Fuller

Easter and COVID 19

by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.
Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership

© Copyright 2020 De Pree Center. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Part 1: What Difference Does the Resurrection Make? (1 Peter 1:3-9)
Part 2: Glorious Joy, Even Now? (1 Peter 1:3-9)
Part 3: Relying on God Who Raises the Dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
Part 4: The Life-Giving Spirit (Romans 8:11)
Part 5: A World of Groaning (Romans 8:18-25)
Part 6: Glorious Hope (Romans 8:18-25)
Part 7: God’s Help and God’s Groaning (Romans 8:26-27)
Part 8: God Works in All Things for Good (Romans 8:28)
Part 9: God is On Your Side (Romans 8:31-32)
Part 10: Nothing Can Take Away God’s Love from You (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

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Part 1: What Difference Does the Resurrection Make?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:3-9 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

yellow daffodilYou may be reading this devotion on Easter Monday. I’m writing it a few days earlier. As I do, I’m imagining what Easter will be like this year. It will be like none other in my life, that’s for sure! I expect you can relate. For the first time in my life I will not go to church physically on Easter Sunday. Yes, I imagine that my church family will worship remotely. We will offer each other the traditional Easter greeting, “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!” But we will do so virtually, without actually being together. Then, after church, my extended family will gather for a while, but with lots of space between us. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if our Easter afternoon fellowship is completely online; but even if a few of us actually come together, we’ll be socially distanced in a way utterly unlike any other Easter gathering.

The COVID-19 crisis certainly will make a difference in our Easter celebrations, won’t it? But, I wonder, will the difference also go in the other direction as well? To put it simply, I wonder if Easter will make a difference in how we think about, feel about, and experience life during a pandemic. Should it?

We can find answers to this question in chapter 1 of the first letter of Peter in the New Testament. After the opening blessing, Peter writes, “By his great mercy [God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Notice how, in this verse, the resurrection makes a difference in our lives. It gives us “new birth into a living hope,” not empty hope or dead hope, but hope that is alive in us. Hope, in biblical perspective, is not a positive attitude or wishful thinking. Rather, it’s solid confidence in the future—God’s future.

So for example, I hope that by staying at home, practicing social distancing and energetic hand-washing, I will not get the novel coronavirus. I have this hope. But this isn’t what biblical hope is all about. Biblical hope is the solid assurance that, no matter what happens to me in this life, my future is in God’s hands and he will raise me to new life. Why can have I such confident hope? Because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, demonstrating that death has been defeated through the cross and resurrection.

Is this kind of hope relevant to people who are in the midst of a pandemic? I think so. Those to whom Peter was writing were not in a situation exactly like ours, but they were going through difficulties of their own. They had, in Peter’s words, “to suffer various trials” as they were being “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7). We don’t know exactly what the recipients of 1 Peter were experiencing, but we do know that it was upsetting and painful.

Yet, in their suffering they had hope: confident hope, abiding hope, living hope. Why? Because they were Easter people. They were people of the resurrection, and that made all the difference in the world.

Something to Think About:

In what ways did you experience God’s presence and grace in your unusual celebrations of Easter yesterday?

What’s the difference between a “living hope” based on the resurrection and the “wishful thinking” kind of hope that is often commended to us?

What does it mean for us to be people of hope in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis?

Something to Do:

Talk with your small group (virtually) or a Christian friend about their experience of Easter yesterday. What did they learn from this unique experience?

Prayer:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

By your great mercy, Lord, you have given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You have also given us new birth into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us.

What great news! How we thank you for raising Jesus from the dead and for the living hope that gives us. Lord, we need this living hope today. Our world needs this living hope. Help me to live with this hope at the center of my life today, for your glory. Amen.

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Part 2: Glorious Joy, Even Now?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:3-9 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

yelllow flowers growing out of stone wallIn the previous part of this article I began a devotional series I’m calling “Easter and COVID-19.” Now I’ll admit those two things don’t easily go together. In fact, they feel almost like polar opposites. But, upon reflection, I do believe that the reality of Easter – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – actually has much to do with how we experience life in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. We saw that very thing in yesterday’s reflection on 1 Peter 1:3-9, with the connection between the resurrection and “living hope.” Today, we’ll discover even more from that passage in 1 Peter.

