by Dr. Mark Young
In the Classroom
by Dr. Douglas Groothuis
by Dr. Ron Welch
Engage Magazine is typically a biannual print and online publication, but was shortened this season due to the impact of COVID-19.
We will resume Engage Magazine in print in the fall.
A Letter from the President
Dr. Mark Young
The word “surreal” keeps coming to mind these days. Waiting in line outside a grocery store wearing a face mask within my six-foot bubble of appropriate distance from other shoppers—is this really happening or is it a dream? Like the melting clocks in Salvador Dali’s famous surrealist painting, “The Persistence of Memory,” typical scenes from everyday life now seem more like a dream than reality.
But they are not a dream. They are our current reality because the novel coronavirus is real. The threat of Covid-19 is real. Its destructive and deadly presence among us is real.
In the midst of such suffering and loss people, rightly cry out, “Where is God in this?” That’s why the number of Google searches for “prayer” has grown substantially in the past few weeks. If God were to answer our plaintive cry, he would say, “I’m right here. Right in the middle of it all.” In our suffering, in our grief, in our loss, in our pain, God’s right here.
John Swinton, Chair of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, makes the striking observation that, “In Christ, the evil and suffering of the world are absorbed and transformed.” He goes on to note that those of us who yearn to be like Christ must be willing to absorb the suffering of others and transform the deadly presence of evil into life.
The implication of this truth staggers me. The people of God are called to be right in the middle of the suffering and loss of this pandemic. We, the body of Christ, embody God’s presence in the world. We are the answer to the world’s question, “Where’s God in this?” So we run to those who suffer instead of running away from them. In the name of Jesus, we step into their pain, their loss, and their grief. That’s what the followers of Jesus have done for two millenia. And the world has taken note.
What a magnificent calling we share with all of those who follow Jesus. What a rich understanding of our salvation comes from the recognition that we have the privilege to absorb the suffering of the world and transform it into life. Perhaps, my dear brothers and sisters, we haven’t even begun to experience life abundant and eternal until we have entered into the world’s suffering, absorbed its blows and defeated it malignant presence through acts of selfless love.
 Raging Compassion, p. 67
In the Classroom
Where is God in a Pandemic?
Dr. Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy
Crises test our faith, whatever that faith may be. Since faith is only as good as its object, we need to lay hold of the truth to face our trials with confidence. Positive thinking and sunny optimism will not do for the matters of life and death thrown in our face by a pandemic. Although most American Christians were unable to meet for Holy Week services this year, Christ’s death, his resurrection, and his promised return should console and empower us to face the dangers and adjustments ahead. As Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
Jesus overcame the world through his redemptive work in space-time history. We know this through the historically reliable record of our New Testament (Luke 1:1-4; 1 Peter 3:15). Christ atoned for sin on the Cross, defeated the devil, was raised to life, and sent the Holy Spirit to guide and guard his church “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20; Acts 1:8).
Therefore, we can face troubles of all kinds—pandemics or otherwise—with courage and find a strength beyond ourselves in the living God himself. In light of this, where is God in this pandemic according to Holy Scripture and how should we serve him in the midst of it?
King David writes that God knows him through and through: “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways” (Psalm 139:2-3). Even before David speaks, the Lord knows what he will say (v. 4). These and other verses assure us that God is not caught unawares by anything in creation. He is all-knowing or omniscient. Unlike us, he does not have to maneuver this crises with inadequate knowledge.
David also tells us that God’s Spirit is with him always, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (vs. 7-8). God is everywhere present. History is governed by God and he is not far from any one of us, since “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
God is with us today. I received this from a graduate of Denver Seminary, who works as a chaplain in an assisted living facility that has seen many deaths and much sickness: “The Spirit of the living God is at work in me. I cannot describe it in mere words. He is present. He speaks through me in ways that astound me. I am so very humbled God would use me in these ways.”
Our God not only knows what is happening and is with us through it, his plot for history is working infallibly, however mysterious this is to finite and fallen creatures.
While exulting in the salvation believers have in Christ, the Apostle Paul writes of “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11; see also Proverbs 21:1). Just as Christ came “when the set time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4), God has set a time for “every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
Since the Christian faith is based on sufficient evidence and strong arguments (as apologetics teaches us), we can be assured that God is all-good and all-powerful. We know this most certainly and dramatically through the achievements of Jesus Christ. However, within this framework of knowledge, we often face our ignorance of how God is achieving his ultimate end of purging, judging, and redeeming the world. After writing eleven chapters worth of divinely-inspired theology about God’s agenda for the ages, Paul breaks into a doxology that underscores the mysteries before him.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
After Paul explains God’s grand story of redemption, he still admits that God’s judgments are beyond us and that we cannot know just how his plan is working out. We cannot know many things on his side of the Second Coming. Yet we can know the one who knows all things, the one who is with us, and the one who is for us and who is not against us (Romans 8:31). And as Moses tells us, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
We can follow God’s instruction during this pandemic by mediating on the attributes of God I have discussed—his knowledge, his presence, his providence, and his goodness and power displayed through the work of Jesus. We take heart that God’s kingdom is advancing and that the gates of hell will not hold out against the church (Matthew 16:18; Hebrews 12:28).
In the unprecedented troubles of this pandemic, we can hold fast to a faith based on fact, rooted in history and extending into eternity.
In this confidence, we are called to pray for all in distress, including those in authority (Ephesians 6:19; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). When restricted for the sake of public health, we can submit to the Holy Spirit to learn patience, self-control, and self-denial (Galatians 5:22-23; Luke 9:23-26). We can “redeem the time” by serving those disadvantaged and endangered by the pandemic (Ephesians 5:16; Matthew 25:31-46). We should seek to share as much Christian fellowship and worship as we safely can through various media (Hebrews 10:24; Psalm 133).
