not yet,” but to instead focus on, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Is that more or less accurate? I ask because we all see a pretty dramatic difference between our present world and what God will bring about when He makes all things new. So when it comes to the kingdom of God now, what can we expect? This may be asking too much of our conversation, but I’m also trying to understand how it relates to our current situation: Is this pandemic a mercy? A form of judgement? Is it somehow God’s will? Or even from God’s hand?