The recipients of 1 Peter had hope, but not because their lives were easy and they could imagine a happy future. In fact, as we saw yesterday, they were “suffering various trials” and being “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7). Whatever Peter is referring to with those phrases, it doesn’t sound pleasant, to say the least.

In the midst of such a hard time, however, those to whom Peter wrote had hope. But not just hope for the future. They also rejoiced in the present “with an indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). Notice that this does not say “you will rejoice someday” but you “are rejoicing now.” In other words, they were joyful in the midst of suffering.

How was this even possible? First, the letter recipients experienced great joy because of their relationship with Jesus, whom they loved and in whom they believed even though, unlike Peter, they had not seen Jesus in the flesh (1 Peter 1:8). Yet they knew him by faith because they trusted him for salvation.

Second, the believers to whom Peter wrote rejoiced because they were “receiving the outcome of [their] faith, the salvation of their souls” (1 Peter 1:9). Once again, notice the tense. The original language says that they “are rejoicing [present tense]” because they “are receiving [present tense] the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1:9). Though the fullness of salvation lies in the future, we begin to experience salvation in this life—however incompletely. We know God’s love and forgiveness through Christ. We experience reconciliation with God and with others. We catch a glimpse of God’s future peace as his people live with justice and mercy. So our “indescribable and glorious joy,” experienced in the midst of a broken world, flows from our relationship with Jesus Christ and his salvation as it touches our lives in the moment even as it fills us with hope for the future. The more we experience God’s love and grace, the more we’ll be able to rejoice even in the midst of a pandemic.

One final word on joy. I grew up in a family where we were regularly encouraged to cheer each other up. If you were feeling down, I was supposed to remind you of good things and urge you to be happy. So how did that work out for us? Not so well, actually. Joy doesn’t come from being told to rejoice or scolded if you’re sad. Rather, joy comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ and from the experience of his grace. If you want to rejoice, don’t focus on making yourself joyful. Rather, focus on Jesus and knowing him better. You can do this even in a world dominated by COVID-19. You can do this today. Glorious joy! Even now? Yes, through Jesus Christ.

Something to Think About:

Can you think of a time in your life when you felt great joy, not just happiness, but deep joy? What was this like? How did you express it?

Have you ever known joy in the face of suffering? If so, when? Why?

What helps you to know Jesus better?

Something to Do:

Find a few minutes to be alone. I realize this can be tricky if you’re living in close quarters with others. But, in some moments of quiet, reflect on your relationship with Jesus. How would you describe it? Does your relationship with Jesus help you to be joyful? If so, why? If not, why not?

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for the resurrection, which gives us hope for the future and joy in the moment. Thank you for the relationship we have with you through Jesus Christ, and for the joy this relationship gives us. Thank you also for the gift of salvation and for the opportunity we have to experience this gift even now.

Lord Jesus, as I get to know you more truly and deeply, may I rejoice, even in a time of such challenges and difficulties. From you alone comes the gift of indescribable and glorious joy. Thank you for this amazing gift! Amen.

Amen.

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Part 3: Relying on God Who Raises the Dead

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

2 Corinthians 1:8-9 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

open hand of adult with child hand touching palmToday, I’m focusing on a passage in the letter we call Second Corinthians. Written by the Apostle Paul, this letter begins with a striking reference to a personal ordeal. In verses 3-7 of chapter 1, Paul speaks of “affliction” and “suffering” that he has endured, though without specifying exactly what happened to him. It’s likely that it was mistreatment associated with his preaching of the gospel. Paul’s point is that, in the midst of his trial, God consoled him so that he might console others.

In the next paragraph, Paul admits that he was “so utterly, unbearably crushed that [he] despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). In fact, he felt as if he “had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:9). This is a striking admission of deep personal anguish. It’s something that many of us can relate to, especially in these very days when tens of thousands of people are suffering with the coronavirus, grieving over lost loved ones, or experiencing financial hardships. We may very well know what it feels like to be “utterly, unbearably crushed” and to “despair of life itself.”

