Occasionally, life seems to jolt badly out of kilter, and things seem more uncertain than normal. Sometimes it happens quickly, as when an accident consumes our attention, and sometimes it unfolds slowly like a storm moving in from over the far horizon. Sometimes it’s personal and limited—long COVID strikes a loved one; our job is lost because the company downsizes; a storm blows down a tree onto our roof; our water heater gives up the ghost and leaks all over the basement floor. Sometimes it is wider in scope—our church faces scandal; violent crime increases in our neighborhood; our society becomes deeply and angrily divided. But whether it’s limited and personal or wider to involve an entire church or society, quick or slow, one thing is certain, and that is the uncertainty we feel is unsettling.
As followers of Jesus, we believe the world is broken and so we shouldn’t be all that surprised at such things, but sometimes the brokenness surprises us anyway. Francis Schaeffer used to say that Bible-believing people should never have the experience of being shocked, but sometimes we are anyway. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, and though not much has changed objectively it feels as if everything is in flux. And sometimes things are in flux—societies become divided, good people do very bad things, institutions implode, cultures shift, civility evaporates—and we are confronted with a menu of options we weren’t expecting. At times the trouble seems more acute or more painful or more hopeless or more persistent than we anticipated. Whatever the details, the question we face at such moments is what we should do. More specifically: how should we respond when we are uncertain how to respond?
That’s the question: How should we respond when we are uncertain how to respond?
I’ve been pondering this question for a few months, and as I have, I’ve been continually drawn back to three texts of Scripture. Each were written in times of trouble, division, pain, and uncertainty. And each provides not just insight but instruction on how to live in such a setting. In other words, they apply to me and you, today. So, please read them with care—I’d recommend more than once—for this is the Word of the Lord.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8, emphasis added]
Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one. [1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, emphasis added].
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:4-9, emphasis added]
Although all three texts were composed in times of great social, political, religious, and personal difficulty, the historical setting of each is quite different. Those differences matter, of course, but what strikes me as significant is that even in very different periods of history, our Lord expects something similar from his people. He does not call for activism, or programs, or resistance, or retreat, or culture warring. He calls for faithfulness in the ordinary and routine of life.
The prophet Micah reminds us that we are called to live justly, with kindness, and humility. The apostle Paul tells the followers of Jesus to aim to live quiet lives, minding their own business, faithfully working in their vocations. And Jeremiah instructs the exiles in Babylon to build homes, raise families and gardens, pray, be discerning, and seek the good of Babylon. It is noteworthy that all this is radical but not extraordinary, not limited to an elite few but within the reach of ordinary believers like you and me.
Now, I realize that a few of us may be positioned in society or the church so that some action is required of us if we are to be faithful. Perhaps we are directly involved in the political process or in ecclesial leadership at some level. If so, some sort of activism may be part of our calling. Most of us, however, are not so positioned. Nevertheless, our instinct may be to become involved, to act, to do something, anything. Where did we get this compulsion to try to fix everything? And to believe we could accomplish it? Still, the need is not the call, and so the impulse should be resisted. We need not feel guilty when we decline the invitation of activists to join them. For some reason, everyone assumes that their faithfulness is the model for everyone else’s faithfulness. It isn’t.
But, let’s return to our question: How should we respond when we are uncertain how to respond? I’d suggest these three texts instruct us to return to square one, to the basics of what we know to be true about Christian faithfulness. To the deeply human principles rooted in God’s love as demonstrated by Christ.
This is part of what I so appreciate from my time with Edith and Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri Fellowship. When cultures and generations change, as they have in America since the Sixties, the basic principles remain valid even if we need to find different forms in which to practice them. And the principles Margie and I learned from them and saw demonstrated by them day by day remain as relevant as they were 40 years ago.
First, we are not called to change the world or solve its problems. That is the calling of the Messiah, and he will fulfill his calling. You and I are called to be faithful in the ordinary and routine of our lives. It is what we can manage, what we are gifted to work at, and where God’s gracious Spirit meets us with resurrection power. Leave the extraordinary things to the One that is seated at God’s right hand in power and majesty, world without end.
Second, being faithful involves going back to the deeply human, loving practices that mark those who live by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Warm welcome and acceptance, even to those who differ from us. An open home of hospitality. Shared simple meals. Unhurried conversation. Careful listening and asking questions. Authentic faith that doesn’t need to have all the answers. Saying “I don’t know” when I don’t know. Being grateful for stiff challenges to our faith. Being a place of safety. Sharing good music, poetry, and art. Reading good stories aloud.
Ah, but someone will say at this point—this is all fine, but it won’t transform the church or the world. Please reread the first point above.
Third, intentionally and consciously live under Christ’s Lordship. He is Lord over all of history, reality, life, and culture. This fact has several vital implications. It means that our faith, rooted in the truth of God’s word revealed in Jesus, the living word, in creation, the created word, and in scripture, the written word, has something intelligent and creative to speak into every aspect of existence. It means we must resist politicization, even though it is all the rage. It means that when we are being faithful in our little corner of created reality, we are doing kingdom work. It means we do not know how God will choose our faithfulness, but we do know he is good and can be trusted. And together, as God’s people are faithful the kingdom of God is manifested across lands and nations and cultures.
And fourth, follow your own calling, giftedness, in the setting you find yourself. Don’t try to copy anyone because there is no formula. Learn from them, certainly—if someone makes a dynamite soup, watch how they make it and ask for the recipe. But when you serve the soup to friends it need not be on a table like theirs or as part of an evening like they would host. Feel free to experiment. We are finite creatures and so we learn by doing and evaluating and trying again. Be creative. Start simply. People are lonely though they might be hesitant to admit it. Hospitality by itself is transformative and life-giving.
I would argue that an uncertain world needs to see people of hope living justly, with kindness, and humility; content with quiet lives, minding their own business, faithfully working in their vocations; welcoming neighbors into dining and living rooms, unafraid to demonstrate what it means to pray in active dependence on God, to be thoughtful and discerning, and always seeking the good of the city in which they find themselves living as exiles.
Going back to square one is not retreat, but progress in faithfulness.
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