Mike Paulsen (St. Thomas), our Straus Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law this semester, wrote this wonderful Easter letter to his 1L students: Pray, Trust, Act, and Hope:
Many of us—most of us, probably—are experiencing spiritual anguish and uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic. What follows is a letter I sent to my law students at Pepperdine, where I am visiting this semester. Several had asked “what I thought,” specifically as a Christian (and not just as a law professor) about all this. This was my heartfelt but decidedly non-expert response to the class.
I share it here, more or less as it went to my students, and invite you to “listen in”—on the beginnings of a conversation doubtless common among all struggling believers. It runs the range of emotions that parallel Holy Week—anguish, fervent prayer, faith in the midst of pain and grief, fear and doubt, and finally the expectant hope of restoration and God’s ultimate victory over evil.
Dear beloved Constitutional Law students:
This is not part of the assigned reading. (But some of you might find it to be of a tad bit more interest than the cases on the Commerce Clause.)
Some of you have asked me “what I think about all this” as a Christian—“all this” being the coronavirus, how to respond to it from the perspective of faith, how to maintain perspective, how to be. I know that some of you are experiencing pain, anguish, fear, and grief. You are not alone. And you’re looking for answers—or at least a framework for thinking about these things: something to hold on to. You are not alone on this score. I wish I knew and had all the answers. I don’t. I am writing this for you, even as I am working out my own thoughts and emotions.
I thought a good way to organize my thinking was to frame the question in terms of what Christians (and other persons of faith) can do. How should we respond? How should we react, spiritually, to all this? How do we process it?
My answer breaks down into four categories: Pray. Trust. Act. Hope. I’ll offer some thoughts on each.
We should pray. Jesus taught, unequivocally, that prayer matters. I encourage you to let that sink in, for it is really astounding. If Jesus was right in his teaching (!), then prayer can change the mind and actions of God, incredible as that might sound. Though God’s purposes are incomprehensible to our unaided human understanding (1 Corinthians 1:20, 2:16), and God’s purposes might well not coincide with ours, God attends to, cares about, and is responsive to the petitions and pleas of his children. (Luke 11:5-13).
In short: Jesus taught that God is responsive to prayer.
The question of why a good God would allow suffering, evil, and catastrophe in the first place has perplexed and plagued Christians (and persons of other faiths and persons of no faith at all) for thousands of years. It is not a new problem. For many it is a barrier to faith, and I think understandably so. I will not solve the problem in a weekend e-mail.
But I can relate what Jesus taught about it and then return to the main point: that Jesus taught that prayer meaningfully changes things and that we should beat down the doors of heaven in our prayers to God.
First, God is not the source of evil in any respect. Jesus taught this. It follows, I believe, that it is wrong to think of God as the cause or source of the coronavirus. Quite the reverse. I firmly believe that the coronavirus is affirmatively contrary to God’s will and ultimate purposes for humanity. God did not “will” the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus is, in biblical (metaphorical) terms, the work of an “enemy”—vicious “weeds” sown by evil agents in opposition to God’s truest and deepest desires for and love of all humanity. Consider Matthew 13:24–30, Jesus’ parable of the Weeds and the Wheat. “It was some enemy who did this,” Jesus has the good Sower of seed say in the parable, when weeds are discovered in the wheat field. The parable is a story of the corruption of God’s creation in opposition to God’s design, and of the promise of creation’s eventual restoration and redemption in accordance with God’s intended design for the earth and all humanity.
It is, I think, therefore a fundamental mistake to view disaster, calamity, or catastrophe as the intentional work of God, or of God’s “judgment” upon humanity or upon particular people. Such a view seems contrary to Jesus’ teaching that God makes the sun to shine, and the rains to fall, on the just and unjust alike. (Matthew 5:45) Moreover, the consistent depiction of Jesus in the New Testament is that God is on our side, actively opposed to all that is wrong and out of order with a creation whose corruption he did not ordain and does not desire. The New Testament portrays a God who is actively engaged in battle against evil. This is the portrayal confirmed by Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ actions. He confronts, calls out, and casts out demonic forces. Jesus paints himself, vividly, as an intruder into the domain of evil—like a robber who needs to tie up a strong man before he can ransack his house. (Mark 3:27) To ascribe evil to God is to mistake him for the devil. (Mark 3:22–27) God is engaged in ransacking the home of the devil.
Yet it seems that God sometimes allows evil to run its course. This is part of the point, surely, of the Parable of the Weeds and Wheat. The two grow together and the sower tells his workers not to intervene—not to rip up the whole field, lest the wheat be destroyed in the course of ridding the field of weeds. The Sower waits.
