There never was an athlete who was able to perform at the peak of his skills by sitting on the couch watching TV. He could watch 18 hours of his chosen sport every day, but he will never even get picked for the team, let alone be able to excel.
Not even if that athlete is LeBron James, or Serena Williams, or Dustin Martin. It just doesn’t work that way.
The athlete has to train – train hard, train often, train relentlessly. There is nothing comfortable or particularly enjoyable about training. The athlete has to push against resistance, and push through pain barriers that would overwhelm the average person. The end result may be satisfying and enjoyable, but the path to that end is nothing short of intensely demanding and painful.
And few are able to reach the pinnacle of their sport without a coach to push them harder and further than they ever imagined they could go.
And so it is with Christian life and faith…
We Christians living comfortable and prosperous lives in Western societies know little of what it takes to build strong and resilient faith. Rarely do we face anything more demanding than the ridicule of non-Christians. And it’s been a long, long time since we’ve faced any test that would require us to ‘muscle up.’
So maybe it should come as no surprise that we get distracted from Christ by something like the COVID pandemic.
For too many of us this past year, our record has been one of division, criticism, backbiting, and the smug certainty that we know how best to respond to pandemics.
And we seem to have spent more time accusing those of differing opinions of foolishness, of disobedience, of weakness; we’ve even questioned sometimes whether our opponents are even really Christians.
And all because we don’t have the spine to handle adversity. The enemy has had a field day with many of us. Believers who live in nations hostile to Christianity must be scratching their collective heads in astonishment at our feeble faith.
I can’t claim to know or understand all of God’s purposes, but I’m pretty sure He has more than one intention for this pandemic. I’m pretty sure He means to build up our ‘spiritual muscle’ by this adversity.
One of His purposes, I believe, is to open our eyes to the fragility and fickleness of worldly comforts and treasures. Surely we’ve all seen how quickly it can all fail and turn to dung. And how little control we really have over it all.
If we can’t rely on our health, our wealth, our jobs, our friends to stick with us, where can we turn? Only to that Rock who is immovable, and who will never fail to keep us safe and strong.
I personally know many people who have spent the last several months returning their focus to their Lord and Saviour, leaning harder on Him, learning to trust Him more. And I’ve seen growth – real growth – and genuine love and faith flourish in them. I’m convinced this has been part of God’s purposes in the COVID lockdown.
And I think the Lord intends to force us out of our complacent and comfortable Christianity to explore new ways of spreading the gospel.
In the book of Acts, chapter 8, persecution hit the church in Jerusalem with a shocking ferocity. The believers – who were previously meeting openly, gaining numbers rapidly, and enjoying great blessing – were scattered by this persecution.
It tells us, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” [Acts 8:4]. I wonder if they would ever have left Jerusalem if not for this persecution? I suspect not. We all prefer to stay where we are comfortable and blessed.
But the result of this persecution and scattering was that the gospel began to be shared in the whole world.
I can’t help but wonder if that is part of what God is doing – and has been doing – in 2020. Challenging us, stretching us, shaking us, forcing us to think more clearly about how to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
Most churches have risen to the occasion – as best they are able with the resources, skills and technology available to them. Most churches have become more intentional about live-streaming services, and publishing messages online, and using technology to connect and reach out.
And as a result, church doors have been flung open to the world. We can share the message of Jesus Christ with believer and unbeliever worldwide now, with ease.
These benefits – and many more I don’t have space to mention – are what I’ve seen come out of the confusion, the uncertainty, the chaos of 2020. One day, I’m convinced we’ll look back at this year with fondness. Not yet maybe, but one day we’ll see what our loving and merciful and faithful God has done in us, and with us, and through us this past year.
For the Lord intends to build His church, just as He promised (Matt 16:18). And nothing can stand against it. Not drought, nor floods; not war, not persecution, not the gates of hell – and certainly not COVID-19!
One day, we’ll look back at 2020, and sing with Jeremiah, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness [Lam 3:21-23]. In the meantime, I hope and pray you have a safe and happy Christmas, and that you keep your focus on Jesus Christ, who emptied Himself, taking on human flesh, that we might be – in due course – reconciled to the Father, and granted eternal life.