COVID-19 and the Lord's Prayer

Dr. J. Mark Beach

I’ve heard it said many times of late: “I just want things to get back to normal.” Sounds reasonable, what with the lock-down, social distancing, economic crisis, and people dying (particularly the elderly), why shouldn’t we “just want things to get back to normal?”

But what does God want? Our God abounds in love and mercy. But does the Lord, given His love and mercy, want things to get back to normal? What is normal? Normal sinning? Normal selfishness? Normal political maneuvering and intrigue? Normal fudging the truth in business? Does He want our “normal” pattern of life to proceed as usual—chasing success, sniffing the wind for sexual conquest, turning a blind eye to neighbors in need, living for your own comfort and entertainment? Does God want life to proceed as usual—people racing after idols, detouring around Him and His Word, then revving up to indulge themselves to the grave? It’s called amusing ourselves to death. All such things (partly at least) add up to back to normal. But none of it is according to God’s norm. None of it honors Him. None of it participates in neighbor-love. None of it is about the gospel. And none of it calculates to the way it’s supposed to be.

While some dismiss COVID-19 as a distant illness, much ado about nothing, others conceive of it as the worst disaster to befall their lives. Without question, it ravishes households and devastates families. When it is your loved one dying, it cannot be dismissed. And COVID-19 harms many others, not by way of the death certificate that accompanies it; rather, it’s the economic fallout that overwhelms. Will my business make it? Make it? I’ve already lost my job! This blanket of misery spreads wider than the physical dangers of the virus. Many business owners, and their employees, find themselves on the precipice of an economic cataclysm. It’s a classic Catch-22—either way we turn, we face a bad choice: imperil lives with the spread of the virus or imperil livelihoods with a frozen economy. Neither of these is the way it’s supposed to be.

And this brings us to the options of things back to normal versus the way it’s supposed to be; or, our normal versus God’s normal— what God wants.

It is not hard to know what God wants. Jesus taught us to pray what God wants in the Lord’s Prayer. Interestingly, that is a prayer that actually targets getting things back to normal (God’s normal) because its petitions seek the way it’s supposed to be. While we shouldn’t expect unbelievers to grasp this (indeed, the crisis of the coronavirus can only elicit from them slogans like “we’re all in this together” and “we all want things back to normal”), Christian people, Christ’s people, know better. Don’t we ache for the way it’s supposed to be in contrast to merely wanting things to get back to normal? The whole Lord’s Prayer is a declaration of war against that kind of normal. Take a look with me at that prayer.

It has been said: the Lord’s Prayer sets the agenda of agendas. Each petition pleads for God’s normal. That is, for the normalcy of God’s name being “hallowed”; the normalcy of sinners seeking mercy from His hands; the normalcy of living for Him and His glory. If God is pleased to use COVID-19 to interrupt our sinful normal and, instead, to awaken this sin-hardened planet (if only a fraction of it) to seek His glory and honor, the Lord’s Prayer prays for it to be so.

Yes, Lord, upset our sinful normal, and reorient life to hallow your name.

May we as believers get on board with that!

The same applies to the other petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for our heavenly Father’s “kingdom to come” and His “will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” There is nothing benign in those petitions. This is a battle-prayer against Satan’s kingdom. It’s a reign-of-Christ prayer, wherein broken lives are mended, wounded hearts consoled, enslaving habits overcome; shameful grudges (and the malice that fuels them) receive new resources for love and forgiveness and liberation. We pray: “Your kingdom come, Lord, even in the midst of COVID-19, even because of COVID-19.” That’s a different prayer and desire than I just want things to get back to normal.

As believers, we have eyes to see God’s providential care. An unhappy providence has invaded our lives—which is no happenstance or a piece of “bad luck.” No, as believers we know that this virus—upending life and upsetting the normal—is in God’s hands and that He has His own wholly wise and good purpose in view. And, so, in the midst of this disease we pray that God’s will be done. And what is that will? Well, it is not that we merely get back to normal. It is not that we—a sinful world, a sinful nation, a sinful community, a sinful and sleepy church—might get back to our sinful normal. Back to sinning as always!

That “will of God” wills our humility, our God dependency, our turning to Him in weakness and frailty, acknowledging our shortsightedness. After all, who saw this coming? None of us! This virus interrupted our vacations and fun! It has wounded our investments! We didn’t see it coming. What is more, if God desires, the coronavirus (or something much worse) could continue to invade our lives with still further unknown consequences. Does it have to be “something much worse” to humble us to pray not for things to get back to normal but for His will to be done?