Yet Paul experienced something truly redemptive in his suffering. We see this in verse 9: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Paul’s affliction forced him to face his own limitations and weaknesses. He could not sustain himself in such hard times. So he was compelled not to rely on himself, “but on God who raises the dead.” And how does Paul know God in this way? Because of the resurrection of Jesus. The Easter event anchors Paul’s faith and secures his hope. (See 1 Corinthians 15 for a more complete exposition of how the resurrection of Jesus is central to Christian faith.)

The verb translated in verse 9 as “rely on” could also be rendered “depend on” or “trust in.” Eugene Peterson wonderfully captures the sense of this verb in The Message: “We felt like we’d been sent to death row, that it was all over for us. As it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened. Instead of trusting in our own strength or wits to get out of it, we were forced to trust God totally—not a bad idea since he’s the God who raises the dead!” (2 Corinthians 1:9, MSG). Because of his affliction, Paul was forced to trust God totally.

When things are going well in life, when the notion of a pandemic doesn’t even enter our minds, when the economy is strong, when our work is flourishing, it can be easy for us to rely on ourselves. This is especially true for those of us who are leaders. We’re used to being consistently reliable. But, when bad things happen to us and those we love, when we are threatened by a powerful disease, or when the world’s economy falters, or when we wonder about our own financial security, then we, like Paul, realize just how much we need God. Self-reliance seems naïve and unwise.

Because of the resurrection, we have good reason to rely on God. We know that God is both trustworthy and powerful. Yes, we hope that God will deliver us from the perils we face in this world, even as God once delivered Paul (2 Corinthians 1:10-11). But we believe that, no matter what happens to us in this age, our lives belong forever to the Lord. In the end, he will not only rescue us, but also redeem and restore us, along with all creation. Thus, we rely on God by faith, trusting fully in the God who raises the dead.

Something to Think About:

Do you tend to be a self-reliant person? If so, why? If not, why not?

Have there been times in your life when your situation forced you to rely more on God? What happened in those times?

What might hold you back in your reliance on God?

What encourages you to rely more on God?

Something to Do:

Are there areas of your life in which you tend to rely only on yourself and not on God? If so, reflect on why this is the case. Talk to God about your self-reliance. Offer yourself more fully to God, including those areas of life that you want to control by yourself.

Prayer:

Gracious God, how we thank you today for being a God of power. You showed us this power when you raised Jesus from the dead.

Yet, you are not just a God of power, but also of compassion. In your time, you will raise us also to life eternal. And in this life, you rescue us from so many troubles. Thank you for your mercy in our lives.

Lord, as we face the multiple threats of the coronavirus, we realize how foolish it is to rely only on ourselves. Remembering your power and compassion, we choose to rely on you. May this be true for me today in all I do, think, feel, and say. Amen.

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Part 4: The Live-Giving Spirit

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:11 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

two kids running, racing each otherAs I’ve reflected on how the resurrection of Jesus makes a difference in a world currently dominated by the coronavirus, Romans 8 has been central in my thoughts. Beginning today, I’m going to write a few Life for Leaders devotions based on this watershed chapter of Scripture. In another season, I could imagine spending a couple of months working through this chapter with you. But now I want to focus specifically on how Romans 8 helps us live faithfully in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul has much to say about the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Though we are embodied beings, we are not defined by our fleshly, sinful nature. Rather, we are “in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in [us]” (Romans 8:9). What difference does this make? Plenty! We read in verse 11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Notice that God is described here as the one “who raised Jesus from the dead.” The death-defeating, life-giving power of God is central both to God’s nature and to our experience of God. This experience is centered in the Holy Spirit who is both “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus” and the “Spirit that dwells in you.” Through the indwelling Spirit, God “will give life to your mortal bodies.” Though our bodies are mortal because of sin, we will one day be raised when the Spirit gives eternal life to us.

How does this verse speak to us in the midst of the coronavirus crisis? First, it offers the promise of life beyond this life. In a time when we are more aware than usual of our mortality, when we are reminded of the fact that we will die, it’s reassuring to know that physical death is not the end for us. We will be raised into the life of the age to come, when disease and death are no more.