This pandemic will test our faith. It may take our life. But the object of our faith, God himself, is able to sustain and empower us through it all, whether in life or death. Amen.
Makes You Think
Christ-Centered Family Relationships during a Crisis
Dr. Ron Welch, Professor of Counseling
It is said that a crisis brings out the best and worst in people. That certainly seems to have been proven true during the current COVID-19 crisis. We’ve seen neighbors going out of their way to help those in need in their communities, and we’ve seen people shoving others out of the way in stores to get to the last package of toilet paper. As restrictions are slowly lifted and life resumes some level of normalcy, what we will do differently in our family relationships as we move forward?
Most of us have spent recent weeks at home with family members either due to working from home or losing employment. There have been both positive and negative effects from this change, and we’ll look at both of these in this article. The primary goal of this piece, though, is to determine the “lessons learned” from this change to our routine and to identify the Christ-centered relationship guidance we can take with us into our family relationships after the crisis passes.
One of the most harmful effects of the stay-at-home experience has been the loss of social support systems. The church families we relied on for spiritual guidance and accountability, the friends and family we spent time confiding in and playing with, and our work colleagues we previously spent so much time with, were all kept “socially distant.” Loved ones who contracted the virus were facing serious and sometimes life-threatening illnesses and we weren’t allowed to see them. We faced new levels of social isolation.
On top of that, our carefully crafted rhythm of interacting with our spouses and children was rocked to the core, as those we love were suddenly around us 24/7. The increased “quality time” with our families that we have always wished for turned out to present some challenges, as well! School-age kids were home every day, college kids returned to live at home, and spouses we usually didn’t see during the day were competing for bandwidth for Zoom meetings (at least, those lucky enough to still have a job they could do from home). Completing work tasks seemed to take so much longer in this “new normal.”
Finally, and perhaps most destructively, many of us lost one or both of our primary family sources of income. The stresses of financial pressure led to strained relationships, frustration, and a sense of helplessness. Children from K-12 were required to learn in new ways and college-age students often faced simultaneous educational challenges and job loss. The future looked, and still looks, very uncertain.
In the midst of these challenging experiences, there were many positive effects of sheltering at home. There were opportunities for quality family time playing games, sharing family meals and devotionals, and actually talking with each other. Work schedules, for those fortunate enough to have a job, were more flexible and under our control. Technical skills doing our work online, learned out of necessity, helped us discover more effective and efficient systems for working in the future.
Through this storm, as with all storms, God has been right here beside us. While working with families during this time and watching those around me, I have come to believe that there are (at least) four lessons we can learn from this experience that will help us model Christ in our family relationships in the midst of this storm and in the calm that is sure to follow. This increased time with our families can be seen as an opportunity to make some permanent changes in our family relationships. These relationship changes can become a testament to our Christian faith long after the crisis is over.
Lesson #1 – Unselfishness is better than selfishness.
Ephesians 5:22 (NIV) says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” and verse 25 says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That’s pretty clear guidance to prioritize others over yourself. Pay attention to the people you are living with. Think about what they need before your own needs. Clean up the dishes so others don’t have to. Put your work on hold to go play with that beautiful child who is holding up the Frisbee with adoring puppy dog eyes. Take time to have a romantic lunch on the back porch with your loving spouse. Choose to love those around you first and worry about your own needs later.
Lesson #2 – Control your family schedule.
Control your weekly schedule – don’t let it control you. Ephesians 5:15-16 (NIV) says, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Consider taking control of your schedule by sitting down with the family on Sunday night before the week starts and planning out when you will have couple time, family time, conflict resolution time, and play time. In this crisis situation, with so many things changing, it is more important than ever to plan out your days and weeks. If your spouse’s name doesn’t appear in your calendar schedule for the week, something is wrong.
Lesson #3 – Set aside time for spiritual disciplines.
When your routine is upset, it is easy to let spiritual practices go as other demands take priority. Plan time in your week for family devotionals, participate with your family in a weekly church service in whatever format it is delivered, and maintain your small group participation. Perhaps most importantly, make time for God. Philippians 4:8 (NIV) encourages us to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Don’t minimize your personal prayer and Bible study time just because someone requests a Zoom meeting. Lock those times with God in first, and schedule everything else around them.
Lesson #4 – Stay positive.
Many families have found themselves complaining about the negative effects of the crisis instead of focusing on the positives. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV) says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…” Make sure you sit down with your family every day and thank God for the blessings you have. Thank God for the work you are still able to do, for the school progress the children are still able to make, and the time you have as a family. If you are unable to work right now or are dealing with the effects of the virus, take comfort in the promise that God has made that He is Immanuel and that He is with us in the midst of the storm.
Crises do, indeed, bring out the best and the worst of us. After 9/11, it was reported that church attendance surged, but that it then returned to previous levels only a year later. I want to challenge you and your family to not just return to the “old normal.” Let God use this time to strengthen your bonds with your children, enrich your marriage, and create new patterns that you can maintain in the future. If you do that, the legacy of this crisis will be that it brought out the “best in you” and resulted in a stronger, healthier, and Christ-centered family.
Dr. Ron Welch has worked in the field of clinical psychology for over 20 years, has been a licensed clinical psychologist since 1997, and holds a diplomate in professional counseling. Ron had maintained a private practice specializing in marriage and family work since 2004 before opening his Transformational Marriage™ practice in 2012. He earned his PsyD and MA in clinical psychology from Central Michigan University. Ron’s most recent book is 10 Choices Successful Couples Make: The Secret to Love that Lasts a Lifetime.