These are uncertain times. At the start of 2020 none of us would have guessed or predicted what lay ahead, despite the fact that this sort of pandemic has long been identified as one of the major threats facing our cultures. It was unthinkable that most of the world could be brought to a standstill, with some 850,000 deaths from COVID-19 globally as I write.
The enemy is invisible, and, strangely, some of us are hardly affected by it whereas for others it is deadly. For some, lockdown has provided a welcome respite from work and the busyness of life, whereas for others it has been virtually apocalyptic in its horror and damage. Some countries—I think here of South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam—appear to have handled the challenge well, whereas most of the economic powerhouses of the G7 countries have suffered from high infection rates and deaths. We do not know whether we will see a second spike of the virus, and it is unclear how and when we will emerge from this pandemic at large. Meanwhile the collateral damage of the virus is considerable, with economies hammered, escalating rates of unemployment, and immense challenges to mental health and well-being as our “normal routines” have been subverted.
Wisdom can feel elusive. Where can we turn for counsel on how to navigate these present challenges if each day their contours morph and change? Here I wish to offer some light from the Bible, specifically that found in the traditional wisdom books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
A Hymn for Our Time
If one is looking for a hymn for our times I would propose Job 28. The broad context is the terrible suffering that Job has experienced, losing suddenly and unexpectedly his children and his wealth. Sandwiched in between Job’s final words to his three friends and his final defence, the centre of this extraordinary poem is found in the repetitive questions in verses 12 and 20:
But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell? (NIV)
In Job 28:1–11 the tremendous abilities and achievements of humans are celebrated evocatively through the example of mining. Human beings are incredibly creative in their ability to dig deep into the earth and mine silver, gold, iron, and precious stones like lapis lazuli. But human ingenuity has its limits, and when you face life-and-death situations like Job, gold and diamonds pale in comparison with the need for wisdom.
The fact that faith and wisdom are made for difficult times, seen especially in Job and Ecclesiastes, does not make them easy.
Job knows well the capacities of humans. He is facing, however, the sudden death of his children and the loss of his wealth, and he has no idea how to begin to make sense of such an experience. Similarly the COVID-19 virus has confronted us all with the possibility of a quick and painful death. If we reflect on the effect of each death from COVID-19 on family and friends, then we start to resonate with Job 28 and the desperation of its questions: Where indeed can wisdom be found amid this pandemic?
If I can speak personally, when lockdown took place my work circumstances generated so much work that I felt disconnected from the pandemic and its horror. Then the parents of a close friend of mine caught the virus. The mother died but the father recovered. My friend travelled a considerable distance with his family to attend his mother’s funeral. In the process, my friend and his family caught the virus, and my friend landed in ICU with the outcome uncertain. Sitting day after day in my solarium praying with thousands of others for my friend brought me into touch with the darkness and very real threat of this time. It is a time of life and death, a time when wisdom is in desperate demand, even when not recognized.
Back to Basics
Faith and wisdom are made for times of crisis like ours. If how to live was easy and obvious then we would not need wisdom. But the fact that faith and wisdom are made for difficult times, seen especially in Job and Ecclesiastes, does not make them easy. The American psychiatrist Scott Peck begins one of his books “Life is difficult.” He begins another “Life is complex.” It is the complexity and difficulty of life in a good but fallen and being-redeemed world that creates the urgent need for wisdom. For many of us, living through this pandemic will not be easy, and a major wisdom insight is that that is okay. If you find yourself struggling during this time, then the first task is to befriend the struggle, to make peace with the fact that this is a difficult time for you. Only then can you start to look for wisdom to navigate through this challenge. Of course, many of us may not be struggling and finding this a time of rest and renewal. Indeed, the extremity and variety of experience is what makes this such a strange era. None of us should underestimate the shadow of stress the pandemic casts over our lives, but if you are aware of this and yet this time is being good to you, then embrace it as such, and use it as you can in the service of those who are suffering.