Second, Romans 8:11 reminds us that the Spirit of life dwells in us right now. The very power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to us. Now, this does not mean that we are protected from all suffering. But it does mean that, no matter what we face in this life, God is with us, and not just with us, but within us through his Spirit. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is right there—with us, in us, surrounding us, empowering us, and giving us confident hope for the future.

Something to Think About:

How have you experienced the presence and power of God’s Spirit in your life?

How might the reality of the indwelling Spirit make a difference as you deal with the multiple threats of the coronavirus?

Something to Do:

Talk with your small group (virtually) or with a Christian friend about your experience of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for the gift of your Spirit, dwelling within us. Thank you for the promise of eternal life through the Spirit. Help me, I pray, to live with confident hope in the future you have for me. Plus, in this day, may I be attentive to the presence of your Spirit within me. May I live today by your power and for your purposes. Amen.

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Part 5: A World of Groaning

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

older woman cryingAs we saw in yesterday’s devotion on Romans 8:11, we who trust in Jesus Christ have confident hope that, beyond our death, God will give life to our mortal bodies. Christian faith is something deeply personal, something that touches our deepest fears, hopes, losses, and longings.

Yet, our hope for the future isn’t only personal. It has also to do with the world in which we live. Indeed, it touches the whole creation. We see this vividly displayed in Romans 8:18-25.

But, before we get to the ample good news of this passage, we need to take seriously its bad news. Romans 8:18-25 acknowledges the brokenness of the world as we know it. It speaks of “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18). It sees creation as caught in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). Romans 8 pictures creation as a woman giving birth: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22). Sufferings, bondage, decay, groaning, pains . . . these characterize our world broken by sin.

Millions of people throughout our world experience life along these lines, especially those who live in poverty or are victims of injustice. They know the brokenness of our world all too well. But millions of us are blessed so as not to feel the pains of this world on a daily basis. We live with comforts unknown to many throughout the world and throughout human history. So for us it takes something like COVID-19 to bring us to our senses. This pandemic reminds us vividly of the fact that our world is not what it should be. As the novel coronavirus stalks our planet, creation is groaning. And we are groaning along with it (Romans 8:25).

For people of biblical faith, this groaning often takes the form of lament. The Psalms are full of examples of God’s people crying out to God in anguish and desperation. Just last week we were reminded of Jesus’s quotation of Psalm 22 while he was being crucified, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1). Through Scripture, God invites us to lament, to groan in his presence. In a time of so much pain in our world, we are encouraged to join in the groaning of creation and our fellow human beings.

I have a Christian friend who believes that the resurrection of Jesus means people of faith should not lament. After all, we live in the joy of the resurrection, he argues. Though I agree with his point about Easter joy, I do not believe this erases pain and its expression in lament. On the contrary, the resurrection actually gives us freedom to offer our pain to the Lord. Why? Because, even as we pour our hearts out in lament, we know we won’t remain there forever. We don’t have to be afraid that groaning is the permanent state of our existence. Rather, even as creation groans like a woman giving birth, so our groaning comes with anticipation of God’s glorious future. Nevertheless, when we groan, we feel the deep pain of loss, and we pour this out before our loving Lord.

I’ll have more to say about this in next Monday’s devotion. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.

Something to Think About:

In what ways have you experienced the brokenness of the world?

When have you experienced “groaning” before God? Did this lead you closer to God, or farther away?

Since Christians live with Easter joy, do you think it is appropriate for us also to lament? If so, why? If not, why not?

Something to Do:

Read Psalm 77 slowly and prayerfully. Read it out loud, if possible. As you pray in the words of the psalm writer, pay attention to what rises up in you, your thoughts and feelings, even your groanings.

Prayer:

Gracious God, you created this world to be beautiful and productive, a blessing for all who dwell upon it. But we have broken your world through our sin. Thus we live with suffering and decay. And, along with the world, we groan before you. In this time of history, our groaning is even more intense. We yearn for things to be restored.

Thank you, merciful God, for the freedom you give us to lament, to groan before you. Thank you that we do not need to hold back as we pray. Thank you for hearing us with mercy.