Ponder with me for a moment, what if God does not will for life to get back to normal? Would that be unfair?

Listen to the sirens sounding in our ears! It is not because we are worse sinners that the coronavirus has fallen upon us, but unless we repent, we all likewise will perish (see Luke 13:2-5). How easily we dismiss the call to repentance and faith. Yes, even we believers become indifferent to the indifference around us—indifference toward God. Shouldn’t we pray: “Lord, upset our indifference, awaken us! Let Your will be done on this sinful earth (as it is in heaven). Lord, overcome the indifference so pervasive toward You, the indifference toward Christ, toward His reign; and Lord, overthrow our indifference—toward lost neighbors. Gracious Father, vanquish our culture’s dismissal of You! Impart faith; bring forth repentance. Defeat in your church the foolishness of packing our barns full so that we can live a kicked-back life, while our wallets are thin of faith; Lord, beat down our selfish habits to wall ourselves behind comfortable church-zones, to keep the messiness of a fallen world out. Lord, if You did that, You would keep us out! Yes, Lord, Your will be done in us. Use, if need be, the crisis of COVID-19 to accomplish this.”

God is so very merciful. Let us not forget that we pray to our heavenly Father. He knows our needs in this crisis; He knows us very personally—physically and economically. So it is very fitting, amid COVID-19, to remember that Jesus
also taught us to pray for daily bread. We pray for God’s merciful provision. We need (all our lost neighbors need) “a competent portion of the good things of this life” (as the Shorter Catechism says). We need divine intervention for divine healing; we need safeguards and medical wisdom to bring healing for this disease; we need deliverance—for God to graciously bestow remedies. We may pray for those things. Yes, Lord, as Your divine gift to us, grant daily bread to us and to many desperate lives that need helping hands—even our helping hands! Lord, give us daily bread; for “neither our care and work nor Your gifts can do us any good without Your blessing” (Heidelberg Catechism). Humble us, Father, and provide for us.

COVID-19, then, should prompt us to pray the Lord’s Prayer with lives so manifestly fragile. May the coronavirus, therefore, create in us a disposition of seeking mercy from God and of bestowing mercy to others. This, as we pray, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors! No one better understands the generosity of forgiveness than the person who has frantically sought God’s generous forgiveness—and received it. Life is never about keeping score and getting even. Life lived before God is about mercy! While the world presumes—and perhaps we Christians presume along with it—on the common grace blessings He bestows day-by-day, we know in fact that such blessings can be dialed down in a flash.

The world suffers from the coronavirus—physically, economically, emotionally—yet so little is heard from leaders of any stripe to ask for God’s mercy, for God’s deliverance, for God’s forgiveness, for God to pardon us as we seek His back to normal. Frankly, it is disheartening, but telling too, how few politicians seek God’s free pardon of our personal sins and national sins. Their attitude: What? We need forgiveness? We need mercy and grace and divine pardon? Yes, we do. The church, too, needs to pray for the forgiveness of our debts. We can display our need for forgiveness by our acts of mercy. We can ready ourselves as churches to offer benevolent relief to local families living hand-to-mouth, week-to-week, paycheck to paycheck; and, now, no paycheck. This prayer includes grace to others. We need God’s free pardon; we need His mercy. And He is merciful; He does pardon us—the lost need only call upon Him for help. May COVID-19 move us to seek God’s forgiveness!

And yet, this virus, though it should move us to seek God’s pardon, also occasions more sinning. Temptations lurk at our door. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray: And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. We need God’s protection from temptation, but also His deliverance when temptation comes. Presently, God is testing (not tempting) us. But we see many hard hearts—hardened in fear (with no turning to God) and hardened in smugness (this disease can’t lay a glove on me). Testing reveals what is in our hearts. What’s in yours? Suppose, by the time you read this that the world is getting back to normal. Suppose the economy enjoys a quick recovery. Suppose this coronavirus thing turns out to be a titanic miscalculation—a global overreaction to a disease that menaces mostly those predisposed to lung illness and immune deficiency. Suppose all of that. What thoughts roll around in your head? And what idols vie for supremacy in your heart? Back to my tidy life as usual. Back to my fun-filled plans. Is it back to some version of my name be honored, my kingdom come, my will be done? Will we go back to that? Back to more, more, more? Back to avenging our debtors?

We have as the conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer the well-known words: For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Again, we ask: “what does God want?” May we pray not for things to get back to normal. Rather,
let us pray for the way it’s supposed to be—His kingdom and power and glory on eternal display!

This article was adapted from the June 2020 issue of The Messenger