Charismatic Christians, Crisis, and Coronavirus: Part I
We all, as Charismatic Christians, have ways of dealing with a crisis. Mine, as my family will tell you, is to become even more controlling; I set up routines, rotas, and rhythms – pretty much straightaway. I even clean! It makes me feel so much better. One of my sons said his first response is to go to comfort food and video games. Then after an initial flop, he rights himself to get on and do things. My husband withdraws. He prays, but he also withdraws. And at some point, our whole family craves good food, time together, and a really good laugh.
Similarly, different theological traditions prepare us to deal with crises in different ways. We’ll revert to the familiar whatever that might be: worship music, daily offices, contemplative prayer, Lectio Divina, Bible studies, prayer groups. Look at how much we’re trying to keep everything going even though everything has changed. We probably won’t be able to develop new habits until we’ve got over the initial shock and start to think, what might we do now that will nourish us, comfort us, and sustain us? In the first instance, we’ll gravitate to what we know. Later down the line, depending on how long this goes on, we might begin to think, what more could I do to cope/survive, even thrive at this time?
We all have good habits and bad habits, and good habits that can become bad habits when exaggerated in a crisis. Similarly, we all have good and bad spiritual habits, and good habits that can become bad habits. We have default positions that perhaps we don’t even think about very much and some of those will be helpful—daily prayer, reading the scriptures, caring for others. However, we all know that in a trauma, much of our ‘normal’ behaviour is tested and challenged in ways we’re not really prepared for, and even the most disciplined of us can unravel and just end up feeding whatever needs we have for comfort at the time.
Right now we are facing an enormously testing, difficult, and frightening time. People are facing the reality of death, others are losing jobs, families are strained, businesses are in danger of going under. We in the West haven’t lived through a time like this for decades. (Obviously, those in war zones and countries hit by huge natural disasters have faced similar and worse trauma in recent history.) And now we know that however long this goes on there is going to be the immediate trauma and shock of what the virus is doing to us, and then the long-term trauma of the effects on communities, cities, and nations. As someone said the other day, count how many times your pastor says ‘unprecedented’ in their Sunday sermon. It’s true that this is unprecedented for us who are alive today, but there are many precedents in history, in one form or another, for what we are facing today. There have been multiple times when plagues have swept through nations and continents, spreading fear and panic, causing untold destruction and robbing people of the sense that life is under their control. This is not new. It is new for us.
It’s awful being confronted with our own powerlessness against something that we can’t even see and that we certainly are struggling to control. Naturally, at these times, we seek safety, security, comfort, and certainty. Everybody wants that. In a very real way, God offers all those things, but I would say probably not in the way that we want. What we want to know is that everything is going to be okay. We and all our loved ones will come through unscathed and everything will return to normal just as soon as possible. Please, God, would you do that? What is being predicted is that things are going to get worse before they get better, and it’s likely that in one way or another every nation will be affected by the hardship and grief of this virus. The younger generations will never forget it. So how will we respond and cope as Christians and what can we do in times of trial and fear?
Asking Some Questions
In some ways, I’m nervous of putting anything in writing while we’re in the middle of a crisis. I have a fear of saying something that I’ll regret and who knows what’s up ahead. I also don’t want people to imagine that I think I have some kind of superior perspective. I don’t think I do. I have been feeling burdened though, to express some things at this time. I’m a theologian, a theological educator, and a pastor within a tradition that has its own habits: good ones, bad ones, and good ones that can become bad ones. I’m watching some of them manifest in this crisis both in myself and in others and am thinking there are things we’re missing and things we really could and should encourage one another to do better. I do love the charismatic church…but…the truth is we’re great at some things and terrible at others. Some of the things that we’re saying and doing now are brilliant. Others are really not going to help in the long run, and still others are just wrong. They’re not going to help us because they are ideas and practices that don’t have a strong biblical foundation or theological pedigree and so they won’t stand the gruelling test of a crisis. At best, they’ll sound empty and hollow in the end. At worst, they’ll disappoint and mislead people who are genuinely seeking God.
What follows are some of my reflections that have come about through conversations with my family, friends, and colleagues on how we might hold on to God when all around us is being shaken in a way that we in our generation haven’t faced before. At all seasons and at all times it’s good for us as a church to ask ourselves,
How can we be more Christlike and more loving?
How can we be more faithful to the gospel?
What could we be doing better?
It’s even more important in a crisis because the world is so vulnerable already and will be so easily wounded if and when we get it wrong.
Here are some things I see. I’m sure there’s more, but this is just some of my initial reflections.
Charismatic Beliefs and Practice: the good side
Charismatic Christians have strong beliefs in God’s involvement in every aspect of life. We talk about his tangible presence in the power of the Holy Spirit and we hear his voice through prophetic words. We believe in things like the power of healing for today, miraculous provision from God, and signs and wonders. We also have a high view of the role of humanity in the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Human beings can participate with God as his co-workers to bring his Kingdom of salvation, healing, wholeness, and shalom. In short, our expectations of God are high, and we have work to do.
I see these two theological principles working out very strongly in three really positive and concrete ways.
First of all, we pray. We’ll be praying and gathering people (virtually) to pray. We’ll pray for everything and everyone. We’ll pray overnight. We’ll fast and pray. We’ll keep praying and we won’t give up. And what’s more, we’ll believe that it will make a difference. This is a good habit. People want and need prayer. They know they have nowhere to turn but to God and having a church offering to pray for their every need will be received as love, as it should be.