So on this day we lament before you, pouring out our sorrow:

for those who are suffering with COVID-19,
for those who have lost their lives and for their grieving loved ones,
for those who must suffer alone in seclusion,
for the millions of people throughout the world whose income has been downsized or lost altogether,
for those who lack adequate medical care,
for children who sense the fears of their parents,
and for people throughout our world who are overwhelmed by sadness or fear.

We also pray:

for the safety of medical folk who are risking their lives each day to help others,
for police, firefighters, and those who carry an extra heavy burden these days,
for teachers who are working doubly hard to help their students,
for business leaders as they face extraordinary challenges,
for our political leaders, that they might have wisdom and courage,
for pastors and churches, that they might have compassion and vision,
for your work in the world, that you might use COVID-19 for your purposes.

In Jesus’s name,Amen.

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Part 6: Glorious Hope

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

A woman standing in front of a sunsetIn the last devotion, we examined Romans 8:18-25, paying attention to the sorry state of our broken world. According to this passage, it is filled with sufferings, futility, bondage, decay, and pains. Creation itself is groaning and we join in as we long for the world to be renewed.

Our passage from Romans shows that God’s work isn’t only a matter of saving souls—though this is crucial, thanks be to God. Yet, verse 21 reveals that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” God perfectly created the world so that it might be beautiful and fruitful (Genesis 2:9). But sin messed up what God had made, spreading brokenness throughout creation. Decay is one facet of that brokenness.

Yet God, through Christ, is in the business of mending this world. By defeating sin and death through his cross and resurrection, Christ has begun this restorative process. In time, the world will participate in “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). What is this glory? In our translation, verse 18 speaks of “the glory about to be revealed to us.” But the Greek could also be rendered as “the glory to be revealed into us.” In other words, we don’t just see the glory. We share in it. This truth was seen in the verse immediately prior to our passage, where it was said of Christ that “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Someday, as we read in the prophet Habakkuk, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). In that day, we will both marvel at this glory and share in it (Romans 5:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:17). The world and its inhabitants will finally be all that God intends us to be.

Now, at this point one might think, “That sounds great. But I’m just not seeing it. The world is a mess, and with the coronavirus, things are worse than ever. How can I have hope for this world?” This is a reasonable question, one that Paul answers briefly in Romans 8:24-25: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Our hope is not based on our ability to foresee the future. It’s not based on us at all. Rather, it is based on who God is and what God has done through Jesus Christ. It rests on the solid foundation of the resurrection of Jesus.

And it also rests on the work of God’s own Spirit in our lives. I’ll have more to say about this in tomorrow’s devotion. For now, let me invite you to consider the following questions before you conclude this devotion with prayer.

Something to Think About:

Do you tend to think of God as being mainly in the business of saving individual souls? If so, why? If not, why not? What else is God up to in the universe?

When you hear the word “glory,” what comes to mind?

When you think of sharing in God’s own glory, how do you respond? What do you think? What do you feel?

Where have you placed your hope, really? How does your hope make a difference in your life?

Something to Do:

Look up the following passages of Scripture: John 17:22; Romans 5:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17. Reflect on what they teach about our participation in God’s glory and what this might mean in your life today.

Prayer:

Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heav’n to earth come down:
Fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown:
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation, enter ev’ry trembling heart.

Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be:
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory, ’til in heav’n we take our place,
‘Til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise. Amen.

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Part 7: God’s Help and God’s Groaning

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

A forest full of fogIn today’s devotion, we continue on in Romans 8, focusing on verses 26-27. The preceding passage, as you may recall, employed the striking image of the whole creation “groaning in labor pains” as it awaits being restored by God’s power (8:22). Yet creation isn’t alone in its groaning. According to this passage, “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Our groaning, like that of creation, reflects both our brokenness and a yearning for God to make things right.

Though the ultimate right-making work of God lies in the future, God has not abandoned us in the present. On the contrary, God’s own Spirit “helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). This is the “Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead,” the Spirit who dwells in and among us and gives us life (Romans 8:11).

How does the Spirit help us when we are groaning? In Romans 8:26-27 we learn that the Spirit helps us when we pray, or when we attempt to pray, at any rate. In our weakness, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” When we pray, and especially when we have run out of words to speak, the Spirit of God prays in and for us. How amazing!

