A Christian’s Response to a Pandemic
[Most of us are not going to have a typical worship experience for some time. This devotional is an opportunity to comment on the pandemic and our response to it. This truly is a life issue, which if it gets out of control, will raise the specter of allocating limited resources. Italy has experienced this dilemma, facing the horrific reality of having to choose who is most worthy of care. Complying with government guidelines in response to the virus represents a credible attempt to avoid facing the same dilemma. This demands sacrifices from all of us. For the sake of others, it is worth it.]
Philippians 2:3–5 – Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.
These are peculiar times. COVID-19 is an illness that results from a coronavirus, an airborne communicable virus with potentially fatal consequences. Unlike influenza or the cold, the statistical likelihood of dying from the COVID-19 is more than 10 times that of the flu.
To date, there is no cure and no vaccination to prevent infection from the virus. Because it is an airborne virus, the first line of defense is isolation combined with careful hygiene. What that isolation means is different from one state to the next, though presently there are prohibitions on large gatherings (variously defined from state to state), and people are encouraged to maintain a “social distance” of six feet from others.
These isolation measures have had all sorts of consequences. Restaurants, bars, and shopping centers have closed. Concerts and athletic events have been put on hold, and many schools have been shut down, some even for the rest of the academic year. In some cases, even weddings and funerals must be postponed or video- and/or audio-streaming must be used to reduce the crowd size to a minimum.
Of concern for many is that in states like Wisconsin, gatherings must be limited to no more than ten people. That means no worship services. This restriction bothers some who feel an exception should have been carved out for churches to hold worship services.
For all of this we find God’s Word still comforts and guides. In light of this crisis, I want us to consider the full ramifications of our text (Philippians 2:3-5). Let’s consider, A CHRISTIAN’S RESPONSE TO A PANDEMIC. I wish to use the text to make three points: 1) What we learn about ourselves; 2) What we learn about others; and 3) How we know this.
What We Learn About Ourselves
The text begins with these words: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. One of the first things I try to remember is that when the Apostle Paul wrote this letter it was to members of a Christian congregation. In fact, Paul called them “God’s holy people.” (Philippians 1:1). It was written to believers – people who professed Jesus as their Savior – people who stood in assemblies and acknowledged their sins and remembered the Lord’s death through the communal sacrament – and those who believed there is life after death. Again, these were believers.
The Spirit-inspired words of Paul remind the people that even as “God’s holy people,” they can harbor “selfish ambition and vain conceit.” How did Paul know this? His first lesson was an internal one.
In the letter that Paul sent to the Romans he said: For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:22–24) Paul would answer his own question in the opening lines of a letter he wrote to Timothy, a young pastor who was new to the ministry. He wrote: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:15)
Not only did Paul realize that being children of God did not inoculate us from acting like children of the world, but he also understood that frequently we don’t even realize we’re doing it. This is what Jesus warned the church of Laodicea about in the Book of Revelation, when he told them: You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17) Oftentimes, believers become blinded to their faults. They do not realize that they might harbor “selfish ambition and vain conceit.” They think that problems are what other people have. The reality, however, is that “God’s holy people” can truly exhibit “selfish ambition and vain conceit” and not even realize it.
In the Greek, the single word that is translated as “selfish ambition” is used elsewhere in the Bible as almost an antithesis of thinking more of others. “Selfish ambition” is to be “self-seeking” (Romans 2:8) and is often paired with “envy” (James 3:14 & 16). “Selfish ambition” is putting self-interest first.
Tied with “selfish ambition” is “vain conceit.” Again, it is a single Greek word meaning glory or honor that is empty or without substance. You can see how it is tied with “selfish ambition” because it assumes a knowledge above others that is often no knowledge at all. Rather, it is an opinion – something “empty” yet portrayed as honorable or credible.
An editorial cartoon ran in our local paper recently which showed a man looking at Facebook and exclaiming to his wife: “That’s odd: My Facebook friends who were constitutional scholars just a month ago are now infectious disease experts…”
Today, social media has become what was once a chat with the neighbor, or a conversation at the water cooler. It is a forum for everyone to display the one thing at which they truly are an expert: their opinion. Facebook is not a venue for scholarly research or even a good breeding ground for public policy. It is the place where people can express opinions. That doesn’t mean what is written is factually correct – it is simply an opinion; an opinion carefully crafted to “sell” you on a perspective with clever insights, flashy graphics, and references to other clever opinions that are similar or supportive.
I am not here to slam social media. In fact, right now social media keeps us connected when circumstances keep us apart. What I am slamming is when people use a forum, any forum, to speak from a perspective of “selfish ambition and vain conceit.”
Does this mean we can’t express a contrary opinion on social media? Absolutely not. A contrary opinion is acceptable both in our culture of free speech and in the light of Scripture. What is at issue, however, is the spirit and flavor of the contrary opinion. To post an opinion that is worded to demonstrate disrespect for authority is contrary to the will of God. The Bible clearly instructs us, as in Romans 13, that we are to respect and submit to those the Lord has placed in authority over us in the government.
Our criticism also should not be self-centered. To criticize with the expectation that others should agree because we said so is “selfish ambition.” It is a desire to seem more correct, more authoritative, or more reliable than those we criticize. To share a contrary opinion and to add the words, “I told you,” is “vain glory.” If we are not more mindful of the welfare of others, and if God is not the one to whom we are pointing for glory (1 Corinthians 10:31), then we should reconsider what we wish to say and how we say it. Paul reminds us that we need to learn about ourselves and that we may be sinning, even in the interest of revealing the errors of others.
