An unchanging God in uncertain times
Long ago, I was invited to a Christian conference in Tanzania. Shortly before the date, I received a telegram from the bishop, saying: “Pray for rain. If no rain, don’t come.” I was faced with uncertainty – should I stay in the UK or go to Tanzania? I prayed for rain and took the flight I had booked. On landing, I discovered that rain had fallen so abundantly that the Christians were now praying for it to stop so that the wood for cooking would not be too wet to burn.
In a situation like that, a steady attitude of trusting the Lord day by day is easier to embrace than it is in a world of technical marvels, where power for light, warmth and all our needs is reliably available at the flick of a switch.
A worldwide age of uncertainty
Many of us live in countries where God’s provision and sustaining love may be hard to detect behind the insulating wall of modern technology. While the comfort in which we live is a practical blessing for which we should give thanks, ironically it brings psychological and spiritual challenges.
After more than a year of Covid-19 rampaging across the globe, we find ourselves in an age of uncertainty. Will life ever return to pre-pandemic ways? If so, when? If not, what will be the new normal? I do not believe that living with unanswered questions like this would have troubled the Tanzanian bishop who sent the telegram about praying for rain, for uncertainty was part of the fabric of his life. But these questions are troubling for many who have been used to planning their lives with confidence, even years ahead.
One analysis of the psychological impact of the pandemic has highlighted four characteristics of our world today. All of them add to the feeling that our societies do not know where they are.
● Volatility. We live in a constantly changing world. Changes are getting more dramatic, less predictable and happening faster.
● Uncertainty. It is becoming more difficult to anticipate events or predict how they will unfold. Past experience is now of little help in forecasting the shape of things to come.
● Complexity. Problems and their repercussions are multi-layered and hard to understand. It is difficult to stand back and get an overview. Decision-making becomes hit-and-miss.
● Ambiguity. It is common for things to seem paradoxical and contradictory. Grey is much more common than black or white.
Stability and predictability have often been in short supply in times past. When Isaiah described his vision of the Lord seated on a throne with seraphs flying around Him, he began by saying that this happened “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1). These few words indicate a time of huge uncertainty. Uzziah’s 52-year reign had been largely prosperous and stable, but after his death the people faced a changing future. Isaiah’s vision of the thrice-holy God, supreme and unchanging, came at a time of national confusion and anxiety.
How should believers respond when society around us is in turmoil? Ultimately, the answer is not to be found merely in science or physical solutions, although these have an essential place, but in God Himself, who is always seated on His throne and in control.
Isaiah also recognises God’s holiness and his own sinfulness. Today’s society generally seeks to find an answer to uncertainty without acknowledging God, let alone recognising Him as the all-holy One before whom all creation must bow. In times of uncertainty, we must recognise that God is central.
True stability can be found only in Him. We need the eye of faith that sees beyond uncertainties to the certainties: the “things hoped for” and “the things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.
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Bring Hope, O Lord