The basic principle of wisdom is clearly articulated in several places throughout Proverbs: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Reverence for God—for that is what the fear of the Lord is—is the beginning of wisdom in two ways: It is the starting point in the quest for wisdom, and it is the indispensable foundation on which the house of wisdom is built. As we see in Job and Ecclesiastes, however, during times of deep crisis, whether that crisis is intellectual (Ecclesiastes) or existential (Job), it is this very foundation that comes under attack and seems vulnerable. How do you revere God as holy, good, loving, and all-powerful when thousands of people, especially the most vulnerable in our communities, are being struck down by an invisible virus every day? Get in touch with the apocalyptic realities of the coronavirus and you will soon find yourself wrestling with the problem of evil. If we were to attend a ritual in which the name of every single person who has died was read out we would start to feel the weight of our times, and that nagging question would burst on us: Where is the good, all-powerful God in the midst of this?
Again, if you find yourself like Job or the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, in the midst of such turmoil you start by accepting where you are, difficult and traumatic as it may be. Be real with God as was Job. For endless repetitive chapters Job rehearses his agony, despair, and anger before God again and again. Remarkably in Job 37:7 God rebukes Job’s friends because they did not speak of him truly, as did Job! God can handle our anger, lament, and frustration, and we do well not to bottle it up but to be open with God about how we are feeling.
Wisdom is not a technique that you simply take and apply so that you have it. It has to be lived, and we have to be formed into wise people.
Wisdom is not a technique that you simply take and apply so that you have it. It has to be lived, and we have to be formed into wise people. Job’s struggle is different from that of the Preacher. Job’s is existential whereas the Preacher’s is intellectual. Both are excruciating experiences, and both felt that their very existence was at stake. How did they find resolution?
The answer, but never simplistically, is God. Experiences like that of the pandemic bring us quickly to the very real limits of our own wisdom. That is the message of Job 28. But does this mean wisdom amid uncertainty is unavailable? No, because as Job 28:23 says,
God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells
God knows the way to wisdom because God is wisdom. This, after all, is the great principle underlying Proverbs 1:7. Reverence for God is the starting point and foundation for wisdom because God is wisdom, and through his wisdom he has created us and our world. However, it is one thing to understand Proverbs 1:7; it is quite another to have it built into the DNA of our lives. The long journey of both Job and the Preacher is to find their ways back to this starting point—now, as T.S. Eliot might say, to understand it more fully for the first time.
The way in which resolution comes to Job and the Preacher is instructive. Job longs for a rational explanation of what has happened to him. He wants to take God to court so God can answer Job’s charges against him. He never receives such a rational explanation. Instead resolution and healing comes through encounter with God after a long and painful journey. The Preacher tries to find his way out of his intellectual morass through his reason and experience alone, thinking this to be “wisdom,” but resolution only comes when he remembers his Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1), a synonym for Proverbs 1:7.
I do not want to underestimate the turmoil some of us are experiencing in this time of uncertainty. We may feel that we have entered into a cloud, a stifling fog of unknowing. And again, that is okay. What I do want to insist on is that there is hope. Our experience may be such that with Job we feel that destruction and death have themselves only heard a rumour of wisdom (Job 28: 22), but God knows where wisdom lives, even amid the darkest times.
In times of uncertainty we do well, as we can, to return to and consolidate the basics of our faith. At the end of the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus draws his parable of the two houses in Matthew 7:24–27 from the two houses in Proverbs 9. The rain, streams, and winds of Matthew 7:25 and 27 are fit metaphors for the pandemic. The houses of our lives and societies will stand insofar as they are built on the rock. That rock means being willing to be instructed by Jesus even when—especially when—our understanding fails us.
Attending to the Cracks
If you travel on the London Underground you will hear the announcement “Mind the Gap,” alerting you to be aware of a small gap between the train and the platform you have just arrived at. Pressure on a structure or a person exposes its weak points. Whether we are conscious of it or not the pandemic is applying considerable pressure to us individually and communally, creating dangerous gaps or cracks. For example, this is a time when we need healthy community, a time when we discover that two is indeed better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10). But, of course, Western culture is awash in individualism, and sadly the church is as well. Thus, rather than churches uniting to support one another and their neighbours, many are dividing over whether to wear masks and whether to take social distancing seriously. Such division is tragic and sinful, but it exposes the cracks that have long been present in Christ’s body. We need to attend.
