Right now, it seems the world is on fire.
And, ironically, that’s why we need to get some time with Jesus.
Spiritual disciplines matter all the time, but we need to be reminded of that in tumultuous times.
Over the past three decades the topic of spiritual disciplines has experienced something of a renewal. Writers like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Don Whitney, and others have shown believers the importance of, to use Whitney’s phrase, disciplining ourselves for the pursuit of godliness. Walking with Christ in the practice of spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, worship, and service helps believers in all seasons, including times of certainty.
The coronavirus has provided plenty of uncertainty just now.
However, it is circumstances like this that remind us that we need to lean in to God in times like these.
Ironically, I wrote about spiritual disciplines as an aid to help us deal with stressful times in my book Christians in an Age of Outrage . While I was talking there about how to focus on those practices that help to focus us on Christ can direct us to a godly response to outrage, I believe they are even more useful as we daily watch the news updates on COV-19.
Followers of Christ are frequently called disciples in the New Testament. The terms discipline and discipleship come from the same root, right? A person can be disciplined and not be a disciple of Jesus, but can one be a disciple of Jesus and be undisciplined?
The coronavirus offers the Christian community both an opportunity and an inventory. It provides places where we can serve the Lord and others, and it will test the depth of our discipleship. Will we surrender to fear, or will we trust the Lord and serve others?
I want to suggest three primary disciplines to help us live godly lives in this particularly tense time. I want to categorize these three in terms of inputs, outputs, and necessities.
First, we input truth through Scripture.
In a world of information overload and too many choices (168 kinds of cereal at the local supermarket, for example), amid a sea of fake news and clickbait, how do we discern truth and avoid overreacting to the information we want and need?
We lash ourselves to the Bible.
We need to return again and again to the Word of God to reorient our worldview. We do need to be aware of the best wisdom on the coronavirus and be wise in our personal response and as local churches. But we start with Scripture and we look to it for hope and wisdom. Like a car badly out of alignment, if we are careless with the information we consume, we will inevitably end up in a ditch of being swayed by worry.
Bible reading, memorization, meditation, and study keep our gaze on the path the Lord has set before us and helps us to pull against the currents to stay attuned to him.
In a world that doesn’t always regard believers in noble ways and in a time of uncertain days, immersing in biblical content reminds us of our identity. We aren’t as likely to place our security in the markets, the white house, the courts, or our circumstances when we are daily reminded our security is in a God who is both sovereign and who can be trusted.
Second, we output our concerns through prayer.
Paul had reason to be concerned as he sat incarcerated while writing the Epistle to the Philippians. Yet, in Philippians 4:6-7, he reminded his readers:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Don’t be anxious. Instead, pray. And, pray with thanksgiving.
Studies show that people who begin their day writing at least three things for which they are grateful show a remarkable decline in anxiety. That’s anyone. How much more is this true for believers who begin their day in prayers of gratitude to God.
In our current context, we can cry out to God with our needs, knowing God cares. And we can be grateful, even while the immediate future is unclear.
Scripture tells us many times where prayer was given before engagement with the world happened: Nehemiah before speaking to the king (Neh. 1:4-11); Paul asked for prayer for a future door for the gospel (Col. 4:3-4); and Jesus, prior to the cross, prayed to his Father (Luke 22:41-44).
Before reading the news update, pray. Before posting on social media, or before replying in haste, pray.
Third, fasting shows the necessity of God being in our midst.
Our consumer culture has made fasting the least practiced of disciplines. We live in a time where we struggle to distinguish between what we truly need and what we want. Discipline, someone said, is choosing what you want most over what you want now.
Only right now we have a pandemic in front of us. In days past in times of famine farmers in a community would gather to fast and pray for their crops. It might be a helpful practice for believers to fast for a meal (or more) and take that time pray regarding the coronavirus.
Fasting brings that reality to the forefront as we willfully and prayerfully abstain from the very food that gives us life to be reminded our ultimate need is for the Lord. In my book Christians in an Age of Outrage, I state: “Fasting is designed to reorient our hearts to God and to reveal our dependency upon him and the complete insufficiency of this world to meet our needs.”
Spiritual Practices in Tumultuous Times
We face short term uncertainty with the virus in our midst; we can turn to these practices to remind us certainty remains: our God Is here, he is not silent, and he is at work. Maybe it’s a good time for each of us to hit pause, refocus our minds in the Word, reflect more in prayer, and resist knee-jerk reactions by seasons of fasting.
We may find our lives becoming better for it in the middle of dark times, and we may make a better impact on our world than we knew.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange team helped with this article.
See Christians in an Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst Tyndale, 2018).