This often seems inexplicable, even cruel, from our human perspective. We cry out against God’s inaction and cry out to God for action and intervention. God, while not responsible for evil in the created order, remains fully capable of intervening, miraculously, in creation to arrest and turn back the progress of evil. Isn’t that the entire message of Christianity, after all? That God intervened dramatically, taking on human form and suffering human death, to defeat evil and ultimately redeem creation in accordance with God’s true intentions and design?
And that brings me back to prayer.
In the end, it is unhelpful to dwell too much on the philosophical and theological problem of evil. For whatever the cause or source of evil, pain, wrong, distress, and disaster, Jesus taught that it is appropriate to pray for God’s miraculous intervention. In fact, He was the living instantiation of God’s miraculous intervention. True, God might not intervene. God’s purposes are incomprehensible to our understanding and are not always the same as our own desires. But it is always appropriate, Jesus taught, to ask him to intervene—to ask boldly, insistently, impertinently, even presumptuously and irritatingly.
That’s the lesson of Luke 11:5–13, what I like to call the “Parable of the Irritating, Insistent Neighbor,” and also of Luke 18:1–8, the “Parable of the Unjust Judge.” These parables are striking, almost amusing—even bordering on the blasphemous (but for their source!)—in their depiction of God as a sleepy, perturbed, uncooperative, reluctant-to-get-out-of-bed, unresponsive neighbor and as a corrupt judge. (A corrupt judge!) But the reluctant neighbor or unjust judge is one who nonetheless relents and does the right thing, in response to the insistent, persistent demands of those who believe he owes them a duty and is not paying sufficient attention. The metaphors are mildly shocking, actually, but the point is clear: God hears and responds to the pleas of his children and will not do wrong.
So: Pray. I encourage you to pray! (I need to encourage myself, too.) Pray with confidence, with assurance that it makes a difference, that God cares and responds. Pray boldly. Pray for God to intervene. Pray for a miracle. Pray for God to arrest the progress of this devilish, demonic disease—to bind the evil strongholds and destroy them. Pray for God to extinguish this virus. Pray for God’s mercy. Pray out your anguish. Pray out your fears.
God responds. Not always the way we want, and not always on our timetable. But God responds. “Ask and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9) And God will do right by his children. If we ask him for a fish, he will not give us a snake. (Luke 11:11)
Now comes the harder part: Trust.
Do not live in fear, no matter what. Live in faith. Trust in God’s ultimate vindication and victory. (Important side note: Living in faith does not mean ignoring social distancing and stay-at-home directives—as, regrettably, some Christians have done. It means just the opposite, as I’ll explain.)
Look for, and expect, miracles. Miracles are possible. Personally, I find this philosophical-theological proposition actually very simple and straightforward. If there is a God who created the universe and all existence, then that God surely is capable of intervening miraculously in His creation. While it is sometimes hard to trust in God’s intervention, it helps to be on the lookout for, and expect to see, miracles. Learn to recognize and embrace miracles, large and small, when you see them.
I’m convinced that sometimes we simply fail to recognize minor miracles as they occur. We just aren’t accustomed to seeing the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. A flattened curve is a minor miracle. Fewer deaths than might otherwise have occurred are a miracle. Recognize positive changes, as they occur, as the responsive hand of God, and be encouraged by that realization. Wait upon, expect, more miracles. (And keep asking for them.) Embrace God’s interventions as they occur and unfold.
Recognize also that God might, can, and does work miraculous interventions through the agency of ordinary human beings. This is part of what we can do as persons of faith, as I will discuss below.
It’s like that somewhat corny sermon illustration, which I think I’ve heard from three or four different pastors now. A man climbs to the roof of his house to escape rising flood waters. A boat comes by to rescue him. But he is a man of faith . . . and therefore waves the rescuer away! “The Lord will provide!” he says. The waters rise higher, and a second boat comes by. Same story: “The Lord will provide!” The motorboat rescuer reluctantly turns away. By now the man is at the tip of his roof. A helicopter arrives and dangles a ladder. The man refuses once again. “The Lord will provide!” The man drowns, goes to heaven, and demands an explanation from God. God responds: “What?! I sent two boats and a helicopter!”
Recognize God’s interventions as they occur, however they occur. Don’t discount them. Look for them. Embrace them. Participate in them.
Which brings me to the third element of a Christian response to the coronavirus. Act properly, in faith. Do the right thing(s).
The natural instinct of many of us is that we want to do something! Lawyers and law students—people, really—are instinctive doers. We want to “go into action” in a practical and meaningful way. We feel frustrated when we can’t.
So, the natural question arises. What can Christians (and other persons of faith) do, concretely, in response to this crisis faithfully? What should we be doing, and what shouldn’t we be doing?
