In September 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain declared war. One month later, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the newly appointed associate pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, preached five Sunday sermons soon published under the title Why Does God Allow War?. The London Blitz would occur less than a year later. So these sermons were preached in the midst of war, to people confronting the sheer scale of a life-altering crisis. Lloyd Jones wrote, “I preached the messages to the people in the hope that they might help them, and strengthen their faith, in the critical days through which we are passing.”
Our present experience of coronavirus has similarities with war (which is exactly what some are calling it). But it’s not like all wars, since many conflicts don’t create personal discomfort or require personal sacrifice from the general population. The granular and global effects of coronavirus are more like a world war.
When facing a problem of this scale, it’s helpful to gain wisdom from those who’ve trusted Christ and shepherded souls through other historically big crises. Lloyd-Jones’s October 1939 sermons point pastors to two crucial ways of preaching and shepherding in time of crisis. A major, scary situation can become for God’s people both a mirror (to show us more of ourselves) and a lens (to show us more of God).
Help Members Know Themselves
Times of crisis, Lloyd-Jones taught, reveal who we really are:
There is no time to remember the conventionalities and the customs, no opportunity as it were of putting on the mask; we just act instinctively. The natural, the real, and the true come into view.
War shows human sin; it “reveals man and the possibilities within man’s nature.” Additionally, crises demonstrate what we really believe and whether our relationship with God is real. In his five October 1939 sermons, Lloyd-Jones took time to help his congregants look more closely at themselves. In particular, he identified several types of professing Christians for whom there was a major disconnect between their professed faith and the harsh new realities of war.
Some had been raised in a religious context and had unquestioningly accepted religious teaching. Now, when confronted by a massive crisis, they behaved and reacted in exactly the same way as those who’d never believed. These professing Christians were equally helpless and equally hopeless. Their religion seemed to make no difference whatsoever.
Another group consisted of those whose interest in Christianity was mainly intellectual. While the first group hadn’t thought much about Christianity, these folks had thought a lot about it. But something crucial was missing:
Religion was something to talk about and to argue about, something which a man could take up and put down. It had never become a part of their inner actual experience.
And so, when the war came and something more than arguments and facts was needed, this group was spiritually bankrupt.
Other types of Christians were perplexed by the war. One was the pietist who had been devout in his faith. His interest in Christianity had been “almost entirely personal—personal in the sense of an experience of personal salvation, personal also in the sense that the directly . . . experiential results and effects of Christianity have been the main objects of consideration and of interest. . . . Theology has not interested him.” He had “shut himself off from the world, intellectually as well as in practice.” During peacetime, all was well. But when war came, he fell into real difficulties. He didn’t know how God could possibly allow war. He’d never thought much about how God works in the world beyond his own soul.
A final type of Christian considered by Lloyd-Jones was “the kind of person who has held certain vague and loose ideas about God and about the nature of God.” These Christians had emphasized God’s love at the expense of his other attributes. They’d highlighted God’s forgiveness and had believed that God’s one big desire “is that men and women shall be happy at all costs” and so “they cannot understand how God can possibly allow war with all its cruelty and its suffering. It seems to them to be incompatible with all that they have previously believed.”
Of course, the church and society today are different from what Lloyd-Jones saw and experienced in 20th-century London. But the important thing for pastors here is to see a godly preacher holding up a mirror in the pulpit, asking his people to see themselves afresh in light of current events.
We can do the same.
What is coronavirus revealing about our understanding of God and our faith in him? Is it uncovering our reliance on other, lesser gods? Is it raising questions about God we should have asked before but never have? Is it showing that our faith consists more in knowledge than in lived, experiential relationship with God?
Help People Know God
For Lloyd-Jones, the war was more than a mirror. It was also a lens through which to see and savor more of God himself. Afflictions, he said, demonstrate our weakness and helplessness and drive us to God in dependence. This happens as the majesty and beauty of God are heralded in the time of crisis.
Many in Lloyd-Jones’s day were arguing that theology is well and good in peacetime, but that in a time of crisis we need comfort and consolation, not theology. Lloyd-Jones demolished that view, pointing out the profoundly theological nature of Romans 8, written by a suffering Christian to suffering Christians. Paul used theological terms such as “foreknowledge,” “predestination,” “justification,” and “glorification”—and through his rich, robust theology Paul strengthened and comforted suffering saints.
Times of crisis provide an opportunity to look afresh at God. They can focus us with new urgency on God’s beauty and majesty. The way to obtain and retain the joy Jesus gives us, Lloyd-Jones writes, is to “understand and to grasp the conditions on which he gives it. And that implies thought and theology.”
Times of crisis provide an opportunity to look afresh at God. They can focus us with new urgency on God’s beauty and majesty.
The “primary business of the church with respect to believers is to teach the doctrines of the faith” and that doesn’t change in the time of crisis. On the contrary, it’s every bit as important.
Coronavirus as Mirror and Lens
Here’s an encouragement for us, fellow pastors and preachers: let’s employ our current crisis as a mirror to help our people see themselves more clearly. And let’s encourage them to look through this crisis to behold a wise, sovereign God who controls all things.
Shining through Lloyd-Jones’s wartime sermons is the conviction that what we need in crisis is a robust, soul-satisfying understanding and experience of God. We desperately need strong theology that fuels a real relationship with a great God. Let’s pursue that ourselves, and give it to our people.