Perhaps even more amazing is Paul’s description of the Spirit praying through us. In our translation, it says that the Spirit intercedes “with sighs too deep for words.” The Greek word rendered here as “sighs” is stenagmos. This noun is based on the same stem as the verb used in the phrase “whole creation has been groaning [sustenazo]” in verse 22 and in the phrase “we . . . groan inwardly [stenazo]” in verse 23. In other words, according to Romans 8, creation is groaning, and we are groaning, and the Spirit of God is groaning along with us.

As the world suffers from the impact of the coronavirus, creation groans. And so do the millions whose lives are imperiled by the virus. We groan in fear, pain, and loss. We groan in frustration, loneliness, and anger. A dear friend of mine recently lost one of his close friends to COVID-19. When he learned of his friend’s passing, my friend groaned, filled with mourning. Yes—in his note to me he actually said he “groaned.” Yet, he did not groan alone. God was with him, helping him by groaning with him, through him, and for him.

Now, I realize it might seem odd to think of God as groaning or to think that this somehow God helps us. After all, doesn’t God have the power to make things right? Couldn’t God wipe out the novel coronavirus right now? Couldn’t God turn our tears into mourning? Yes, God could do these things. And one day God will restore creation to what he had intended from the beginning, destroying all diseases and wiping away all tears. But, in the meanwhile, for God’s own reasons, the tragedies of this broken world remain. The good news, so mysterious in many ways, is that God remains with us, helping us and even groaning in us.

When you’ve run out of words to pray, when you don’t even know what to say to God, when your heart groans with sadness and yearning, God, who raised Jesus from the dead, is with you. God knows what’s in your heart. And through his Spirit, God groans with you.

Something to Think About:

Have you ever experienced God’s help when you were praying but didn’t know what to say?

What do you think of the idea of God groaning? Is this consistent with your notion of who God is?

Have you ever experienced God groaning with you?

Something to Do:

You may be in a place of groaning today, feeling deep sadness or loss. If so, don’t hold back as you groan before the Lord. Know that he is with you. If you’re not groaning for yourself today, take time to intercede for others. Perhaps you know people who are struggling with COVID-19 or have lost loved ones to this disease. Or you probably know people who have lost their jobs because of the virus. As you pray for them, know that God’s Spirit is praying through you.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for being present in our lives through your Spirit. Thank you, not only for hearing our groaning prayers, but also for groaning with us. Thank you for the intercession of your Spirit. Thank you for knowing the unspoken prayers of our hearts.

O Lord, today we pray for those who are suffering because of the coronavirus. Whether they are physically ill, or mourning because of lost loved ones, or grieving the loss of work, or feeling squeezed by loneliness, or tortured by worry, we intercede for them today. And, as we do, groan through us by your Spirit, Lord. Amen.

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Part 8: God Works in All Things for Good

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

A cross in front of a window with the Grand Tetons seen through the window

Mark’s photo – A cross in front of a chapel window with the Grand Tetons seen through the window

Growing up in a Christian family and a Christian church, I heard Romans 8:28 a lot, especially when I was going through a difficult time. Usually, this verse came in a King James Version wrapper: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Though I loved the promise of this verse, a couple of things bothered me as I entered my teenage years. First, the whole notion of “all things working together for good” seemed to give an almost magical power to objects and circumstances. Did the things of this world really have such an amazing ability?

Second, though I wanted to believe that all things worked together for good, I had a hard time seeing this in reality. I grew up during the Vietnam War, the terrors of which appeared every night on the news. Were these things really working for good? A young friend of mine died of leukemia, leaving his parents in their unspeakable grief. Where was the goodness in his death? The idea of all things working for good didn’t fit the world I was becoming more aware of as a teenager.

Now, though I’m decades beyond my teenage years, I still love the promise of Romans 8:28. And, to be honest, there are still times when I wonder how all things are actually working together for good. For example, I see the damage done by the coronavirus, including the grievous loss of life, and I have a hard time feeling the “working for good” element. But, even with my doubts, as my understanding of Romans 8:28 has grown deeper, I have been able to embrace its promise more wisely and more tenaciously.

