By David Jones
I’m worried about something I’m hearing: people going to church or other functions without protection, saying that their God is stronger than this virus.
I believe that’s true, but it’s not the problem. The problem is that irresponsible behavior is being promoted as a test of faith.
Going into crowded environments—no masks, lots of physical contact—all sorts of things actual medical professionals advise against during a pandemic. In August 2014, people flipped out when one American doctor was coming home for treatment after he fell sick with Ebola overseas.
Some Americans said he shouldn’t be allowed to come home and survive; they believed letting even one case of Ebola into their country was the end of the world. Now there’s a disease far more easily transmitted all over the place and it’s like it’s no big deal. Maybe going back to our old patterns seems more important than the bug.
But it’s understandable, really. In a world where folks struggle with such unbelievably sweeping changes in their lives—holidays and funerals become virtual events, masks become requirements, living rooms become “my office” and “my daughter’s school,” some businesses can’t survive, dinners “for here or to go?” just become “to go”—foregoing in-person religious services might be a bridge too far.
Religious traditions are among the strongest human bonds. So, of course in this Covid-19 era, with Easter and Passover being celebrated via apps, and with the Hajj being canceled for a majority of Muslims, it may seem like our very faith is being attacked and stripped from us.
The problem seemed to emerge when leaders told their flocks not to be afraid of the virus.
“Why be afraid? Where’s your faith? Fear is the enemy and God is the answer!” Suddenly going to church in person seems like the ultimate act of faith. But I’m worried they’ve forgotten an important lesson from the Bible that bears remembering. It’s in two gospels:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
This is very important, because the same temptation appears to be rampant today: proving one’s reliance on God by doing something foolish and reckless just so He can protect them from the consequences of bad decisions. That’s not a pure act of faith. It’s putting God to the test.
This isn’t an attack on their faith, it’s a call to open one’s eyes to the reality around us all. Faith can be a great shield, but it’s not a good Hazmat suit.
Think: if it was such a good idea to prove God’s protection by doing something ill-advised, why is it that the very notion was presented by Satan and denounced by Jesus?
At Hebrews 10:25 Christians are instructed not to abandon the habit of gathering together. That’s wise counsel for us all, no matter what our religion or lack thereof. Gathering together is what communities do, to strengthen and encourage those who need it most.
But the author of Hebrews was addressing Christians at a time when being one wasn’t very safe. Persecution was afflicting the young church, so some stopped gathering together for fellowship. Since we live in the Covid Age, we should all still congregate together, but wisely. With the dangers of infection, that means virtual gatherings such as by phone or the internet.
Yeah, I know it’s not the same. You miss the people in your congregation, Sangha, or community. You’ve lost your routine, your feeling of connection and of togetherness. We’re all feeling that, trust me. But changing the form of our traditions doesn’t mean we’re abandoning them.
There was a time when the traditions we have now were established by people who left their former traditions behind to create the ones we’re familiar with today. I’ll bet some of them didn’t like having to change at the time either.
When I was a Witness in the early 2000’s, people who were house-bound and sick couldn’t go to the Kingdom Hall, so it came to them. We had a telephone number for folks to dial in and listen to the whole program.
Sometimes we had ten folks listening, not able to be present in body but certainly present in the most important ways. No one complained about having to do it, it was a blessing and was viewed as such even though it was different and not what they wanted the most. At least they were gathering together.
Perhaps what needs to happen isn’t a removal of restrictions for physical gathering, but a removal of the stigma we’re placing on physically avoiding large groups. We can pray and observe our traditions and practices just fine at home. To believe that the only acceptable way to observe one’s faith is in a specific building or around specific people, is to minimize God. That’s not honoring the divine, it’s diminishing it. Stop trying to determine the limits of where and how God and His spirit are allowed to function.
The real challenge right now is the one to honor Jesus and his lesson in the wilderness. He refused to put God to the test and act selfishly so God could prove His protection. Don’t forsake the gathering together in safe ways, and don’t put God in the position of having to rescue you when you intentionally go against good advice. Now is the time to show wisdom.
Editor: John Lee Pendall