As the statistics on illness and death due to COVID-19 keep rising, the economic statistics keep falling. In March the stock market lost more than $11 trillion in value, and has been yo-yoing ever since. While the more fortunate are mourning their dwindling retirement plans, the truly desperate have joined the 36 million Americans applying for unemployment benefits. How will they pay the rent or feed their families?
While watching the news one day, I flashed back to another time of financial crisis, the Great Recession of 2008. I had just written a book on prayer, and got an unexpected call from a New York journalist. “Any advice on how a person should pray during a time like this?” he asked. “Does prayer do any good in a financial crash?” In the course of the conversation we came up with a three-stage approach to prayer.
The first stage is simple, an instinctive cry for “Help!” For someone who faces a job cut or health crisis, prayer offers a way to give voice to fear and anxiety. I’ve learned to resist the tendency to edit my prayers so that they’ll sound sophisticated and mature. I believe God wants us to come exactly as we are, no matter how childlike we may feel. A God aware of every sparrow that falls surely knows the impact of scary financial times on frail human beings.
Indeed, prayer provides the best possible place to take our fears. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you,” wrote the apostle Peter. As a template for prayers in crisis times, I look at Jesus’ night of prayer in Gethsemane. He threw himself on the ground three times, sweat falling from his body like drops of blood, and felt “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” During that time of anguish, however, his prayer changed from “Take this cup from me…” to “…may your will be done.” In the trial scenes that followed, Jesus was the calmest character present. His season of prayer had relieved him of anxiety, reaffirmed his trust in a loving Father, and emboldened him to face the horror that awaited him.
If I pray with the aim of listening as well as talking, I can enter into a second stage, that of meditation and reflection. OK, my life savings has virtually disappeared. What can I learn from this seeming catastrophe? In the midst of the crisis, a Sunday School song ran through my mind:
The wise man built his house upon the rock…
And the wise man’s house stood firm.
The foolish man built his house upon the sand…
Oh, the rains came down
And the floods came up…
A time of crisis presents a good opportunity to identify the foundation on which I construct my life. If I place my ultimate trust in financial security, or in the government’s ability to solve my problems, I will surely watch the basement flood and the walls crumble. As the song says, “And the foolish man’s house went splat!”
A friend from Chicago, Bill Leslie, used to say that the Bible asks three main questions about money:
1) How did you get it? (Legally and justly, or exploitatively?);
2) What are you doing with it? (Indulging in needless luxuries, or helping the needy?);
3) What is it doing to you? Some of Jesus’ most trenchant parables and sayings go straight to the heart of that last question.
A financial crisis forces us to examine how money affects us. Am I stuck with debts I accumulated by buying goods that were more luxuries than necessities? Do I want to cling to the money I have when I know of people around me in dire need? Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and we know that heaven will include no homeless, destitute, and starving people.
As the stock market dove to uncharted depths, I couldn’t help thinking of private colleges, mission agencies, and other non-profits, which depend heavily on the largesse of donors. The IRS has dramatically loosened the rules that limit charitable deductions for 2020, hoping to encourage more giving—am I giving serious attention to the urgent appeals that fill my mailbox this year?
Which leads me to the third and most difficult stage of prayer in crisis times: I need God’s help in taking my eyes off my own problems in order to look with compassion on the truly desperate. In the Beatitudes, Jesus described a kind of upside-down kingdom that elevates the poor, those who mourn, the justice-makers and peace-makers, and those who show mercy.
The novel coronavirus has temporarily accomplished that societal reversal. In airports, janitors who clean the banisters and wipe the seats of airplanes are now as crucial to safety as the pilots who fly the jets. Each night, people in major cities honk horns, howl, or shout their appreciation for the health care workers who keep us alive. We’ve learned we can get along without the sports industry that pays top athletes $10 million per year to chase a ball; meanwhile, harried parents of young children have new appreciation for the teachers who earn less than 1 percent of that amount. Last month Time magazine put some of the real heroes on their cover: cafeteria workers who serve up food to needy children. They could just as easily have profiled hospital orderlies or paramedics.