For one thing, I have learned that the standard translation of this verse probably misses the original intent. Greek grammar can be ambiguous at times. For example, the original language of Romans 8:28 can mean “all things work together for good.” But it can also mean “[God] works all things together for good.” Things and circumstances aren’t magic. The broken world isn’t set up so that good always prevails in this age. But God is at work in and through all things. And God is able to work in them for his ultimate good. The same God who was able to work through the horrors of the crucifixion, the same God who defeated death through the resurrection of Jesus, this God can and will work in all things for good. Yes, there are times we can’t feel it. But, by faith, we trust in God’s ultimate, gracious, loving sovereignty.

I have no confidence that, left to its own devices, COVID-19 will somehow prove to be ultimately good. It is part of this broken, cruel world in which evil causes immeasurable pain and suffering. Yet the God I know through Jesus Christ is able to work even through COVID-19 for ultimate good, the good for which we now hope even though we cannot see it (Romans 8:24-25). And when the mystery of God’s goodness leaves us feeling confused, God’s Spirit helps us, groaning with us as we yearn for God’s glory to be revealed.

Something to Think About:

Have you ever wondered about all things working together for God? Or do you find it easy to trust that this is true?

How does the promise of God’s future make a difference in your life today?

Have there been times in your life when you have experienced God at work in bad things for some greater good? Have you experienced personally God’s ability to redeem and restore? If so, when? What was that like for you?

Something to Do:

Talk with your small group or with a Christian friend about your engagement with Romans 8:28. See what you discover together as you talk.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for working in all things for good. How reassuring it is to know that you can work through anything to accomplish your purposes.

Yet, Lord, there are times when it’s hard for us to see what you’re doing and how you’re working. There are times when things happen that seem too sad, too cruel, too unimaginable. We wonder where you are and what you’re doing. In these times, give us the freedom to groan to you. And, by your indwelling Spirit, help us to trust you even when it’s so hard to do so.

May the promise that you work in all things for good keep us going, Lord, even now, when things in our world are so crazy. May we have confidence in you and hearts open to whatever you would do in and through us. Amen.

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Part 9: God is On Your Side

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

Romans 8:31-32 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

A toddler in a Wonder Woman outfitI love superheroes. I admit it without shame. I grew up watching Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man on TV. In recent years, I’ve happily added others to the pantheon of my beloved heroes.

One of my favorite scenes from a superhero movie comes from the 2017 film Wonder Woman, which is set during World War I. Diana Prince, a.k.a Wonder Woman, has joined a group of Allied fighters in Belgium as they face the German army. They are in a stalemate because nobody can cross the “No Man’s Land” of destruction that separates the Allies from the Germans.

Diana has not yet revealed who she truly is as her fellow fighters convince her there is no way to prevail against the Germans. But Diana, filled with conviction about the rightness of the Allied cause, decides it’s time to fight. She reveals herself as Wonder Woman, running toward the German front as she blocks dozens of bullets and other weaponry. At first, her associates are perplexed. But then, inspired by Diana, they follow her lead, boldly fighting against the Germans. With Wonder Woman on their side, who could be against them?

The Apostle Paul, though without the benefit of this inspiring scene from Wonder Woman, makes a similar point in Romans 8—but this time about God. Though he has acknowledged the groaning of the fallen creation, the broken world in which we live, Paul is not afraid of the opposition we face in life. “What then are we to say about these things?” he asks. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). A few verses later he’ll mention many things that attempt to oppose us: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword (Romans 8:35). We might add: the novel coronavirus, poverty, atheistic secularism, racism, human trafficking, structural injustice, depression, economic insecurity, materialism, and so forth. Yet, if God is truly on our side, then none of these things can oppose us effectively. They might prevail for the moment, but God will ultimately be victorious. And God is “for us” (Romans 8:31). Or, as we read in The Message, “So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose?”

How do we know that this is true? Paul points to the fact that God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32). This is a clear reference to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The resurrection appears a couple of verses later: “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34). So, the death and resurrection of Jesus prove God’s choice to be “for us,” to be on our side.

