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Life on the Edge: Discipleship in the Age of the Coronavirus

by Karl "KJ" Johnson
City Director, C.S. Lewis Institute – Chicago

The coronavirus has us all on edge. Whether you’re in a high-risk category and are more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19 or you’re worried about loved ones who are at risk; whether you’re concerned you’ll lose your job or you’re nearing retirement and your investments are taking a hit: we’re all on edge in some way.

We’re also on edge as we wait. We wait for answers. We wait for the latest news. Are we flattening the curve? When will we have a vaccine? When can we re-open the economy? Will there be a second wave of this virus? Many unanswered questions haunt us as our “normal lives” take an unexpected turn.

And lest we trivialize the problems others face, let’s be honest: these are the concerns of the more fortunate among us. What about those who’ve already lost their jobs? What of those who were already struggling financially before all of this, who have maybe even lost their homes or jobs? Or those who are more isolated than those of us with families and friends nearby?

Life on the Edge

Christianity offers no pat answers in such times. Sure, there is no shortage of trite responses, but those are usually things we say when consoling others going through a crisis, when we don’t know what else to say.

But this time it’s different.

The spread of the coronavirus is unique in that it’s impacting everyone at the same time. We all face the spectre of the crisis to some degree, and we must each wrestle with its implications and questions. No one gets a pass on this; this is not a catastrophe in another part of the world or another region of the United States. It’s an immediate and present dilemma for each of us, and it’s altered our lives and forced us to consider a myriad of questions and concerns.

One of the biggest concerns of this crisis is the one that has kept philosophers and theologians occupied for centuries – death. I’m reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis, “There are...only three things we can do about death: to desire it, to fear it, or to ignore it.”[1]

The majority of us live each day as if it’s the first of many more, blithely ignorant that death lurks just around the corner, as the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 103.[2] We are shocked by death, and we try to avoid the topic and shake its reality. But the crisis of the coronavirus has, in at least one sense, changed nothing. It’s only served to force us to see reality as it truly is.

In an essay titled “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis makes this clear:

I think it is important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war [and, here, we could say the coronavirus]creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.[3]

What Lewis is saying here is that nothing has really changed. Things like the coronavirus or natural disasters or war do not change reality; they do not fundamentally create new situations. They only “aggravate” the human condition such that we cannot turn a blind eye to just how fragile and tenuous life is.

The coronavirus has highlighted our mortality and accentuated the limit of control we have over our lives.

More to Lewis’s point: the coronavirus has not ultimately increased the number of global deaths. Death is certain. None of us gets out of this world alive. What it has done is accelerate the death rate and bring death and sickness close enough that we cannot easily ignore it.

While He walked the earth, Jesus Christ told his followers, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”[4] We usually consider these words in less stressful times to remind ourselves not to worry, to trust God. But how much do we really bank on these words?

Unless we’re facing death, our own or that of a loved one, these words are often a platitude we use to anesthetize ourselves from reality. We don’t really know what we believe until it becomes a matter of life or death.[5]

I recall – moments after watching my younger brother succumb to cancer – setting a challenge before God by saying, “God, you better be real.” This was not a fit of doubt or anger, but more a plea for God to help me in that moment. It was my own moment of, “I believe; help my unbelief!”[6]

But more than facing death, we must also consider other implications of living on this precipice. Fear, anxiety, and apprehension: these are not easily defeated. The cares of the world are new each day. It’s a daily struggle, not a one-time battle.

Consider two thoughts on this. First, from James, the brother of Jesus:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.[7]

We are not guaranteed an easy life; Christianity is no Pollyanna religion. There is no promise that our lives will be a rose garden. Quite the opposite. We are oft reminded that we will suffer, both as Christians as a result of our discipleship and simply as members of this fallen world.

