By Mark Penninga
This blog post was originally published in a print edition of Christian Renewal and is reposted here.
There are times when I see massive challenges on the horizon and can’t help but worry. Like the spies who scouted out Canaan and reported back to the Israelites, I can feel as small as a grasshopper compared to what I’m facing (Numbers 13:33).
I’m not alone. Throughout this country, I see Christians who made it through the past year with more gray hair and lines of worry on their faces. Many are recognizing what author Rod Dreher warns about in his book “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.” In his words, “A progressive—and profoundly anti-Christian militancy—is steadily overtaking society…. The old, hard totalitarianism had a vision for the world that required the eradication of Christianity. The new, soft totalitarianism does too, and we are not equipped to resist its sneakier attack.”
What was once a peripheral concern for a few is becoming recognized among a wide variety of Christians in the West today, largely because of what we have witnessed in response to COVID-19. I don’t think anyone would have expected to see our churches shut down, mandatory masks in all public spaces, a minister imprisoned for following his conscience in response to the strict restrictions forced on his church, mandatory quarantines that involve citizens being escorted by security guards to vans with no windows and taken to secret locations out of the reach of family, along with a host of other restrictions imposed with the heavy hand of the law, all in response to a virus whose origins and risks remain highly controversial. Regardless of our worldview and political persuasions, it is hard not to wonder “What is going on? This world is going crazy!”
This is indeed a time to “live not by lies.” Dreher’s thesis finds even more credibility in Canada, which seems to be a few years ahead of his home country, the United States, in its wanton disregard of the moral foundations upon which the nation was built.
But as grateful I am to see a growing awareness of pervasive lies, I’m concerned by how this is leading some Christians to become fearful and respond in ways that simply don’t jive with our calling as kingdom-citizens who belong to Jesus Christ and have every reason to hope.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic, my wife Jaclyn observed that things aren’t changing so much as having the surface increasingly stripped away so that we can see things as they really are underneath. In a seeming paradox, what is changing is that we are now seeing what has been going on for a long time. I have been seeing more and more evidence of this over the past year.
Under the Veneer
One thing that has been exposed is our propensity to give over our freedoms in exchange for the illusion of security. More than almost anything else, humans desire to be safe and secure. This desire is exploited by many who promise to provide security in exchange for submission – submission not just to rules, but to worldview and ideology as well.
Many are rightly concerned when leaders seem eager to violate our fundamental freedoms for questionable reasons. But the reality is that these leaders are a reflection of the values of the people. When polled early in 2021, the majority of Canadians supported stricter lockdowns, including 64% in support of $10,000 fines for people who violated rules, and 79% in favour of closing all places of worship. In the face of fears over a virus, the public is eager to forfeit freedoms that were previously fought for with blood.
And this is no different than almost every age in the past. In the Bible we read of the Israelites time and again hungering to turn back to Egypt, to return to the security of what they knew rather than face uncertainty. After making the long trek to Canaan and being on the verge of obtaining the promised land, they sent spies into Canaan and, after hearing their report, “the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:2-4). Their fear was greater than their faith.
The freedom and rights that we have experienced for several hundred years in the western world have been the exception to history, not the norm. The principles of the rule of law and limited government emerged in an explicitly Christian context in which those in authority recognized the fallen nature of all mankind, the equal worth of all mankind as image-bearers of God, and the need for a system of governance that kept the civil government in check. As Canada and the western world willingly abandons the foundation of these Christian principles, it is understandable that the structure built upon it will erode and crumble. As such, the concerning disregard of fundamental freedoms over the past year hasn’t been a change so much as just the most recent manifestation of this trend.
And we can’t just point our fingers at our political, legal, or cultural leaders. The fault lies with every one of us. A close look at any Christian family, church, school, or business will reveal no shortage of sin which leads to brokenness, division, and decay.
This hasn’t just started since Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister, or even back with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It goes right back to the Garden of Eden and the fall into sin, when we chose autonomy (self-law) over submission to God’s law. The fact that God mercifully brought change in the western world in recent centuries has been the exception, not the norm. As I have argued elsewhere, I believe we are witnessing the suicide of a civilization.
Although that may sound depressing, if we acknowledge the sovereignty of God, it isn’t. God’s kingdom is not manifested as Canada, the United States, or the West. God’s kingdom is over the entire world and through all ages. Unlike what is proclaimed “progressive” today (causes which seek to deconstruct God’s design for family, sexuality, and creation generally), His kingdom is progressing perfectly in accordance with the plan that He has always had.
Without focussing on COVID-19 specifically, Dreher’s book uses powerful stories from people who have experienced totalitarianism in the East to try to wake up the West to a force that looks different but is no less serious. Since Christ told us to expect suffering, we really shouldn’t be surprised and would do well to be prepared.