That God is for us is surely one of the most encouraging truths we can imagine. But the idea that God is at work for us doesn’t mean we simply sit around and watch. Rather, like the soldiers fighting with Wonder Woman, the fact of God being on our side energizes us and calls us into battle. In 1 Corinthians 15, after proclaiming the victory of God over sin and death through Jesus Christ, Paul writes, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the word of the Lord” (15:58). Because God is for us, we know that our labors in this life are not in vain. Whether you’re a nurse caring for COVID-19 patients in the hospital, or a dad learning how to homeschool your children, or a boss trying to keep your people employed, or a teacher using online education for the first time, or a pastor caring for your people digitally, or a check-out clerk in the market, or you name it, the work you do matters. And if you feel discouraged, as is so easy to do these days, remember that God is on your side.

Something to Think About:

Can you think of a time in your life when someone was on your side and that made a big difference to you?

Do you live as if God is “for you”? If so, what difference does this make? If not, why not?

Something to Do:

Take some time to reflect on the question: If God is really for me, how might I live differently today? As you come up with ideas, implement at least one of them.

Prayer:

Gracious God,

Thank you for being on our side. Thank you for demonstrating that you are “for us” through Jesus Christ, supremely through his death and resurrection.

Lord, may I live with the confidence that you are “for me.” May all that I do reflect this foundational truth. And, may I live for you and your purposes in everything. To you be all the glory! Amen.

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Part 10: Nothing Can Take Away God’s Love from You

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35, 37-39 (NRSV)

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

A mother holding her childIf you didn’t know anything about the life of the Apostle Paul, you might find today’s Scripture passage to be, well, naïvely positive. Sure, Paul can say that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ—but isn’t this perspective rather Pollyanna-ish? Isn’t it the kind of thing said by privileged people who really haven’t experienced life’s hardships?

I have no doubt that sometimes Christians have spoken of God’s love in ways that are naïve and simplistic. I know I’ve done so at times. Maybe you have too. But, let’s be clear, the Apostle Paul was not one of these Christians. He knew all about suffering. In 2 Corinthians, for example, he talked about being “so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Later in this letter, he explained that, in comparison with others, he had experienced “far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

So, to use the language of Romans 8, Paul was pretty much an expert in “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword.” Yet, in spite of what he had suffered—or perhaps because of what he had suffered—Paul was utterly convinced that nothing could separate him—or you—from God’s love in Jesus Christ. He concludes his argument in Romans 8 with these inspiring words: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

Now, remember, the person writing this is the same one who spoke to the Corinthians about being “so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” Paul was not one to pretend that everything was always hunky-dory. Yet, even in times of suffering and discouragement, Paul held on tight to the truth of God’s love in Christ. And God held on tight to Paul.

As I write this final devotional in the “Easter and COVID-19” series, I watch with sadness and horror as millions throughout the world are suffering. I know that, for many, it may very well feel as if they are separated from God’s love. Perhaps you feel that way because of COVID-19 or some other hardship. I do not mean to minimize your pain. But the fact that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love is not based on our experience. Rather, it is grounded on the ultimate expression of God’s love in Jesus Christ, who died and was raised. The victory of Jesus on Easter proves that nothing can separate us from God’s love. By faith, we hold on to this good news at all times, but especially in times of loss and deprivation. Yet, even then, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we know that God is with us (Psalm 23:4). The God who has given us his love in Jesus Christ will not let go of us. Nothing in the universe can separate you from his love.

Something to Think About:

Has there been a time in your life when you have felt as if God’s love was taken from you? What happened? Did God ever reaffirm his love for you? If so, how?

Right now, do you feel connected to God’s love for you in Christ?

How can we be sure of God’s love for us in times of extremely suffering and loss?

Something to Do:

Take some time to ponder God’s love for you. How has God made his love real to you? Talk with God about this.

Prayer:

Gracious God, for the good news of Romans 8 we give you thanks once again. How amazing it is that nothing in all creation can separate us from your love for us in Jesus Christ!

Yet, you know, Lord, there are times when your love does seem distant, even non-existent. There are times when we doubt your love. Thank you for understanding how it feels to be forsaken, even if you have not actually forsaken us. Thank you for holding on tight to us in times when we might want to reject you.

Help me, Lord, to anchor my life in your love for me. No matter what comes, may I be confident in your love revealed through Christ. Amen.

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