Monday 13 April 2020

Trusting God through difficulties – five keys to resilience and perseverance

We all face difficulties in life. What is unique about the coronavirus pandemic is that we are all facing the same difficulty at the same time – although its effect on each one of us is different.

But each family has its own story of illness – mental and physical, chronic or terminal. Each family at some time will face loss – of money, possessions, hopes and dreams. Bereavement, failure and disappointment is part of life for all of us at some point. And we all eventually know the pain of broken relationships or loneliness and isolation – be it temporary or permanent. In addition, for Christians there is the promise that in some way or another we will face persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).

People of various worldviews and faiths all have their explanations for suffering. For Muslims it’s about the will of Allah – it’s all fate. For Buddhists, it has to do with unsatisfied desire – it’s in the mind. For Hindus it is payback for past lives - it’s all karma. And for atheists it’s the product of time and chance – it’s just random molecules.

But for Christians who believe in a God who is at once all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving – the question is often raised – why doesn’t he do something about it? Surely, he must know and care and be able to deal with it?

Philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have grappled with this question by devising ‘theodicies’ - explanations for why God might allow suffering.

At one level these usually fall in the category of one of four F’s.

First, we live in a fallen world which is damaged by sin. The breaking of God’s relationship with human beings (through our rebellion and indifference) has led also to a breaking of our relationships with each other and with the planet. War, disease and natural disasters are to be expected in such a world. The whole world is ‘groaning’ (Romans 8:22).

Next is the effect of free will. God has granted human beings, and indeed the devil himself, the ability to make choices. How much of the difficulty in our world results from people (or demons) making bad choices or failing to make good ones?

Third, we need to see difficulties through the eyes of faith. God has higher purposes in suffering which we, from our limited human perspective, may be unable to discern. Suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character, as the Apostle Paul reminds us. (Romans 5:3, 4).

Finally, we need to see suffering in the light of the future. God has unfinished business with this planet and its inhabitants and his intention is to create a new heaven and new earth where there is no suffering (Revelation 21:1-4). Everything will eventually be put right. But he is in no hurry as he wants to give people a chance to turn to him before it is too late. (2 Peter 3:9) And pain and difficulties, as CS Lewis reminds us, are his megaphone to a deaf world.

But the Bible is also a book for life travellers more than armchair philosophers; and travellers ask different questions: How do I get over this next hill or obstacle? Which route do I take at this fork? Don’t expect to know the answers to all life’s mysteries and especially what God’s purposes might be for you personally through them.

And so, we would expect Scripture to be replete of practical advice for travellers – and it is. 

Psalm 13 is a great example, worthy of thousands of words. Facing problems? Keep praying (Psalm 13:1-4), trust in his unfailing love (5), rejoice in his salvation (5) and sing the Lord’s praise (5). All of these are life-transforming exhortations.

But in this post, I want to draw to your attention five keys to resilience and perseverance from one of my favourite chapters in the Bible – Hebrews 12. I hope they will be as much help to you as they have been for me when I need something a little more. Hebrews 12 is a feast of practical instruction – and its appeal is to use our minds to think our way out of bitterness, despair and self-pity.

1.Consider those who have gone before (Hebrews 12:1-4)

The chapter starts with the word ‘therefore’ calling us to look back at what has just been said:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1,2)

Who is this great cloud of witnesses? They are the heroes of faith whose names are listed in Hebrews 11 – Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel and the prophets. Many of them won great victories – but none had a life devoid of suffering and struggle.
Some of them, we are told, were ‘tortured… faced jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning… sawn in two, killed by the sword… persecuted and mistreated.’ (Hebrews 11:35-37).

In comparison many of own burdens pale into insignificance.

But most of all the author bids us to consider Jesus Christ himself, who ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame’ in order to win our salvation. In fact, he put himself through this ordeal for ‘the joy that was set before him’ – the joy of saving us, and of winning us for himself.

Jesus, in his struggles on our behalf, always had the end in view and this is what encouraged him to press on. In the same we need to remember that nothing done in the Lord’s service is ever in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58) and that our labours for him are fruitful (Philippians 1:22) even if there are times when we cannot imagine the fruit, let alone see it with our own eyes.

‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ (Galatians 6:9)

Have we ‘resisted to the point of shedding our blood’? (12:4) Not many of us. So, let us consider those who have gone before – especially Jesus Christ – and think about what they went through before feeling too sorry for ourselves. Let’s instead ‘throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles’. (12:2)

2.Endure hardship as discipline (12:5-12)

‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?’ (Hebrews 12:7)

God uses the hardships we face to build into us the qualities we need to be his effective disciples. ‘Perseverance produces character’ says Paul (Romans 5:4). ‘Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance’, says James. (James 1:2,3)

Just as training hones the athlete and grit produces a pearl in an oyster, so God uses trouble and difficulty to shape and improve us, so that we are more useful to him. This is a mark of his love for us.

