Covid-19 has taken us all down a road of loss and pain. The loss comes in many forms – from actual loss of life and loved ones, through financial loss, loss of normal activity and loss of livelihood, to loss of human contact and freedom of choice and movement. The pain comes from the loss, of course, but it also comes in the shape of added burdens: the pain of NHS staff overwhelmed with desperately sick patients, the pain of those in authority having to make near-impossible choices, and so on.
Paul’s journey to Rome has something to say about this. It tells us that, despite appearances, God is at work for a good purpose in the midst of the loss and the pain. How do I know this? Because, looking closely at Paul’s journey, we can see that in some ways his experience mirrors the experience of Jesus as he goes to the cross.
Jesus is subjected to a series of trials: before the Jewish Council, before Pilate and before Herod. Paul is also put through a series of trials: before the Jewish Council, before Felix the Governor, before Festus his successor and before King Agrippa.
As Jesus hangs on the cross there comes a moment when darkness overshadows the whole land for three hours. As Paul and his companions are being buffeted by the storm “neither sun nor stars appeared for many days”.
The death of Jesus looks like the end of all hope; it brings his followers to despair. But, the other side of death, he rises to new life and his followers are commissioned to bring hope to the world. The storm at sea brings those on board the ship to a place where “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned”. But, under Paul’s guidance, those on board are all saved and Paul goes on to proclaim the gospel in Rome “with all boldness and without hindrance”.
Being a disciple of Jesus means following Jesus, including following Jesus in the way of the cross. Paul is doing just that. And, in following Jesus, he becomes more like Jesus. To use Paul’s own words, he is being “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son”.
This is not a special experience for apostles but the core experience of all Christians. God takes the harsh and difficult experiences of our lives and uses them to shape in us more of the character of Jesus, more of the divine family likeness:
“… we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters”. (Romans 8.28-29)
This is something God does. He takes what life throws at us and makes it work for good. And that’s different for all of us. There is no predetermined set of experiences we all have to go through. For each of us, life will provide plenty of material.
Years ago, in the midst of a personal crisis and feeling confused about what God was doing in my life, I decided to read the book of Job. The first twenty-two chapters didn’t mean a great deal to me, but then chapter 23 came and hit me between the eyes:
Even today my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.
If only I knew where to find him;
if only I could go to his dwelling…
But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.
The words of Job both expressed my confusion and helped me see (just a little) of what God might be doing. “When he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold”. That is the purpose of God for all of us.
We have a part to play. We can respond to the harsh realities of life with bitterness and unbelief, or with faith and trust. The tough times in life may be (probably will be) profoundly distressing and disturbing. But we still have a choice about how to respond.
More of that in my next post.
One thought on “Pandemic Journey 2”
We have been studying these chapters in Acts at our church but I hadn’t seen the parallel with darkness. And then Paul is resurrected from the depths for a short time longer on earth until he goes to glory.