This post is also available in Spanish.
I’m 56 years old, and I have never seen the world suffering as much as it is now. It’s horrible, and I don’t want to gloss over the full extent of this suffering. In the midst of this suffering, though, those who carry the message of hope have a great opportunity! Suffering brings an openness to people, because they can no longer trust in their finances, their job, their health or their own security.
Some of the suffering that has been highlighted in 2020 includes:
- Stress and anxiety are at very high levels for everyone, not just those who struggle with anxiety. Psychiatrists say that COVID has increased the stress and anxiety levels of everyone by about 30%. That stress is in us; we all have it. If you are wondering why you feel tired, lethargic, lazy, sick, it’s because stress affects us.
- COVID sickness and death: COVID has filled our hospitals and ICU units. In New York, semi-trucks were parked outside the hospitals to hold the abundance of dead bodies. As of late August, 2020, we have seen about 850,000 deaths worldwide; 182,000 deaths in the USA. Each one of these numbers is a human; with surviving family and friends who are mourning.
- COVID brings financial difficulties, with unemployment reaching 25%. The extra federal $600/month unemployment has expired, bringing financial issues to millions.
- Financial Divide: COVID highlights the divide between the rich and poor. The stock market is hitting all-time highs, and the rich get richer. While forty million have applied for unemployment, billionaires in the United States have increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the poor are suffering: homelessness is increasing; bankruptcies are increasing; savings accounts are decreasing or nonexistent.
- Division among Americans: The divide is not just financial: think of Trump vs. Biden. I see this division as I read Instagram stories. I will read one that says "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is my hero," and the very next story says that AOC and Biden are liars and evil. Some are crying to defund the police; while others are crying to respect the police and save our cities, which are seeing shootings at the highest levels in years. In Chicago, 464 homicides this year: higher than the total of any entire year in the last decade. In New York, shootings were up 177% in July.
- Racism. 2020 also brought racism into the limelight due to police shootings, with ongoing protests. Racism has existed, but I have never seen the pain of racism highlighted so clearly, and organizations finally trying to find ways to fight systemic racism. I have also not seen the pain of racism expressed by so many, even my friends have opened up to the pains they have experienced.
- Heat and wildfires. In mid-August, there were 560 wildfires burning in California, with over 1.3 million acres burned, including some of the oldest redwood forests.
- Schools are closed. Many schools are opening this Fall to remote learning; so, we are stuck for hours and hours of Zoom fatigue. Other schools are opening, but experiencing alarming increases of COVID in their schools—some universities have switched from in person to remote learning within two weeks of opening.
- Loneliness. Many are stuck in their homes, working or doing school remotely. I worry more about my 84-year-old mom’s loneliness than I do about her getting COVID. I have spent more time with my neighbors in the last six months than in the last eighteen years because people are stuck in their homes all day. They are coming outside into the streets so the kids can play at night.
COVID, sickness, ICU, ventilators, death, stress, anxiety, depression, financial problems, no jobs, no open schools, division in our country, shootings, homicide, racism, protesting, loneliness.
In the midst of all of this suffering, we need to remember that God loves the world (John 3:16)—this dark, sinful and suffering world. God loves this suffering world so much, that he sent Jesus; and he now sends us: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
Suffering brings suffering and pain, but it also brings a great opportunity for those of us carry the message of hope and peace! Suffering brings an openness to the gospel that I have never seen here in comfortable America.
My church of 1300 people has seen over 80 people decide to follow Jesus since March. Saddleback church in SoCal has seen over 10,000 conversions. One recent Biola graduate led over 30 people to the Lord his church’s first two food distributions. In the last two food distributions, they gave food to 750 families, and saw 190 conversions. Can you believe that?! A friend of mine in Barcelona said that people are contacting her church, looking for hope—this is unheard of in Spain.
In March, the Wall Street Journal published an article: “A Coronavirus Great Awakening?” The article stated that sometimes the most important ingredient for spiritual renewal is a cataclysmic event, suffering. Bible app downloads have increased drastically. The English-language Bible was downloaded almost two million times in March. Similarly, one of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, saw physical Bible sales rise by 55% in April. Google searches for “prayer” and “Christianity” have skyrocketed.
“I've never known a time in my life when people are more open to [God’s word] than they are now. There are no other distractions. There's no football, there's no sport. There's no entertainment. People have time to hear the Gospel,” said Nicky Gumbel from Eden.
In the midst of COVID, racial unrest and suffering, we Christians can provide an alternative of hope and true peace. For example, in Portland, on August 8, 5000 Christians—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—gathered to worship in a park in Portland. Just hours later, a riot was declared across town, where a crowd lit fire to the city police union headquarters.
God loves this dark, suffering world. He has not abandoned it; is not unconcerned; is not distant; is not ignoring it. He has compassion and loves it – so, he sends. There are so many terms we can use for our Christian role to this suffering world: evangelist, missionary, sent one or ambassador. But I want to highlight the term that Jesus used of himself when he saw the suffering: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36; cf. John 10).
We are also called to be shepherds. Called, like Jesus, to the harassed, helpless, and suffering world: “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28); “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them” (1 Peter 5:2).
Shepherds leaders see their sheep.
Shepherds leaders pay attention to their sheep.
Shepherds leaders lead and guide their sheep.
Shepherds leaders need patience with their sheep.
Shepherds leaders teach their sheep.
Shepherds leaders protect their sheep—physically and spiritually.
Shepherds leaders have compassion for their sheep.
We are called to be compassionate shepherds to this dark, suffering world.
As shepherds, let’s get our sheep to focus on the end of suffering, as Jesus promised: the Great Shepherd of the sheep will appear again, among his people, caring for them, and leading them to the springs. When the end comes, there will no longer be darkness, death, Covid, ventilator machines, poverty, homelessness, racism, division, shootings, murder, anxiety, stress, suffering. Instead of all of this darkness and suffering, Jesus will stand in our midst, leading us to peace, joy and love…for all of eternity.
We know the end of the story. This suffering is real, but it also brings real opportunities for shepherds to bring the message of hope, love, and peace. We are called to help people put their focus on eternity instead of this earth, which is passing away. It is so easy to get caught up in the difficulty of the now, and miss the hope of the future.
Rev 7:16-17 says," Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
God, help me to trust Jesus as my Good Shepherd. Help me to develop an eternal mindset, trusting that one day, we will find peace in heaven with our Good Shepherd. Lord, please build a shepherd’s heart in me, so that I can compassionately lead, protect, and care for the suffering in the world. Jesus, please open hearts to the Gospel and send more workers into the ripe harvest fields.