So, ‘do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves’. (12:5). Just as our parents’ discipline is a mark of their love for us, so when God brings hardship into our lives it is with a higher purpose of moulding us into his image.

‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’ (Hebrews 12:11)

Often if we are honest, we find ourselves taking exactly the opposite view and assuming that God cannot love us because of what he has allowed us to go through – but in fact he never promised us that life would be easy. Rather Jesus said to his disciples, ‘In this world you will have trouble’. (John 16:33)

How we love to hear the tender words of Jesus, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). But sometimes we actually need him to be tougher with us. Jesus said some unbelievably tough things to his disciples, which they badly needed to hear for their own good.

When Jeremiah was complaining to the Lord about how difficult things were for him as the Lord’s prophet he received a salutary telling off:

‘If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?’ (Jeremiah 12:5)

Effectively God is saying, ‘toughen up. If you think this is bad how are you going to cope with what is coming?’

God disciplines us through the hardships we face in order that he can use us more effectively in the future.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’ (12:11)

So, when we face difficulty a good question to ask is, ‘What is God teaching me through this? What qualities is he building into me as I rise to this occasion?’

3.Make every effort to live in peace and be holy (12:13-17)

Sometimes we can be tempted to grumble against God when we face difficulties. In the Book of Malachi God accuses his people of saying ‘harsh things’ against him. (Malachi 3:13). ‘What are these harsh things?’ they ask. God replies that it is when they say, ‘it is futile to serve God. What did we gain from carrying out his requirements’?

How often we fall prey to this – pouring scorn upon our Lord and Saviour because we don’t like our personal circumstances.

This part of Hebrews 12 warns us of the danger of using hardship as an excuse to stop being serious about our discipleship. Esau is cited as a sobering example in throwing away his inheritance just because he was tired and hungry after a hard day’s work. (12:16)

We need to ensure that we do not fall into bitterness, sexual immorality of fighting with others out of spite for God or because we think that what we are going through gives an excuse for such behaviour.

Living holy lives and living in peace with others are no less our duty when times are tough.
As Peter reminds us, we ‘ought to live holy and godly lives’ as we ‘look forward to the day of God and speed its coming’. (2 Peter 3:13)

This is crucial if we are to commend the Gospel to others. Let’s not use tough times as an excuse for sin.

4.Remember what you have been saved to (12:18-24)

The writer here draws a contrast between the Old Covenant made by the Israelites on Mt Sinai and the New Covenant sealed with the blood of Christ on the mount of crucifixion.

The promised rewards of the former were dependent on obedience to God’s commands (Exodus 19:5, 6) and there were accordingly warnings, commands and punishments for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). But there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

By contrast, the New Covenant is based on God’s grace – his unmerited favour to us through Jesus paying the price for our sins on the cross.

We look forward to the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ (12:22) and a glorious eternity with God. Christians often forget that the rewards in the Christian life are almost entirely in the future.

And it is the glories and delights of heaven that put the sufferings of this life into perspective.

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9) In the light of the eternal glory that is coming, our troubles on earth, however bad, are but ‘light and momentary’ when seen from this perspective. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

5. Remember what you have been saved from (12:25-29)

Keeping our troubles in perspective against the joys of heaven is sobering, but so also is seeing them against the horrors of hell, eternal separation from God.

If God was simply a God of justice, then he would have eliminated humankind at the moment Adam and Eve first sinned. But he is thankfully also a God of mercy, who delays the judgment we all deserve to enable us to repent.

We cannot stand safely in his presence unless we are clothed with the ‘righteousness of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:21) because ‘God is a consuming fire’. (12:29)

The author of Hebrews here reminds us about the fate of people at the time of the Exodus who turned their backs on God.

How much worse will it be if we reject him now, after the coming of Christ.

The threat of coronavirus is nothing compared to facing Jesus Christ unforgiven on the day of judgement so we need to be thankful, reverent and humble before him. (12:28, 29)


Are you tempted to fear, despair or give up? Consider those who have gone before. Endure hardship as discipline. Make every effort to live in peace and be holy. And see things in an eternal perspective – always remember what you have been saved to and what you have been saved from.
Let’s take these five keys to resilience and perseverance to heart as we negotiate these current difficulties.   