Secondly, we’ll do. My social media has been flooded with stories of the churches I’m connected to mobilizing rapidly to feed the hungry, and to care for the vulnerable and the elderly. There is no end to how people can serve at this time and the expectation in my circles is that everyone will do something. This is because we’ve been trained to think we can make a difference to lives around us and that showing the love of God means helping out.
Thirdly, we’ll probably give. Charismatic Christians regularly share stories of miraculous provision, often linked to generosity, even (or perhaps especially) in times of scarcity. We foster a culture of giving and I’d be surprised if it dries up in adversity.
I’m glad to be part of a church with those habits. However, there are things that aren’t so helpful though. Here’s a few.
A good habit is that we believe that God speaks to us through the Bible and we believe in the promises of God, and so we turn to the Bible for guidance, help, and comfort. Bad Bible habits that we have are a) we’re not very good at reading the whole Bible or even whole books of the Bible! b) we’re not very good at reading the Bible in its own context and drawing on scholarship to help us in our understanding. This means that anyone can quote anything and if it sounds right for the occasion and we can see it there in black and white, it can be passed around as if it’s the only word on the subject when, in fact, the Bible texts taken as a whole in their own contexts will give us a much more complex picture.
The Bible can be a source of enormous comfort and healing and I would recommend reading the Bible daily and even memorizing favourite passages of scripture at this time. But we can’t just quote random verses, put them into memes, and think that this is going to solve all our problems. Take, for example, Psalm 91. I can totally understand why everyone is gravitating to this psalm. It seems so apposite:
‘For he will deliver you from…the deadly pestilence… . You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday.’ (Ps 91:3-6)
However, I was disturbed to hear from a friend that Christians she knew were quoting this to one another claiming that this gave them the assurance that Christians wouldn’t get Coronavirus! Of course, we can pray for protection from the virus and for mild symptoms for anyone who gets it. But it’s completely misleading and dangerous for a Christian to tell another Christian that they will have an immunity by virtue of their faith. Not only does this kind of attitude require not hearing the news, but it means having no sense of history whatsoever. I’ll say more of this below.
There are lots of verses being bandied around at this time. I’m not belittling the idea of sending one another encouragement from scripture. I think it’s important to do that. I’m just pleading with people that they should think through all of the implications of how they are applying particular verses at particular times in particular places. My worry is when verses are used either to convince us that there is a quick fix (there rarely is), or to ward off fear in a kind of superstitious way. Scripture verses can be recited as declarations of trust and confidence in the nature of God, but they are not amulets. The Bible has to be read deeply and questioningly in order to teach us the character and the ways of God. It will comfort and nourish us, but it will also perplex us and unsettle us. It takes time and patience, reading and re-reading, study, and humility. It’s worth the effort to yield its riches, but it is an effort.
Before I tell people that this verse is for today, for them, for their church, I need to look at the surrounding verses (at least!) to see if it makes sense, and also ask myself, ‘Is it upbuilding, encouraging and comforting? Will it be for everyone who hears it? Does it reflect a wisdom from above: pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy?’ (Jas 4:17)
Prayer: Breakthrough or Bust
I mentioned prayer as an act of love, which I think it is. It is also a longing for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as in heaven and for his will to be done. We pray daily for a stemming of this tide and for God to rescue us from this virus and we pray for every aspect of life that is being affected by it. In the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi address he exhorts the people to put their faith in Jesus to calm the storm. I feel now is the time to pray without ceasing.
One of the things we are going to need to discern is the difference between gifts of faith that motivate a strong desire and conviction to pray for a particular outcome, and a desperate willing to try and make something happen. It’s hard to describe exactly what I mean by that, but I think people who have seen these two different attitudes and have experienced the difference will understand.
Charismatics talk all the time about ‘breakthrough.’ What they mean by that is the lifting of the hardship, the end to the suffering, the healing of sickness. The impulse behind this is really good. Of course, we want all those things. The difficulty comes when it becomes breakthrough or bust. If breakthrough is the sole goal, and we are told that this outcome is the will of God, then we have no other options available. What can happen as a result of that is that other outcomes can’t be anything other than a defeat, a failed prayer. This, in turn, then means that people have to find a reason in something other than God when someone dies, when the sick are not healed, when the business collapses. These reasons are well rehearsed: there was not enough faith, the devil has won, somebody somewhere has sinned and not repented. These are all awful and wrong options, and in the end they will only sow doubt and fear. So this, it turns out, is a potentially damaging habit.
I don’t want to stop people praying for breakthroughs, and I do believe we are going to see many answers to prayer in the weeks and months to come. First though, we are going to need to discern the difference between the gift of faith and desperate willing, in ourselves and others. Secondly, I have a sense that we’re going to need much wisdom and spiritual discernment for knowing how to pray, what to pray for, how long to pray, and how to pastor people through the outcomes.
Prophecy and Prayer
I can’t think of anyone not wanting this virus to end, and however much we all long for this to be soon, we can’t risk making bold declarations and getting it wrong. There’s far too much at stake for that. Those of us who are older have lived through many predictions of this or that (healings, revivals etc.) coming really soon. Yet so many of these things have either never come by the deadline or have not happened yet—years down the line. To declare times and dates and get it wrong generates distrust, weariness, and disappointment. Nobody needs that on top of everything else. Personally, I would just ignore any prophecies about specific times and dates at this time.
If a person has genuinely heard from God that this is going to end soon, and they are right, then praise God. If they are right, they can treasure that up in their heart and pray in the quiet trust that we have less to fear than we think. The effect will be the same. They will be a prophetic intercessor at a crucial time.
In the next post I look at how we deal with fear and grief, and people who say that this is God’s will.