As a pastor, I have been calling and texting various members of my church to check in and see how they are managing during this season of social distancing. When I offer assistance or ask how I can be praying, at least half of my phone calls sound something like my call with (I’ll call her) Kim:
Me: “I just wanted to call to see how you and your family are doing. Is everyone staying healthy?”
Kim: “So far, we’re all doing really well; no one’s sick, and we’re just spending a lot of time together as a family.”
Me: “How has the COVID-19 crisis changed your life? Are you feeling isolated? Has it impacted your income?
Kim: “Fortunately, my husband I are both able to work from home, so we’re not hurting financially.”
Me: “I’m so glad to hear that. Is there anything specific I can be praying for?”
Kim: “Um…Pastor Jeff, I was wondering, am I looking at all this the wrong way? I know a lot of people are hurting right now because they’re sick or isolated or without a job. But to be honest, I’m loving life right now. My husband and I haven’t had this kind of time together for ages. We’re spending lots of extra time with our kids—going for walks, playing board games, and just being together. I feel guilty, because I’m just enjoying this so much!”
People are sick, suffering and dying alone. Unemployment numbers have skyrocketed almost in tandem with the stock market plummeting. Domestic violence has escalated, while depression is surging. People who live by themselves feel isolated and alone. Grandparents who are in the “high risk” category find themselves quarantined from their families. It is difficult to fathom the massive scale of harm caused by one microscopic virus.
Meanwhile, many people throughout the nation feel like they are on an extended vacation. A woman in her 60s jokingly shared with me that her introverted husband has practiced social distancing his entire life—so this lockdown is an introvert’s paradise! One man told me that he is so thankful that his calendar isn’t packed with events and activities: “It’s such a gift to finally have our evenings free!”
People are enjoying blockbusters that have long laid dormant in their queues; families are finally eating together; friends are breathing in the beauty of the outdoors; frazzled workers are sleeping carefree and uninterrupted; and ambitious homeowners are knocking out home improvement projects. If time really is money, people feel like they’ve been given a blank check. They look at their cleared calendars, raise their hands into the air, and shout, “I’m loving this!” Yet like Kim, they feel guilty at the same time. Is it wrong to enjoy this season when so many are suffering?
Consider the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. The story begins with an extremely broken and dysfunctional family (and that’s putting it mildly!). Jacob, his father, displays favoritism toward Joseph, who is pretentious and boastful. Predictably, Joseph’s brothers loathe him. Judah, one of the brothers, sleeps with his own daughter-in-law (thinking she is a prostitute), and then issues her a death sentence because she is guilty of prostitution. You get the idea!
Then a series of unfortunate tragedies unfold: Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. After a series of events, Joseph is falsely accused of attempted rape and cast into prison. Finally, a seven-year famine strikes the entire region of the Middle East. This family’s story is full of unmitigated sin, evil, and natural disaster.
Yet at the conclusion of the story, Joseph and his brothers reconcile—they embrace, shed tears, and grant forgiveness! Furthermore, Joseph’s astute leadership in Egypt has saved the entire region from starvation. So he tells his brothers, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:5, 7). He later explains, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
God uses wave after wave of tragedy to bring about multiple good gifts. Devastating famine ultimately leads to restored relationships. Sibling rivalry sets the course to Joseph’s leadership over Egypt, which in turn ensures supplies of grain during the famine. Astonishingly, God does not merely restore and deliver in spite of sin and natural disaster; in his mysterious sovereignty, he saves through them. Was it wrong for Joseph’s family to be thankful for these good gifts which were, in part, the result of evil and natural disaster? After all, thousands of people suffered as a result of the famine.
I firmly believe that their gratitude is not only acceptable—it is required! James 2:17 points out that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” When you are given a gift, the most appropriate response is to enjoy it and give thanks for it. That fact that the gift is from God makes it “good and perfect,” and therefore worthy of enjoyment and appreciation.
As an example, consider the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada. Her encouragement, teaching, and writings have benefited millions of Christians. We enjoy and cherish them, even though they would not exist apart from the grievous accident that left her paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair over 50-years ago. These teachings are not guilty pleasures; they are holy, beautiful, and good. Even though they are the result of terrible suffering, they are intended to bring blessing and joy. We simultaneously mourn her decades of adversity even while we enjoy the fruit of that adversity.
Consider our present situation with the coronavirus. Another pastor recently shared with me that he was aware of some missionaries in a persecuted country in the Middle East. The missionaries reported they are experiencing a respite from persecution, because the government’s attention is completely focused on the virus. In this instance, the tragedy of COVID-19 is providing a welcome reprieve for the persecuted church. Certainly, it’s not wrong for the church to enjoy this season of peace.
Of course, the ultimate expression of God’s ability to bring good gifts from tragedy is the cross of Jesus Christ. Shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Apostle Peter, speaking to a crowd gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, declared:
[Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
Peter explains that Jesus’ death was carried out by “wicked men.” Was there ever a tragedy like this? Has anyone suffered more than the Son of Man, who had the fullness of our sins placed on him? Yet from this horrific place of suffering comes the most beautiful gift of all—the salvation of the world. In the gospel, we are invited to rejoice “guilt free” in this gift. Guilt free, in the sense that we are pardoned and cleansed from sin. But also guilt free in the sense that we can rejoice in this gift even though it was the result of evil and wickedness.
Has the coronavirus crisis resulted in some unexpected gifts in your life? Perhaps you are enjoying more free evenings or the flexibility of working from home. Maybe you get to spend more time with your family or whittle down your long-neglected reading list. I think it’s possible to both lament the devastating consequences of this pandemic and enjoy some of its benefits. God, in his sovereign goodness and love, is able to use the evil and tragedies in our world for good. And he wants you to enjoy all of his gracious gifts—guilt free.
Jeff Hamling is a pastor at Trinity Church (PCA) in Bozeman, MT. He is the author of Jesus Behind Closed Doors: God is Near in Our Distance, a chapter of which was excerpted with permission for this post.