Wednesday 1 April 2020

‘Green zones’ for the vulnerable may be a cheap and effective option for preventing coronavirus spread in low-resource settings

US and Western Europe have so far been the hardest hit by the coronavirus with over 80% of cases worldwide - but there’s good reason to think that the Developing World will ultimately suffer most. 

According to a recent report, 40 million lives may be at risk this year (see my previous post here).

Controlling spread of the virus there will be a very different prospect in low-resource settings. What techniques are likely to work best?

A new paper from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is advocating so-called green zoning – rather than quarantining those already infected by the virus (red zoning), those individuals who are both unaffected and vulnerable are protected by being separated off from the rest of the population.

This may appear counterintuitive – after all developing countries have a much lower proportion of older people – in Wales, for example 21% are over 65 whereas in Ethiopia only 3% are.

But the authors identify three reasons why populations in the developing world are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19.

First is reduced social distance. Larger intergenerational households, intense social mixing between the young and elderly, overcrowding in urban slums and displaced people’s camps, and specific cultural and faith practices such as mass prayer gatherings, large weddings and funerals – all lead to higher transmissibility of the virus.

Second is high numbers of vulnerable patients. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like diabetes, hypertension and chronic respiratory disease, undernutrition, tuberculosis and HIV all make it more likely that coronavirus infection will push people over the edge.

Third is weaker health services. Fewer hospital beds, fewer health professionals, less intensive care facilities and poorer infrastructure and healthcare delivery systems. Inadequate water and sanitation make it worse.

The strategies that have worked so effectively in containing the virus in East Asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea – widespread testing and meticulous contact tracing – are very resource-intensive and less easily replicable in low-income and crisis settings.

Lockdowns are also likely to be very harmful for societies in which most live from hand to mouth and have little if any savings. And when people are stretched beyond their ability to cope they are less likely to comply with control measures.

There is also little prospect of scaling up intensive care to the levels required and isolation of cases in dedicated high-intensity wards might offer little benefit as most transmission would still be due to mildly unwell people spreading the virus to close contacts and family members.

For all these reasons, it may be therefore a better use of resources to focus on protecting the vulnerable.

In Ebola epidemics, the aim of isolating the ill into a contaminated ‘red zone’ is primarily to protect the healthy. But with COVID-19, the red zone is everywhere, so it makes more sense to protect those more likely to suffer fatal illness from the rest of the population who are much more likely to survive the infection.

The risk of coronavirus infection increases with age with a particularly high risk among those aged over 70 (or even 60 in low-resource settings) and/or living with NCDs and other immuno-suppressing conditions.

The authors suggest three options for shielding high-risk community members – house-hold level, street-level and neighbourhood or sector level. In the first two arrangements healthier members of the high-risk group could care for those with disabilities.

Stringent infection control measures should operate with all options. The green zone’s boundaries should probably remain virtual, but a single physical entry point, with handwashing facilities, should be established and food and other provisions should only be exchanged through this point.

Given that it may be difficult to isolate at-risk people for long periods the strategy should be discontinued as soon as safe to do so. This could be ascertained by serological testing, which is likely to be very cheap once widely available.

Detailed guidelines need to be developed and other feasible, high-yield interventions should be undertaken simultaneously (eg. staying home if sick, limiting public transport use, reducing super-spreading events at funerals or other mass gatherings, promoting hand-washing, soap distribution).

In the meantime, those who develop symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, continuous cough) would be tested (if possible), isolated and quarantined for 14 days in the usual way (red-zoned), along with their close contacts (family members).

This approach would enable the rest of the community to carry on with normal life with frequent handwashing etc (maybe we could call this the blue zone!), knowing that if they did catch the virus they would be very unlikely to suffer serious symptoms or die. Meanwhile, immunity would build up gradually in the general population.

This simultaneous green zone/red zone approach also has the advantage of avoiding the negative effects of lockdown on the economy and normal life, whilst protecting those most vulnerable, until a time when a vaccine is available to confer longer-lasting protection.

Longer-term, as with other viral illnesses like influenza or HIV, it will be vaccines or antiviral therapies that will best protect people in low-resource settings – but in the meantime, in the absence of these, protection in green zones seems a sensible, practical and low-cost option for reducing mortality.

The protection of the vulnerable resonates well with Christian ethics – and green zones operate on the ‘Passover principle’ where those located in safe places (marked by blood on the lintel) were kept from harm. With Easter coming up soon – this may be a good way to motivate faith leaders, who are often the most trusted voices in developing world communities, to protect their flocks.