By Ligon Duncan
We live in a time of odd turmoil and worry. It is not like the Great Depression when there was economic deprivation on a massive scale. It is not like the Second World War when “the Greatest Generation” heroically worked with our allies to restore peace and order in the world, at enormous cost and sacrifice, and to save millions of people from the designs of brutal regimes. It is not like Vietnam when our country was divided over our involvement in South East Asia, or like the anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis, nor even like the social revolution that swept through the sixties. It is something altogether different. But people are worried.
The cultural and political situation of our nation has people across the spectrum nervous, anxious, wondering, unsettled. Christians, in particular, are feeling the pinch of cultural marginalization. Christian ethical views that were once (in fact, very recently) considered mainstream in our society are now looked upon as outmoded, and even bigoted. This has left a lot of Christians more than bewildered. What’s happening to our country and culture? What does the future hold? How have we gotten into this mess?
It is important to remember that this is not the first time Christians have felt like this, or have gone through major cultural upheaval. For instance, in the 14th century in Europe, there was massive cultural upheaval. The famed historian and Pulitzer prize-winning author, Barbara Tuchman, paints a vivid picture of it in her enthralling book, A Distant Mirror (Random House).
That century saw the beginning of successive visitations of the plague to Europe. The Black Death is estimated to have killed somewhere between one-third to one-half of the population of Europe. Can you imagine living through the trauma of that, with the worry and uncertainty that it would bring? The 1300s also witnessed the beginning of the “Hundred Years War” which had massive ramifications for the whole of Europe, not just England and France. It too contributed to loss of life and economic wellbeing in manifold ways.
And the church itself was not immune from trial in this era. This was the age of division in Western Christendom. The so-called “Babylonian captivity of the Papacy” in Avignon, France eventually led to schism in the Western Catholic Church, with Pope set against anti-Pope. It is no surprise that Christians were befuddled and worried by all this. Indeed, many thought that the world was coming to an end.
But, my friends, in hard times, God is always up to something. In the fields of the turmoil of the 14th and early 15th centuries, the seeds of the conditions were planted that came to fruition in the Great Reformation of the 16th century.
No one could have anticipated that God could work all the bad and hard things of that time for good (Romans 8:28), but he did. The church was renewed, the Gospel went forth, societies were transformed, people were converted, and conditions were established that began a march towards unprecedented freedom and general social improvement in the Western world.
Don’t ever doubt that, even in trial and fire, God is up to something good. Paul’s counsel to Christians is this: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT). And, of course, Paul is saying the exact same thing that Jesus taught in Matthew 6:25-34. In sum, he said, “Don’t worry, because God will take care of you.”
Jesus and Paul had a strong sense of the good, loving, and wise providence of God over all things. That is, they believed that God was watching over and superintending everything in the believer’s life, in way that is wise, loving, and ultimately for our good. If we believe that, we needn’t worry, no matter what is going on in the world, or what is going on in our lives.
So when you look at our world and worry, remember Jesus words, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1). “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation: but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Ligon Duncan is the Chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary (www.rts.edu).