Joy + Wisdom: James’ Formula for Addressing COVID-19 and a Complex Culture
As discussed by new BJU Seminary faculty member Billy Gotcher on The Steve Noble Show on Dec. 16.
Over the last nearly two years, churches have been bombarded with an unanticipated COVID-19 pandemic and a “woke” culture. Pastors, church leaders, and members have all faced confusion, dislocation and sometimes even financial disaster.
No wonder recent Barna organization research reveals 38% of pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year — up a stunning nine points (from 29%) this year.
At the church I pastored until recently — Trinity Baptist Church in Williston, Vermont — it helped to remember that unexpected circumstances are not new to the people of God and that we are not lacking answers. In fact, several answers come from the Apostle James, himself most likely a pastor!
You think it’s tough being a Christian today? Try being one in the Roman Empire! James helped the new believers navigate the potentially paralyzing fear and danger they faced during a sudden, deadly persecution in and scattering from Jerusalem. His formula: to respond and work through unanticipated events in ways that display our faith in God’s goodness and dependence on Him.
“Count It All Joy”
Immediately after greeting the 12 tribes in the Dispersion, James instructs these scattered peoples that their trials required confronting their knowledge of God and His goodness and that their response was helping them see the condition of their faith:
“Count it all joy … when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4, ESV).
Likewise, our response to trials today should be rooted in what we know about God and His ways. Psalm 119:68 explicitly states of God, “You are good and do good.”
What good is God doing through our present struggles? James tells us that God is developing steadfastness in us to bring us to the spiritual maturity (“lacking in nothing”) we all desperately need. We can hear that truth in the voice of the psalmist as he writes: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes (Ps. 119:71).”
Initially, our flesh opposes affliction. But faith enables us to know God is good and trust that He will produce good in us. There is no other way to “count it all joy” during hardship.
This quest for joy also guided the New England Association of Christian Schools (NEACS), where I served as president, through COVID-19. NEACS countered isolation with a virtual fine arts event and a virtual teachers conference. What could be more joyful than sharing God’s goodness in students’ creativity, or more uplifting than bearing one another’s burdens face-to-face across distances?
As the pandemic continues in unexpected directions, we must challenge and encourage each other to pursue joy together.
Consider: How can we overcome fear to meet with one another? Or even move ahead with a bold new project or a fundraising endeavor to close financial gaps?
Seek Wisdom — and Unity — from God
But James doesn’t stop with joy. He continues in verse 5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God.” Our culture is overloaded not with wisdom but information, much of it untrustworthy. Resulting differences in theological viewpoint and level of concern are prime circumstances for church division.
Keep in mind that our lack of wisdom is a fact, not a question. We like to have answers, but we often don’t. This uncertainty in trial points us to our greatest need — God and His certain Word.
That’s why, after acknowledging God’s goodness and sovereignty by “counting it all joy,” we, in humble dependence, must seek His wisdom and then apply and unite around these truths of His Word:
“Ask God:” The intended outcome of a church facing unexpected circumstances or trials is to be a praying church. Different than a church that prays, a praying church is prepared to ask God to work in their lives. And as God changes our lives, to penetrate hopeless communities around us with our hope and confidence in Him.
Consider: Does your church have intentional, organized communal prayer? (Trinity Baptist Church maintained special prayer meetings throughout the pandemic).
2. Think of others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), and “do not speak evil against one another” (James 4:11).
James 4:1 says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Then James 4:11 cautions, “The one who speaks against a brother judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.” We all struggle with the prideful desire to be right and knowledgeable amidst all the uncertainty. And it’s tempting to judge others who reach different conclusions, especially on social media. This passion leads to quarrels.
So be humble, remembering we can’t always know what information is accurate or how to respond to it. And understand that as long as each person is actually seeking God’s wisdom and abiding by his conscience, he or she is acting responsibly before God.
Consider: How is your church counseling members in social media restraint? For additional resources, read previous blog posts “The Tale of Your Tongue — and Texts” and “The Theology of Media Technology.”
3. Prioritize love, care and support for other believers (James 2:14-17, 5:13-20).
In the midst of confusion and isolation, developing a culture of discipleship and mutual care is more crucial than ever.
Consider: What opportunities is your leadership creating to spend time with other believers so they can sharpen each other, meet others’ needs and, when necessary, engage in thoughtful in-person correction?
Through James’ formula — a common search for sources of joy in trials and others-oriented wisdom from God, not ourselves or other human sources — we can protect the unity of the body and the unity of truth. In doing so, we can rise above any challenge a virus or culture can throw at us to achieve God’s will. We need only to learn to humbly ask our infinitely-wise God to help us do the next right thing. Praise Him that we can trust Him to work all things together for our good and His glory!