In this strange Time of the Virus, little seems certain. When will it end? Who will get sick? Who will die? Will I? Will our medical response prove adequate? Will it prove ill-advised? Will our social policies prove necessary, disastrous, or both? Will I have a job in four months? Will I have a church? We know next to nothing about the true answers to these questions, however furious and focused our opinions may be.
Uncertainty is at the center of the Christian vocation. Uncertainty may not comprehensively describe that vocation, but it defines it in an essential way. Many Christians will and do reject this claim, I realize. “We know with certainty all that is important to know!” they will say. God is in control; God is good; God rewards the faithful; Jesus is Lord, and in him death and sin are defeated; the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church, and heaven awaits us. These are indeed Big Picture certainties. But the Big Picture isn’t all there is to God’s reality or to the Christian’s life. Small pictures are the bits that make up the Big Picture’s mosaic. In these little corners of reality, dark holes of uncertainty await the unwary, and teeming abysses of confusion stand ready to swallow the complacent. In the Time of the Virus, church leaders seem to be focusing mostly on the Big Picture. They shouldn’t; it’s evangelically irresponsible.
Scriptural revelation is riddled with the deepest of uncertainties, often signaled by the question “who knows?” It is a question that both unveils our fundamental ignorance as creatures, and that, in that revelation, turns us to the dizzying grace of God in the place we actually live. One can sort this ignorance into at least three areas: Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Who knows what God will do? Who knows where I will end up? The Time of the Virus zeroes in on each of these wonderments.
Who knows what will happen tomorrow? None of us do. The entire book of Ecclesiastes flows out of this truth (cf. 8:7), which hovers about the whole of the Old Testament. It finds a classic assertion in James, as he goes after the confident traders of his day (4:14): “You do not know about tomorrow. What, after all, is your life?” The failure to grasp this reality is embodied in the confident rich man, saving his piled riches in a barn, whom Jesus berates in the voice of God: “Fool! Your life will be taken this very night! And then who will possess what you have gathered?” (Lk. 12:20). Everything resonates here: our lives, our families, our labor, our pastimes, our homes, our savings, our predictive obsessions.
Who knows what God will do? The Psalmist is always crying out “how long?” in the face of God’s silence, wrath, or seeming injustice (see Psalm 74). Bad things keep happening, bad people keep pressing their will, bad things gnarl the mind and the heart. “No one knows!,” the Psalmist sings (now there’s a song to chant in church, or maybe live-stream into the living room!). This kind of ignorance has its uses, of course, for it always leaves open some unexpected gift from God. “Who knows whether God will be gracious?,” David wonders in the face of his child’s illness (2 Sam. 12:22). God did not let the child live, as it turned out. But to the Ninevites, such questions ended with God’s mercy (Jonah 3:9–10). Yes, Jesus will come to vindicate his faithful (Mark 13:32). When exactly? Who knows!
Who knows where I will end up? This question cuts closest to the Big Picture enthusiasts. The preacher in Ecclesiastes wonders what happens to the spirit of human beings when they die: Are they different from “the beasts that perish”? “Who knows?,” he asks (Eccl. 3:21). Christians like to think they are smarter than Solomon on this front. But while St. Paul is confident in a resurrection, he has his own uncertainties: Will I suffer with the Lord, so as to reach this goal (Rom. 8:17)? Might I (or you) fail to endure (2 Tim. 2:12)? Do I not strain ahead, in hope, but also in “fear and trembling” (Phil. 3:10–14; 2:12)? Doctrines of assurance have their place; but not so as to unravel the knots of the present.
It is, of course, the present that is underlined in all these realms of ignorance. Because we do not know tomorrow, we do not know God’s plans or even the depth of God’s character in planning. We do not know how it all adds up, we are stuck firmly in this one place where God has thrust us, stripped of organizing frameworks of meaning based on the plotting of the stars. “Today,” God seems to say, “take stock of today.”
And today is not an empty moment, nor one solely inhabited by the fears or anxieties of an opaque future. “Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” Jesus both warns and encourages his disciples. Instead, “seek the kingdom and its righteousness” (Matt. 6:31–34). To all the questions of “who knows?,” the Scriptures respond with concrete gifts. Who knows about tomorrow? James says, “Be humble.” Who knows if God will be merciful? The prophets all respond, “Therefore repent” (Joel 2). Who knows what will become of us? The Psalmist writes, “Remember who God is!” (Ps. 74:12ff.). Today, simply because God has given it to us, is filled with grace; and the service of this grace today is one whose forms are manifold and beautiful, shaped by the humbled, repentant heart that speaks of God’s great works. That service is our vocation in the midst of uncertainty.
It is surely unfortunate that Christians gave up the celebration of the weekly sabbath. For the sabbath is the great sign of the “sufficiency of today,” of the fact that God gives himself to us through the things of today—of sitting down at home, of family and sojourner together, of food, of repentance, of remembrance and restoration in the unmerited grace of creation—in which “tomorrow” is but a vague and flickering reflection. These are not “spiritual practices”; they are the root of reality. Psalm 90, which likely describes the plague of Numbers 14, awash with uncertainty, is followed by the anonymity of Psalm 91, wherein the beleaguered Everyman clings to God while the world is crashing around him. But these two psalms themselves find their resolution, as it were, in Psalm 92, the one Psalm written “for the sabbath day.” The sabbath day, as traditional Jewish prayers emphasize, is the day when creation and exodus are proclaimed anew to Israel, and thus granted a kind of permanence within the shifting eddies of time. The world is marked by days, each one the very day of our vanishing (Ps. 90:4–6). But the seventh day is their transfiguration. It is, however, a day nonetheless, because it is “today.”
Like many others, I find the savings for my future are going up in smoke, the plans for my self-fulfillment withering, the assumptions about tomorrow cast into the teeming chasm of “who knows?” But I have been a “fool” to have ever thought otherwise. And in my foolishness I have lost the very gifts that God would give me on this day, of all days. The rich can give away their goods today, or simply have them taken from them; the proud can, just today, stoop toward the dust of their own and of their neighbors’ making, or they can be cast down; the scheming and the distracted can call to mind today the works of God, or be plowed under by them. Would that the world knew about “today”!
The over-eschatologization of the faith has robbed the world of its intrinsic divine purposes, both for conservative and progressive Christians. Dwelling on the Big Picture, the time to come, conservatives give up on the uncertain present, while progressives see it as useful putty to be moulded at the fantasizing will of the human potter. The uncertainties of the present, however, are the building blocks of hope, not its detritus. The future may or may not be pleasant. Who knows? “Repent and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:14). The Time of the Virus is giving us back today. Let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps. 118:24).
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.