Where is God's Blessing in a Pandemic?
I have had this particular quote from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings come up twice in the last couple of weeks and I think it can speak into our current situation. Frodo has just learned about the power of the ring and has to decide what to do about it. He is faced with a choice of whether or not to undertake the daunting task of destroying the ring. Gandalf's response keeps echoing around my head. At present, we too are faced with choices on how we respond to the challenges we face resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the narrative of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is the small actions of insignificant people, like Frodo, that make a huge difference to the outcome. The same is true throughout the story of the Bible and the history of the church: the small actions of God's people change the course of history and most don't realise they are doing so at the time. Instead, they are simply trying to make their small corner of the world a better place in whatever struggle they are facing.
As I write, New Zealand is in lockdown and we are facing all manner of challenges as we adapt to these new circumstances and ways of living. Amid isolation and uncertainty, the day to day outlook can be pretty bleak. We can find ourselves echoing, "I wish it need not have happened in my time." I want to try to shine some light and hope into our current circumstances by focusing on God's blessing: what God's blessing is according to scripture, and what hope it can give to all of us who are struggling amid the current pandemic and the impact it will have on our futures.
God blesses people throughout the Bible, starting immediately after creating humankind in Genesis 1:28: "God blessed them." In Genesis 12:1–3, God promises to bless Abraham and bless the whole world through him. As the narrative of Genesis unfolds, God provides the patriarchs with children, large flocks and herds, protection from those who try to harm them, and help during times of famine and other hardships (e.g., Gen 20–21, 29–30). Their lives are not free of trials, but God walks alongside them and supports them through all the trials and challenges of their lives.
The same pattern appears with Israel. God rescues his people from slavery in Egypt where he has enabled them to grow into a strong nation (Exod 1–14). He establishes a covenant with them (Exod 20–24), which includes details on the ways he will continue to bless them as they remain obedient to that covenant (Lev 26:1–13; Deut 28:1–14). As with Abraham and the patriarchs, this blessing takes the form of abundance, prosperity, protection from their enemies, and their growth as a nation with the intention that they will, in turn, be a blessing to the rest of the world. God aims to support and aid his people as they work with him to bring about his plan for the world. The blessed are identified as those who are faithful to God and his covenant; they trust him to protect them and provide for them (e.g., Ps 32:1–2; Prov 28:14; Isa 56:2).
By the time of the New Testament, the situation hasn't really changed much. The period of the Kings and the exile brought about the realisation that God's blessing cannot always be determined by looking at what a person has (Isa 30:18–19; Mal 3:8–15; 4 Macc 10:15; 17:18). Just because a person has wealth, children, and a seemingly easy life, does not automatically mean that they are blessed by God. The opposite is also true: the poor wretched person who nothing seems to go right for may, in fact, be someone who strives to obey God's commands and may be blessed, but that blessing is not yet apparent. It may become apparent at a later time, or it may never be obvious to the casual observer. God's blessing is more complex than the outward trappings of a person's life.
One of the best places to see this in action is the beatitudes in Luke's Gospel (6:20–23):
Blessed are the poor
because the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are those who are hungry now
because you will be filled.
Blessed are those who weep now
because you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and mock you and cast out your name as evil because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because see! your reward in heaven is great; for their fathers did these things to the prophets.
At first glance, these beatitudes make little sense. Extreme poverty, hunger, grief, and social persecution are not circumstances we strive to be in. They are horrible, stressful, soul-destroying situations and people throughout history have gone to great lengths to escape and avoid them. And yet, Jesus identifies these circumstances as blessed by God. What does all this mean?
There are two ways to understand these beatitudes. If we read them in order, they tell us that God cares for those who are struggling, those who don't have enough to be comfortable in life, and who are afflicted by circumstances beyond their control. The first and last beatitudes promise something now: "the kingdom of God is yours" and "your reward in heaven is great." For the second and third, however, the result is in the future: "you will be filled" and "you will laugh." The combination of present and future fulfilment makes it clear that this is not a promise that everything will magically change. Instead, it is a promise that God will put things right even though we can't say when it will happen or what form it will take. The beatitudes are a promise that God is with us in our struggles, including all the new circumstances brought up by Covid-19, and he will protect and provide for us in ways we do not expect and cannot foresee.
If we read the beatitudes in light of the last beatitude, which addresses those who are persecuted because of their faith, they can be read as addressed to Christians who suffer because of their faith. In the first century, there was no social welfare system and people relied on their extended families to help them when things went wrong. A person who put their faith in Jesus risked being cut off from this familial safety net for going against their cultural beliefs and customs, whether they were Jewish or Gentile. Those who became poor, hungry, grieving, or persecuted because of their faith also receive God's blessing.
Based on the accounts of the early church in Acts where believers sold their lands and possessions to support those in need in their community (Acts 2:43–47), I believe that one of the ways God blesses both these groups of people is through the work of his church in the world. As the church of God, we are called to help and support one another in times of crisis and also bring the Kingdom of God into reality here on earth. One of the ways the church has done this over the millennia is through helping the weakest in our society, which can be seen through the innumerable Christian aid organisations operating in New Zealand and around the world, and in the church-based outreach programs that serve the needs of the local communities. It can be seen in the ways we support our church friends, our work colleagues, our neighbours, and our essential workers.
In this pandemic, our lives have changed a lot in a very short space of time. We are all struggling in our own ways to come to terms with these changes and deal with the stress, anxieties, and uncertainties that they bring. It may seem like we are alone and isolated in all this, particularly when we have to remain physically distant from our families, friends, and neighbours, and when we can't do the things that fill our lives with joy and peace. It is in these times that we need to be reminded that our God is a God who blesses those who are struggling financially, mentally, and physically. And even though we cannot know what form this blessing will take or when it will become apparent to us, we can be assured that God is with us through all our trials, to strengthen, guide, and protect us, even when we do not realise he is there.
He also blesses those who follow him when they make sacrifices because of their faith in him and to bring the glory of his kingdom here on earth in even the smallest of ways. As God's people, we are called to bless those around us, and, in these days of Covid-19, the ways we do that might look very different. But like Abraham, we are blessed so that we too might be a blessing to the world. So take heart amid these trying times, and be a blessing in your small corner of the world, whether that be supporting those in your household, you extended families, church family, neighbours, or essential workers who are struggling at this time, or in some other small way as you are able. God's kingdom is seen most clearly in the small acts of seemingly insignificant people which can have a huge impact on our world, especially in times such as these.
As individuals and as small household bubbles, it is up to us to decide how we spend the time we have been given during the pandemic response. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, I believe we could collectively make a huge difference to ourselves and others through small acts of blessing, exposing the glory of God and his kingdom here on earth.
Julia van den Brink is a Professional Teaching Fellow at Laidlaw College where she teaches New Testament and biblical Greek. Her doctoral thesis, through Otago University, focused on Luke’s beatitudes and woes and their relationship with Old Testament covenant blessings and curses.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Collins Modern Classic ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2001), 50.
 My translation.
 See Jerome H. Neyrey, "Loss of Wealth, Loss of Family, Loss of Honor: The Cultural Context of the Original Makarisms in Q," in The Social World of the New Testament: Insights and Models, ed. Neyrey, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 87–102.