The question is, will we use this crisis time to re-evaluate what kind of society we want, or will we return as soon as possible to a society that idolizes the wealthiest, the most coordinated, the smartest, the most beautiful, and the most entertaining? A just, compassionate society builds on a more solid foundation. The Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, ends with Jesus’ analogy of the house on the rock: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”
In the days of a collapsing Roman empire, Christians stood out because they cared for the poor, because they stayed behind to nurse plague victims rather than flee afflicted villages, and because platoons of wet nurses would gather up the babies abandoned along the roadside by Romans in their most cruel form of birth control. What a testimony it would be if Christians resolved to increase their giving in 2020 in order to build houses for the poor, combat other deadly diseases, and proclaim kingdom values to a celebrity-driven culture.
Such a response defies all logic and common sense. Unless, of course, we take seriously the moral of Jesus’ simple tale about building houses on a sure foundation.
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A friend shared this post with me. Thanks for the words of encouragement and guidance. I’ve downloaded a couple of your books on Scribd to listen to, including the one on Prayer that you referenced.
Philip, When will your memoir be released?
Probably in the Fall of 2021
I met a Taiwanese doctor in the mission fields way back year 2002 and I was so blest with his ministry and testimony, that before he went back to the States, I asked him his most favorite christian writer during that time. His name is Dr. Chen. He responded by giving me a book as a birthday present to me (August 6, 2002). The book was about “The Jesus I Never Knew” and since then my lenses for the mission got better and since then, I have read most of your books. But what STARTLES me, is how you always refresh the Word of God thru the biting isssues of this fading world. Godbless and tnx for this article.
“Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). I’m amazed at how much theology is packed into this one verse, and how it all relates to your post.
During my first depressive episode many years ago, I thought I was a bad Christian because of the anxiety, despair, anger, lack of energy, hopelessness, and other symptoms that were bombarding my body and brain. From what I’d gathered in the five years since receiving Christ, a good Christian, a real Christian didn’t experience this kind of emotional pain. Then I read the Psalms with new eyes, and God ministered to my needy soul, comforting me through the words of David, “Pour out your hearts to him.”
More recently, the Holy Spirit drew my attention to the first part of the verse. Some Christians seem to teach that if we’re truly trusting in Him, then we won’t need to pour out our hearts—we will always have perfect peace. But we’re told to both trust in Him and pour out our hearts to Him. The two go together. We will not open up in complete honesty with Him unless there is great trust (faith) in Him. On the other hand, our trust in Him grows as we express our emotions more honestly and openly.
And when we do both, we experience the truth of the last part of the verse—God is our refuge. We see more clearly how He protects and nourishes us. (Adapted from my blog at https://thosewhoweep.blogspot.com/2018/10/pour-out-your-hearts.html.)
I hadn’t thought about how all three parts of this verse relate to prayer until I read your post. First stage: Pour out our hearts to Him. Second stage: Recognize that He is the foundation, the refuge that we depend upon in a time of crisis. Third stage: Trust in Him to be there for us at all times even as we live by His upside-down kingdom values.
Isn’t God’s Word amazing?
Thank you so much, Philip. You are a huge blessing to so many! May our gracious God be with you and your lovely wife!
Your words touch hearts and move us to act as Christ would have us do. Thank you with all my heart for speaking as you have during a time bleak in so many ways. What a joy it is to know that it is never too late to build on solid ground. The Lord must be smiling at what you have said–He does so love a cheerful giver!
Homeless in the Tents
Hear a soon soulless person
on the restless filthy streets,
the swarming lost lives,
of a sullen, frightened city.
Hear her in the neon gloom
of endless allies forgotten.
Finding no equal justice
in callous courts of clay.
Cynical judges, burned-out,
With dead or slowly dying hope.
Politicians in liberal postures,
Spouting false or empty words.
A needle or bottled comfort,
to sooth another night alone.
Hear a lonely soul forgotten,
Homeless in San Francisco tents.
What is the IRS change regarding charitable donations for 2020? I thought for both 2019 and 2020 they raised the minimum required deduction which created a situation where, unless your total deductions were in excess of a much larger amount than the previous years there was no need to keep record (or even give) than before.