A couple of thoughts:
(a) First and most importantly, break the chain. For many of us, the most heroic thing we can do is to stop doing. The most important practical thing we can do is to stay at home and cease, absolutely as much as possible, our customary, comfortable, and convenient ordinary activities.
Break the chain.
At the same time that we pray to God to break the chains that bind us, we are called to break them ourselves, as possible human instruments of God’s answer to these prayers. Participate in God’s interventions. Break the chain of transmission. All the experts say (and who is to deny that such human knowledge can be the instrument of God’s answer to prayers?) that breaking the chain of transmission is essential to flattening the curve, which is essential to saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Listen to these people.
The best thing to do, for most of us, is not to do things we ordinarily would do.
Christians are enjoined to love their neighbors. In this context, that means staying apart and breaking the chain. To disregard restrictions designed to break the chain—to treat them as not applying to you, or as optional—is to further the transmission of the demonic disease and indirectly to endanger others’ lives.
Of course, some people are called to serve others directly in concrete, material ways. Healthcare workers, food providers, police and firefighters, and others come to mind. Neighbors caring for neighbors who cannot care for themselves are acting as angels of mercy. These cases are different.
The situations I’m thinking about concern unnecessary, willful evasions of pandemic-curtailing restrictions on ordinary activity. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that these restrictions on activity don’t really matter or that they don’t apply to your conduct. You are a link in the chain, and the chain must be broken. Americans (people, really) are not always good at subordinating their individual interests to the common good. Now is the time to prioritize the common good, to rise to the occasion, and to love your neighbor mostly by staying at home and apart, whenever reasonably possible. Maintain fellowship and service, but do this primarily in non-contact forms, as difficult and frustrating as they might be.
And don’t forget that the common good is your good, too. “Love your neighbor as yourself” applies rather literally here. Breaking the chain not only saves others’ lives; it ultimately might save one’s own.
That’s why those pastors who continue to hold large group worship gatherings—well-meaning and faith-filled though they may be—are, I think, seriously mistaken. They believe they are trusting in God. But they are refusing to act as faithful agents of God’s mercy and intervention. To return to the corny sermon illustration, they would turn away the boats and the helicopter at the cost of drowning members of their congregations and their communities. Christian fellowship can and must go on, but it can and must go on in different formats, awkward though they might be. This is not asking too much.
(b) What else can Christians do? Simple: Love one another.
Connect. Share. Express. Communicate. Help others in this way. Live for others and not just for yourself. Live and love as if these days might be among your last on this earth. This is not intended as a remark contemplating impending doom. It has always been true that we should live in the light of the knowledge that our time on this earth is limited. Crisis simply sharpens the mind’s focus on truths that we sometimes ignore when all is going well. So: share your love with family, friends, and neighbors. The time is short and always has been. Live in the light of the realization that we are all mortal.
(c) Finally: prepare for what comes next. I’m not sure that this is specifically “Christian” advice, other than in the sense that it is an act of trust and hope (my last category).
For you, my law students, it might be hard to make yourself do the assigned reading in Constitutional Law. What’s the point, after all? How does that rank, really, in the larger scheme of things?
If it was worth doing before, it is still worth doing now. As people of faith, we should trust that there is worthwhile future to look forward to. If going to law school was worthwhile in the first place, it remains worthwhile. So do your homework.
And that brings me to my last category:
Look forward expectantly to the day when we will come out of this darkness, and prepare for that day in confidence! Hope is the byproduct of trust. Nourish your hope. We can do that by preparing for the day when our prayers are answered, our trust vindicated, our actions (and inactions) rewarded, and our hopes realized.
So get ready! Get ready for the day when health is restored. Get ready for the day when the economy returns and flourishes. Get ready to become a lawyer. Get ready to take the bar exam. Get ready for jobs to return. Get ready for joy to return. Get ready for baseball games, concerts, shows, group in-person worship services, live-classroom classes, and everything else to return. What the world will look like after the virus will be affected by what we do now, during the virus.
Look forward with hope and prepare for the better days that lie ahead! It’s a way to be focused positively and productively. I believe it is a way of being faithful and of trusting in the Lord.
* * * * *
Those are my thoughts, such as they are. Pray, Trust, Act, and Hope. Please take my musings for what they are—the honest, humble reflections of a non-expert brother, trying to work things out as best he can. Take them for what they might be worth.
I realize that not all of you reading this are Christians. And I know from personal experience that some of us who are believers can be weak and wavering in their (our) faith. Situations like this can create a crisis of faith. But my prayer for all of you—for all of us—is that God would not only intervene dramatically to kill this virus, but also that, in the course of doing so, God might strengthen us in our faith and trust, and in our understanding of our ultimate dependence on Him for all of life.
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