If this is true of churches it is also true of us as individuals and societies. I do not envy those who have been in the front line in health care or in government. What an immense task has been laid upon them; they, too, are being challenged to act wisely in the midst of uncertainty. The pandemic tests the mettle, as it were, of governments, health care, and the way we structure our societies. The pandemic reminds us that governments are there to provide justice for all citizens and that health care is a right and not a commodity dependent on one’s wealth.
Alas, the cracks in many of our societies have become only too visible. In the UK our beloved National Health Service was struggling before the pandemic. A weekly ritual of clapping outside for the NHS at a set time rightly developed to celebrate the heroism and hard work of so many health-care professionals. However, a test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, and homes for the elderly have shouldered too high a burden of the deaths from COVID-19 in the UK. Furthermore, even as victims of the virus were understandably prioritized, many others were delayed treatment for life-threatening illnesses. The UK is by no means alone in this respect. Weaknesses in government structures, excessive concern with consumption and economic growth, underlying racism and police brutality—all these and more have come into focus in the United States and other countries. As I have reread Proverbs I have found it salutary and searing to see just how full of advice it is for rulers. Wise rulers listen to advisers (see Proverbs 16:13; 20:18), speak the truth (see Proverbs 12:17; 14:5, 25; 29:20), are the voice of the voiceless (31:8). And yet too often we have witnessed the reverse. The cracks are all over the place, and we need to pay attention.
Welcoming the Invitation
I can imagine some readers saying this is all very depressing. My defence is that we need to be in touch with reality, and the reality is sobering. These are uncertain times. I love Wendell Berry’s characterization of life as “difficult hope,” and the pandemic is a very difficult time. It is far from being without hope, however. We attend to the cracks appearing in our own lives and in our societies, not in order to wallow in them or to sink into depression, but in order to heal them. This is the side of the pandemic that I think of, if I may, as an invitation.
Take death, for example. We may believe that Jesus has conquered death and removed its sting and yet find ourselves terrified of dying. We know that we will die, but being faced so suddenly with the possibility is quite different. Intriguingly Proverbs 14:32 addresses this very issue:
When calamity comes, the wicked are brought down,
but even in death the righteous seek refuge in God.
There is no guarantee that Christians will not die from COVID-19. But even if we do, we are not without hope. For those of us who practice the liturgy of the hours, the final service of the day is Compline, in which we relinquish control as we enter yet again into the unconsciousness of the night hours. One of my prayer books concludes Compline with this blessing “May the Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”
In this way we continually practice letting go as a rehearsal for that final letting go of death in which we are received into the arms of God. The pandemic is, strange as it may sound, an invitation to be prepared for death.
Modernity has brought many good gifts to us. Increasingly, however, we are aware that it also has a shadow side. Our very globalization, including our desire to move through places as fast as possible night and day around the planet, has ensured that the COVID-19 virus could move equally fast. Amid speed and busyness we have too often forgotten the local and the stability of a place, with huge negative consequences for our planet, our fellow creatures, and for ourselves. Lockdown has forced us to experience life very differently, and provided us with an invitation to reflect on the type of lives we want to live and the type of societies we want to be part of. I fully understand our desire for life to return to “normal” as quickly as possible. I too want the pain and trauma of this time to pass. But wisdom counsels that we reflect hard on just what passes as normal.
Opening Wide Our Hearts
I do not understand the pandemic. However, wisdom allows us to assume that God is deeply at work in it. If that is true then this is a time, when possible, for stillness, for coming again and again to peace before God. It is also a time, when possible, for listening, for attending to what God is saying to us at this strange time. It is also a time, when possible, for thinking together hard about ourselves and our societies to discern what the good life really looks like.
I recall vividly John Paul II, at the outset of his pontificate, addressing the crowds and urging us to open wide our hearts to Christ for we have nothing to fear. Amid uncertainty, we do well to follow this advice, for it will defuse our fear and our fear of fear, and lead us, albeit through valleys of darkness, to hope and renewal.