What I Learned in the Dark
JUNE 3, 2020
One of the hardest things about writing to you is that I write this letter long before you read it.
I’m writing this in April and you’ll read it in June. It’s the same way with the broadcasts I record and the books I write. Most of the time that doesn’t matter. Truth is truth whenever it’s spoken. And the general themes of these letters, the broadcasts, and the books concern biblical truth that is, like God, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
There are some problems however. I may have told you this before, but in one of my books I quoted the Christian psychologist Gerald May and wrote that he had died. The day the book came out I started getting letters informing me that he was still very much alive. I wrote May an apology, explaining that I had mentioned in my book that he was dead, but it was okay because my books didn’t sell that big anyway. In his kind response to me, May wrote that while he wasn’t dead yet, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and asked that I pray for him which I did daily until his actual home-going in 2005.
As I write this, we are still in quarantine because of the coronavirus. Who knows where we’ll be when you receive this in June? I hope everything will be getting back to some kind of normalcy, but maybe not. Some have said we might have months of social distancing and even the quarantine. Other than how hard it is to smoke my pipe wearing this stupid mask, that irritates me and I don’t know what to do with the irritation. But the real difficulty is that it’s hard to say something relevant about the crisis if, in fact, when you read this, it might be over.
You’ve probably heard Christian teachers say about difficult times that you shouldn’t doubt in the dark what God taught you in the light. That works for me. But let me tell you something else that is also true. Don’t doubt in the light what God taught you in the dark. In other words, this pandemic¾as horrible as it is¾can be a place of growth and learning. As a friend of mine says, one has the past to look forward to. Not only that, one has the past to learn from.
Do you remember the two guys walking on the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24)? Jesus showed and they didn’t even recognize him. After Jesus taught them and then disappeared, Luke wrote that they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” They almost missed it…and him. Just so, if we aren’t careful, we could miss stuff too. It’s important (at least to me) that I not waste the aloneness, fear, and worry by missing the reality that God was in the midst of it all. Paul was, of course, talking about salvation when he wrote to the Ephesians, “Therefore remember…that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12). However, the memories aren’t just about salvation, but often about what God taught us in the dark.
For instance, I was quite busy almost all the time before the pandemic and now I’m not busy at all. Makes me wonder how much of all that was just busy work. Nothing has fallen through the cracks, Key Life is functioning the way it always has, and I have a whole lot of time on my hands without hurrying to do anything. How much of what I was doing wasn’t altogether that important? That’s one of the gifts God gives us in a crisis. We can now see more clearly what is important and what isn’t. I’m a man of prayer and I spend considerable time with Jesus each morning. (I’ll repent of my self-righteousness in telling you that after I finish writing you.) But that time was always hurried and harried because of my long to-do list. That’s not as true during the quarantine and I sense God saying, “Settle down, be quiet, and let’s just sit together for awhile. Where do you think you’re going to go and what do you think you’re going to do…play golf?”
Jesus told his disciples in the midst of a very busy time to come apart from the crowd and to “rest a while” (Mark 6:31). What he didn’t say and should have (I know, but it would have been appreciated) was, “If you don’t come apart and rest, I’ll send a pandemic, and then you won’t have a choice.” If we ever get back to some degree of normalcy, I plan to throw away my to-do list and just be still. Well, at least more still than I was before.
But there’s more. The more you want something and can’t have it, the more you want it. Losing something important is often the way we see its value. Someone has said that we never know the value of something until it becomes a memory. I remember after Hurricane Andrew, when we had lost everything, and we were thirsty and hot a lot of the time, just how good the frozen orange juice was at McDonald’s. They were the first fast food restaurant to open after the hurricane, and they served only hamburgers and frozen orange juice. That orange juice was the best orange juice I ever had and, even to this day, I value and love orange juice more than a Floridian should.
Did you miss (assuming that we can now “have church” without going online) meeting with God’s people at the building that houses the church? The writer of Hebrews said, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…” (Hebrews 10:24-25). If the writer of Hebrews had gone through a pandemic, he or she would have added, “(And underline that! Okay?)”
I’m basically a loner, but this time has been crazy. Anna and I have enjoyed the time together, but we’ve both admitted that we’re lonely. We miss the laughter and camaraderie of friends that can’t be satisfied by a phone call, Facebook, a text, or an email. I find myself often thinking about the Key Life staff, missing their laughter and the common vision we share, along with the joy of making that vision a reality. I miss…well…you get the idea.
Then there is one other thing (there are actually a lot more, but I’m running out of space). As you know, Luther said that we must “preach the gospel to each other lest we become discouraged.” I also miss during this quarantine the friends reminding me that I’m forgiven, and that God is defined by that love and his mercy.
One of the things about having all this extra time is that it’s hard to rationalize our sin and/or to get busy with something else…particularly if that “something else” is religious. It’s hard to live with who we really are.
We just interviewed Brant Hansen, the author of The Truth about Us: The Very Good News about How Very Bad We Are, on our talk show. Brant often asks people if they think that they are more moral than the average person. Almost always (maybe even always) people answer with, “I’m not perfect, but I’m more moral than the average person.”
The introduction to Brant’s book is funny and wonderful: “Dear Everybody, We have a serious problem: All of us think we’re good people. But Jesus says we’re not. Sincerely, Brant P. Hansen. PS: The rest of this book is the PS.”
Brant’s book is kind of convicting, but most of the time when a book or maybe the Holy Spirit convicts me, I can just get busy and distracted, and deal with it. If you’re in quarantine, you can’t do that. So this time has been quite guilt producing for me. It’s just me. (Well, Anna is here too, but we’ve been careful to give each other some wiggle room.) So, in the silence and forced aloneness, I’ve had to ask myself if I really believed the Gospel. I’ve faced the fact that if it isn’t true, I don’t have a prayer.
You don’t either.
That’s bad. No, that’s good. Do you know why? Because when it’s just Jesus and me, it’s all I’ve got and I’ve found that Jesus is enough. In fact, I don’t know when I’ve experienced the good news about how bad I am so much. In the silence and the “safety net” of his unconditional love, he’s been there. I know, even more than I did before the coronavirus, that I’m forgiven and defined by his mercy, not by my obedience and my goodness.
That’s what I learned in the dark.
He told me to remind you.