Reservations for cruises next year are up 40 percent from 2019. If you book one, expect to experience more stringent boarding procedures, regular temperature checks, expanded onboard medical centers, improved air filtration systems, and crew-manned serving stations.
And don’t be surprised if a robot cleans your room. Sterilization robots already in use in hotels could be on your next ship.
We’re looking for help with COVID-19 in every direction, from the Senate deal yesterday on a $484 billion aid package to the New York City mayor’s plan to throw a parade for healthcare workers and first responders when the city reopens.
But the most significant direction we can look today is up.
A powerful image of divine judgment
I am reading through the Book of Isaiah these days and came upon a chapter that speaks directly to our crisis.
The prophet foresaw a day when the people of Israel would be judged by God: “It shall be as when the reaper gathers standing grain and his arm harvests the ears, and as when one gleans the ears of grain in the Valley of Rephaim. Gleanings will be left in it, as when an olive tree is beaten” (Isaiah 17:5–6).
I have been in Israel during olive harvesting season and seen workers beating the trees to knock the olives from their branches. A few olives are always left, while most fall to the ground.
This is a powerful picture of God’s judgment against his sinful people. But here’s the resulting good news: “In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made” (vv. 7–8).
The people had trusted what they could make rather than the One who made them. When they got so far down they could look nowhere but up, they would turn back to the God they should have been trusting and worshiping all along.
It was vital to do immediately: “You have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge; therefore, though you plant pleasant plants and sow the vine-branch of a stranger, though you make them grow on the day that you plant them, and make them blossom in the morning that you sow, yet the harvest will flee away in a day of grief and incurable pain” (vv. 10–11).
In other words, trusting present resources against future judgment is always a tragic mistake.
How this warning relates to the pandemic
These words are in God’s word as a warning not just to their original readers, but to us as well.
I am not claiming that the coronavirus pandemic is God’s judgment against specific sins or sinners. In fact, I do not view the virus that way. Divine judgment involving disease in Scripture is supernatural in nature, such as the plagues in Egypt. It is also directed at specific sins, such as Herod’s claim of divinity in Acts 12:20–23. (For more, see my article in Christianity Today.)
But I am claiming that the principle found in Isaiah 17 is just as relevant today as it was 2,700 years ago. Neither God’s nature nor human nature have changed. What the Lord judged then, he judges today.
The people of Israel had “forgotten the God of your salvation” and shifted their faith to what they could do themselves. Our secular culture has done the same.
“You do not have, because you do not ask”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo captured the spirit of our age when he said of declining coronavirus cases in his state, “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that” (his emphasis).
In his worldview, we have a binary choice: either we do something, or God does it. The governor doesn’t seem to understand that God employs people to do his work, that he can lead scientists and empower doctors in our fallen world. Or that praying for his help is essential to experiencing the fullness of his omnipotent grace: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2).
We obviously need scientists and leaders to do their work. We need to shelter in place until we can return to “normal.”
But as we search for ways to defeat this disease, how many of our leaders are turning to God for help? When we make progress in battling the virus, how many of our people are turning publicly to God in gratitude?
The only path to perfect freedom
When we submit our lives to our Lord, we experience the paradoxical freedom that comes from making him our Master. Consider this profound observation by Frederick Buechner:
We have freedom to the degree that the master whom we obey grants it to us in return for our obedience. We do well to choose a master in terms of how much freedom we get for how much obedience.
To obey the law of the land leaves us our constitutional freedom, but not the freedom to follow our own consciences wherever they lead.
To obey the dictates of our own consciences leaves us freedom from the sense of moral guilt, but not the freedom to gratify our own strongest appetites.
To obey our strongest appetites for drink, sex, power, revenge, or whatever leaves us the freedom of an animal to take what we want when we want it, but not the freedom of a human being to be human.
The old prayer speaks of God ‘in whose service is perfect freedom.’ The paradox is not as opaque as it sounds. It means that to obey Love itself, which above all else wishes us well, leaves us the freedom to be the best and gladdest that we have it in us to become. The only freedom Love denies us is the freedom to destroy ourselves ultimately.
How free are you today?