What We Learn About Others
The text goes on to say: Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. What I have always found fascinating about this passage is its lack of qualifiers. When it says, “others,” it only says “others.” It doesn’t say, “others whom you like,” or “others with whom you agree,” or even “others who have been good to you.”
Elsewhere in Scripture we learn that “others” is to be understood in the broadest possible sense. “Others” would be those we might classify as enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). We are to love those who might harm us or bully us (Matthew 5:38-42). Clearly, loving others is not predicated on them earning our consideration. In fact, loving others, like obeying those in governing authority, might be very challenging.
When the Gospels and the writings of the Apostle took place, the culture was dramatically different than our own. The government was among the cruelest in recorded history. The justice system in Jesus’ day not only included capital punishment but also a routine of abuse and torture. In the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were thrown to the lions or arrested, impaled, and lit on fire to suffer until they died.
Sexual immorality was common, especially among the ruling class and the military. Roman soldiers were often corrupt and enforced the laws unjustly, and public opposition to the government was typically met with execution.
Within this climate came the instruction to think more of others than ourselves. Look carefully at how this is stated: Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. “Value others above yourselves.” No comment about the Greek needs to be made. This is crystal clear.
Being more concerned about others does not harm our interests but supports our interests – as long as those interests are consistent with God’s will.
As it applies to the current pandemic, we might ask, “What is our interest in all of this?” From a human point of view, our motive or interest in all this would be self-preservation, but when that is how we operate, “selfish ambition and vain conceit” have taken center stage. But when we operate first from a position of self-preservation, “selfish ambition and vain conceit” take center stage. We begin to make judgments about the requests made of us for the betterment of others. We judge things based on how vulnerable we feel and how burdened we feel by requests that are made.
The current pandemic, however, is not just about us. When we place the interest of others ahead of our own, we are challenged to test ourselves as to how truly we value others ahead of ourselves. How concerned are we that our actions might harm the most vulnerable – causing them to become sick or even die? If their interests are not ahead of our interests, we will have qualifiers: meaning, we will demand that the actions requested meet our standards and that things be done our way.
For example, a press conference on the pandemic is held daily at the White House. In attendance are the President and the Vice-President, who has been charged with overseeing the official response to the pandemic. They are joined by health leaders and experts from the leading health institutions in America. From a medical perspective, a vast majority of the professionals are in lockstep as to how to react to the pandemic.
Yet, some doubt the validity of what these experts are saying. The irony is that when we need our heart fixed, our fever reduced, our broken leg reset, or life-saving surgeries performed, we wholeheartedly embrace the curative and preventive measures the medical profession offers, clinging to their suggestions on ways to make things better. But now, when the requests infringe on the things we want, and how we see things, and on what we can do, we question the legitimacy of the very experts we relied on to help us.
My point is: true love for others is selfless. It is a willingness do for others and to sacrifice for others, even when there is nothing in it for us. Even when we think we know better. And that brings us to the last point:
How We Know This
Our text closes with these words: In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. In other words, how do we know love for others is to be so selfless, so giving, so sacrificial, even when it is unrewarding? We need to look no further than Jesus Christ. Paul made two points about Jesus that we must never forget:
Point # 1: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Paul says, in the big picture, our biggest concern – bigger than a pandemic that can suppress breathing and cause early death – is a broken relationship with God. The solution to that problem could not come from us. The prophet said, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6) Paul put it this way when he explained it to the Ephesians: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
Though we were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), God solved the problem. He fixed it, but it took the cruel sacrificial execution of his own Son. This is the depth, the breadth, the height, and the density of how God practices love – even to the point of deep personal loss.
So, Paul’s first point basically is that the mindset of Christ we are to have is a limitless attitude of concern for our neighbor.
Point # 2: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
The character of those for whom Jesus died was unsavory and undeserving. “While we were still sinners.” Our character was so flawed that God told Moses sinful people cannot be in his presence and survive (Exodus 33:20). Before a perfect God there is nothing in our character that entitled us to such love and sacrifice. God did it from the perspective of his perfect love and commitment to us.
There is also comparatively little gratitude in those for whom Christ died. Weekly many of us return to God’s house to confess our sins, even though committing sin made it necessary for Jesus to die. Our lives are not always testimonies of gratitude.
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19). Our love for others is an imitation of Christ’s love for us. To muster the wherewithal to be inconvenienced, to be restricted, to do without, and to get nothing from it, requires grasping what was done for us by Christ. We then find ourselves helping others, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it doesn’t seem fair, even when the beneficiaries are not deserving, because we understand what God puts up with us.
But this is difficult. If we rely on doing this merely out of a sense of duty, we won’t get it done. Loving others as Christ loved us finds its power through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Remember who you are: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)
We are not helpless to do this incredible feat of placing others ahead of ourselves. Paul told these same Philippians, I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13). And to the Corinthians he wrote: And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8). You can do this because God made you his child and has endowed you with the means to do such great things.
These are extraordinary times when extraordinary demands are placed on us. Yet, to make these sacrifices for the sake of others does not bring us to the point of death. Rather, this COVID-19 crisis tests our altruism – our commitment to the second table of the law to “love our neighbor.” Find in these actions a spirit of gratitude rooted in the cross of Christ. Therein you will find the Christian spirit to persevere.
August 25, 2020
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