Normally there’s a 50% of Adjusted Gross Income ceiling on charitable deductions. This year, it’s 100%, so a rich person could theoretically give away all of 2020’s income and pay no income tax. Of course, you’d have to have considerable savings to do so. I think you’re referring to the fact that most people do better with the standard deduction, which is not true for those who make major charitable deductions (or have huge medical expenses).
Dr. Yancey, Thank you very much for the article! It is encouraging at the same time enlightened.
Hi Phillip: I recently finished your book, “Soul Survivor” – a great read.! Yes, our society certainly does glamorize the celebrated – we’re a society of “aesthetes.” But Jesus said, “”Believe me, anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, just because he is my disciple, will by no means lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42. Phillips. Marty Bowie 71′ CBC/CIU alumnus.
Thank you Philip for your insight at this time of crisis. I always get touched by your writings and may God give you more wisdom as you share your thought to this world.
Your message of hope in these trying times has helped me gain a much needed change in my perspective! Thank you for sharing your wisdom!
Thank You Ron Fraser : “change me “,jumped out at me, I immediately prayed , Jesus Change Me.
Thank you Philip! This is a good reminder of where my priorities must be.
Blessings to you and yours.
Dear Philip, Amen! Would you give permission to reproduce this in one of the local papers here in Nagaland, India? Christians here need to read this.
Yes, you have my permission! I’d love to visit Nagaland someday.
Read this a few times…letting it penetrate.
My husband and I were just talking about the Monday morning/ weekly needs out there and know He will guide us to support in prayer, with sharing burdens, and financially.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. God bless you.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece Philip! On St Patrick’s Day I had emergency open heart surgery. A three and half hour surgery had taken seven. A week or so later when I began to see and think straight again I learned about the stock market, and our retirement savings. Somehow it was easy to believe that God would see us through the latter, when He had carried us through the former. God truly does hear our “Help!”, our “Change me!” and our “Use Me!”
Thank you again!
Thanks, Philip. I hope we will follow your advice.
I think the world would be a different place when we pray as you suggested. We are so results driven in difficulties. We want things to change the way we want them to be and we want them instantly. But the process is key to getting to the other side of this pandemic. Thank you for reminding us of the process of prayer, and giving us a way to walk through these times.
I’m planning a trip to Bolivia, Yungas, to help children get to school, they travel 3 hours each morning across the jungle and 3 hours back to get home, they face many dangers and lack the basic services, not far from Bolivia, in the border with Peru, children travel in a bucket to go to school, and their school doesn’t have a roof but children have dreams of learning and becoming nurses and teachers one day.
Last night, I fervently prayed to the Lord to open a path to help little ones get an education and now this post brings me encouragement to get moving and make it to South America.
Stay strong and hopeful, Mr. Yancey.
Thank you for sharing this simple and important message, Phil. May God give us (me) ears to hear what he is saying to the churches.
On a different note, can you recommend a book by John Newton that is readable to the average person? I am currently reading your book, Soul Survivor. It’s giving me much to ponder.
For a biography, I recommend John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by the British author Jonathan Aitken (full disclosure: I wrote the Foreword). I looked on Amazon, and you can get Newton’s complete works in 4 volumes, though the old-fashioned language may be a barrier. Several of his writings have been adapted for a modern audience too. I recommend you browse their list.
One of the most thoughtful pieces I have read regarding the way God can use this crisis. Thank you.
Thank you Philip! I’ve read all your books – starting with The Jesus I never knew. I picked it up in a public library and it impacted me profoundly as I had spent most of my life in a legalistic Church. I had the privilege of meeting you once when you spoke in Bristol (UK)
Thank you for your ministry at this time of walking through the valley.
Thank you most enlightening and opportune.
Sore spot on, Mr. Yancey, and a needed story of loving outside ourselves. Even for those who can’t or don’t believe, serving each other is the key to the portal home.
Yes! Yes! Yes! I keep thinking what a difference it would make if Christians were the first to say, send me to work in the factories, I’ll keep the economy moving. I don’t fear death because Jesus lives. Then they took their money and helped those who cannot or should not work.
Thanks, Phil. Great perspective. Truly helpful.
I have been looking forward to your. Comments on this pandemic! Thank you. My kindest regards to you and your wife. I just have to tell you how much I love your books – those which I still have! I have lent the others – and never seen them again!