The Bible speaks to isolation

One of the things that constantly amazes me about the Scriptures is their relevance to every situation we face. The Bible speaks to every generation, to every era, to every situation. It doesn’t speak in the same way, and contextualization gives new appreciation for passages that were always there but didn’t speak to us in a previous context, or didn’t speak to a previous generation the way it does today.

That means, even though I’ve never thought about isolation before, I knew before I even looked that I’d find relevant passages to our context today. It turns out there are loads of examples in Scripture. Here are a few that I’ve been reflecting on:

  • What was it like for Noah to spend a year and ten days on the ark with his immediate family? What load of grief did he carry for the earth’s population who lost their lives? What trauma did he carry from hearing the screams of those outside the door of the ark? He certainly had lots to do, in his floating zoo, but a year in a small space is a long time! (Genesis 6-9)
  • What was it like for a normal, healthy person in Jesus’ day to suddenly get infected with leprosy? The instructions of Leviticus 13 include going to a front-line worker, a priest, and being quarantined for 14 days before being forced to live alone. How devastating it would be to be cut off from one’s family and pushed away from society! These castaways often formed a new community of the marginalized, with perhaps their only commonality being their shared illness. (Episode 6 of The Chosen has an amazing depiction of Jesus interacting with a leper.)
  • What was it like for Paul to transition from an active missionary lifestyle to sudden confinement in prison? Acts 20 and 21 describe the premonition Paul had that imprisonment and affliction awaited him, and show that he was thinking about end of life issues. It wasn’t easy for Paul. Once imprisoned, Jesus paid him a visit at night telling him to take courage and helping him say on mission (Acts 23:11). As an unmarried single, he talked a lot about his desire to see those he loved. He eventually settled into life as a WFH author (working from home).
  • What was it like for a young Joseph, whose plans and career trajectory were disrupted by sudden injustice not once but twice—first, when his brothers sold him into slavery, and second, when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife? He found himself confined to the royal prison. Yet, even there, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor” (Gen 39:21). (Story in Genesis 37-41)

I encourage you to mine these examples and send me the insights and applications God uncovers as you look at them again through the eyes of isolation and physical distancing. God’s Word is alive!

Wartime leadership: under armor

In my last post, I named four strategies we can deploy as wartime leaders. There’s one more.

5. Wear the right clothing
When you heard “clothing,” many of you immediately jumped to Ephesians 6:10-20, which unpacks the armor of our warfare as believers, the outerwear believers are exhorted to put on before standing “against the schemes of the devil.”

The remarkable thing about that list of armor is that almost every piece can be used ineffectively. We’ve all seen Christians wildly swinging their swords and using Scripture in a way that causes “friendly fire.” We’ve seen people use truth as a hammer instead of a belt. Others put on the breastplate of self righteousness, hide behind their shields of faith or misunderstand their helmet of salvation. Confident in the fact that their own eternal salvation is secure, their helmet narrows their vision, makes them hard-headed or prevents them from asking if salvation has relevance to this life.

How can we Christians misuse our armor this way? Because we go out to war commando-style. We forget to put on our underwear.

Before we grab our armor, shield and sword, Paul recommends some additional clothing in Colossians, some traits that we should put on first. Think of these as the Under Armor of the believer (with apologies to the company, I think the idea translates pretty well).

I think Eugene Peterson’s rendering captures the essence of these verses:

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (‭Colossians‬ ‭3‬:‭12-14‬)

Be honest: we think of compassion, humility and love as “soft skills” for peaceful, “kumbaya” community. This list of clothing doesn’t read like preparation for warfare, does it? So let’s look a little deeper. We’ll see that these characteristics have very real application to wartime leadership.

First, the Colossians list maximizes the effectiveness of each piece of armor. Look again at the list in Ephesians 6. The Bible is full of verses that pair “soft skills” with each piece of armor. A sampling:

  • Proverbs 21:21 pairs righteousness with kindness. He who pursues the two together will find life and honour in addition to righteousness.
  • Psalm 45:4 matches truth with meekness and righteousness. A victorious king puts on his armour and sword, and defends the causes of truth, meekness/humility and righteousness.
  • In Ephesians 4:15, Paul pairs truth with love within the context of growing up.
  • In Philippians 2:12, Paul speaks of the process of learning to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Other translations use words like reverence, awe, humility and sensitivity.
  • In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul urges his protege to become an approved worker, “rightly handling the word of truth.” The context is maturity, hard work and discipline, drawing from the metaphors of a soldier, an athlete and a farmer.

Second, the traits in Colossians provide incredible defensive protection on their own merits. Knights knew the best way to prepare for flaming arrows was to cover their shields with dampened hides before they went to war. That’s the image Paul had in mind when he said faith is a shield that can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one (Eph 6:16). Character traits like compassion, humility, gentleness and patience are equally effective at dousing the flames of accusation, violence and rage. As Solomon pointed out, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov 15:1).

There’s another application. Many of the attacks on the believer come from within and behind. Our own spirits are waging war within us (Gal 5:17; Rom 7:15-8:11). Unity and community are constantly breaking down. The clothing in Colossians 3 is our best response to the everyday situations of tension, misunderstanding, abrasive personalities, false motivations, jealousy and narcissism. Leaders in particular are vulnerable, because a large part of leadership is dealing with personnel and personality issues.

Third, the Colossians characteristics prove to be our most effective offensive weapons. In my last post, I mentioned the immense power in forgiveness to disarm our most fervent attackers. Proverbs 25:21-22 associates kindness and compassion with an image of surprising violence: feeding a hungry enemy is like heaping burning coals on his head. In Romans 12:19-20, Paul picks up that image and sets it in the context of forgiveness and allowing God to mete out vengeance and wrath. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Rather, our job as sons and daughters of God is to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44-46).

Bottom line: our flesh wants to fight back in kind, but we cannot win God’s victories without using God’s weaponry and methodology. It’s counter-intuitive, and it’s counter-cultural. In Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, meekness trumps power, humility can defeat hostility and death can equal victory. Recently, as I read A Wind in the House of Islam, I noted what the research showed about movements to Christ. People are drawn to the Lord when other religions model violence. But people move just as quickly away from Christianity when Christians (or “Christian nations”) respond with violence. It’s only in responding with compassion, kindness, meekness, forgiveness and love that the kingdom of God expands. Those are the weapons of our warfare.