But what I find missing in this book, and in much of the alarm being raised, is a recognition that what we are experiencing is not new. It is just one more manifestation of the conflict that has been waged since the beginning of the world – a fulfillment of the curse pronounced by God against Satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Geneses 3:15).
This should fill us with confidence and hope. The developments we are witnessing aren’t evidence that the world has suddenly fallen off course and needs our full effort to save it. Rather, it simply bears witness to the reality that the world has been off course since we chose the road of autonomy in the Garden, and the only lasting solution comes from outside of this world through Jesus Christ.
Reason for Hope
I don’t know what God’s will is with COVID-19, but I can’t help but see a parallel to Babel and the need for humanity to relearn what it means to be finite.
God was being gracious when He confused the language of those who thought that they could make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4). Far more destruction would have occurred if God didn’t interfere. And that is very much an option for God as well. As Paul shows so vividly in Romans 1, the wrath of God is associated with giving people up to their own ways:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:28-32).
Although it is easy to speak fondly of the days before COVID-19, we all know that the rot of evil was just as present, even if it was a little more hidden. The same was true of the 1980s, the 1950s, the 17th Century, and the first centuries of the New Testament church. Should our goal be to go back to what was normal in early 2020, or should it instead be grow in steadfastness and follow where our Shepherd is leading?
Knowing that God is sovereign and that God is good, we ought to look at the developments of the past year with a view to what God is accomplishing in this world, for His glory and our good. As much as I have wept (literally) over the impact of COVID-19 and the response of our civil government, I’m thankful to God that He in His grace is stripping away the veneer that has existed for many decades in the West.
- I rejoice that more people have awakened to the real harm that comes from civil governments that are trying to rule without humbly acknowledging God.
- I rejoice that eyes are opening to the power that the civil government now possesses in the West.
- I rejoice that for the first time in many years many of us have truly prayed for our daily bread, realizing that it is a gift from God and not something that just comes by itself.
- I rejoice that many have been forced to break with the routines that they accepted without necessarily thinking about (for example, many have been forced to look after the education of their children for the first time).
- I rejoice that the leadership of many churches have quickly become educated about the relationship between the institution of the church and the state, and the reality that their authority comes directly from Christ, not from the state.
- I rejoice that so many in the world today are realizing that the things they thought they could hold on to, or give them comfort or joy, are a mirage.
- Most of all, I rejoice that many eyes are now recognizing that the answer isn’t going to be found in a better system of government, a better political party, or a courageous leader. The answer is the same answer that has existed since the Fall – Jesus Christ.
COVID-19 is a part of the good plan of Jesus Christ. As disappointing as it is to witness a world making harmful decisions, if we truly believe that God is sovereign and God is good then we can have the assurance that these developments too are for good (even if we won’t see this fully on this side of eternity).
Don’t Miss the Opportunity!
As much as I like to see Christians being politically engaged, I’m concerned that political engagement is becoming a means by which some Christians are directing the little energy they have towards outlets that express their frustration with our government leaders rather than seizing this opportunity to live as ambassadors of Jesus Christ.
If the LORD wills it, this can be an incredible opportunity to communicate the hope and peace we have. As my colleague Levi Minderhoud articulated so well in a recent article:
“Ultimately, Canada and the world do not need a Great Liberal Reset or even a Great Moral Reset. It is useless for our country to be a whitewashed tomb on the outside but full of dead bones on the inside. Our society needs a Great Spiritual Reset…. Are all our efforts directed to defending our personal freedoms (even if they are unjustly infringed upon)? Or are we bringing the gospel to our neighbors who need it now more than ever, using both our words and our deeds?”
In Luke 21, Christ foretells the wars, persecution, and plagues that the world can expect. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” (Luke 21:10-13; emphasis added). From His perspective, this is an opportunity for us!
Later in the same chapter, Christ warns us to “watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). Sometimes we think we are being virtuous and faithful by worrying about what we see around us, when in actual fact the cares are weighing us down so that we aren’t doing what Christ wants us to do. I have spent far too many hours hunched over and with downcast eyes. It has accomplished nothing good but only leads to more anxiety and all-around lackluster performance. Instead of being stooped down, Christ urges us “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
I praise God that He isn’t looking to us to secure the victory. He has provided the answer, and Christ has already conquered. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing for us to do. The next stage in the greatest drama of all time is His return. Every person will acknowledge Him as King, and He will also hold us accountable for how we lived through this age.
As we await that day, let us together throw off the cares that weigh us down and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (Luke 12:1-2).
As tempting as it is to retreat with our families and build our own communities, let us use the short lives we have been given to shine as lights in this dark world.
The world around us is hungry for something that satisfies (as is now being manifested in the demand for real estate, stocks, and toys). Let’s seize this opportunity to introduce our neighbours and leaders to the One who truly satisfies in this life, and the life to come.
Mark Penninga is the Executive Director for ARPA Canada