Yet James says to count this as joy. Why? Because when we are tested we grow in our faith, in our confidence in Christ, and in our Christlikeness. It’s like resistance training. Weightlifters know that to achieve results, they need to increase the weight they lift. The life of discipleship is not unlike this: it’s a daily effort. Either we engage in spiritual fitness each day or we acquiesce to spiritual flabbiness. God uses times like these to refine us, to perfect and complete us.

But there’s another angle to consider, and it’s one against we must guard ourselves. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes that, “There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against [God]. [God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; [Satan’s desire] is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”[8] The more we focus on “the precipice” the less we look to God, and the less we live our discipleship faithfully. It’s similar to what happened when Peter was walking on the water: as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, he was fine. The moment he shifted his focus to his situation, he sank.

Easy for us to say, right? We weren’t the ones on the water, and we have the benefit of hindsight when reading that story, or any story recorded in Scripture. We have the advantage of a narrator’s perspective and weren’t caught in the midst of those stories. But we are in the midst of things now, and we have to discern a way forward.

I find these words from Alan Fadling helpful: “When our situation becomes ambiguous and unclear, what we need first is not situational clarity but a fresh vision of God with us.”[9] What we need in times like these, to defeat anxiety and fear and to grow more perfect and complete, is to turn to God, consider His ways, recall His faithfulness and His character, and ask Him to help our unbelief, even if it’s not unbelief in Him, per se, but unbelief in how this situation will end.

I do not presume to know the mind of God, and we should each be careful not to read too much into what God is doing or allowing. But we are on safe grounds to consider Paul’s reminder that “...for those who love God all things will work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”[10] And in my own turning to God, I’m challenged by my own mentor, the President Emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute. In a recent essay he wrote, “Turning to God is not a sentimental glance in his direction but a focus on who He is and a confident trust in him to be with us and to help us.”[11]

Our lives have been upended in one fashion or another. Till now, most of us lived fast-paced lives in which we scarcely had free moments to focus on God save for those moments we spare on Sundays and maybe in a small group. We fail to feed on His Word regularly and abide in Him. Maybe God is using this, at least for those of us in the West, to get our attention. C.S. Lewis wrote that, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[12]

In these times, as those who love God, let’s cling to this reminder, this promise. Don’t fall in love with your own idea of what “good” might look like, but know that He knows what’s best. Let’s not live in fear or anxiety. Instead, let’s consider these words of C.S. Lewis:

A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.[13]


[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1967), p. 81.
[2] Psalm 103:15a (ESV): “As for man, his days are like grass...”
[3] C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (HarperSanFranciso, 2001), p. 49(emphasis mine).
[4] Matthew 6:34 (ESV).
[5] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), p. 20-21.
[6] Mark 9:24.
[7] James 1:2-4 (ESV).
[8] C.S. Lewis, “Letter 6”, The Screwtape Letters (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 25.
[9] Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Leader: The Lasting Fruit of Daily Influence(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2017), p. 63 (emphasis mine).
[10] Romans 8:28 (ESV).
[11] Thomas A. Tarrants, III, “Don’t Be Afraid: God is in Control”, C.S. Lewis Institute website.
[12] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Touchstone: New York, 1996), p. 83(emphasis mine).
[13] C.S. Lewis, "Learning in War-Time", op cit., p. 61.

 

 


Karl “KJ” Johnson

Karl "KJ" Johnson, Lt.Col., USMC (Ret.) is the Director of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Chicago where he oversees programs that foster the discipleship of heart and mind. He’s been a C.S. Lewis Fellow since 2008 and holds a Masters in Military Studies (Marine Corps University) and two Masters of Arts from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Systematic Theology and Philosophy of Religion). KJ retired after 20 years in the Marine Corps where he served as a helicopter pilot, operations officer, and weapons and tactics instructor. He’s a veteran of numerous deployments as well as multiple humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions—most notably Operation Unified Assistance (2004 tsunami) where he served as the Air Mission Commander for former Presidents George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton.

 

COPYRIGHT: This publication is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.

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