I was in Malawi, Africa, more than 7,500 miles away from home, when I got the text from my father: “Every day we are learning about new changes concerning travel restrictions. We think you should pack up now and find the fastest way home. Things are only getting worse by the hour.”
“We’ll see you on Friday,” I responded.
We’d been living in Malawi for a year, my wife Megan and I having volunteered to serve fellow Church members there. It was a wonderful experience, and it was our intent to return to the United States on March 30, 2020. But all of a sudden at the end of February, the world seemed to turn upside down with the explosive spread of COVID-19. At first, we weren’t really worried, thinking we’d see what this coronavirus was all about when we got back to America at the end of March. As the days passed, however, we realized we needed to start making very specific decisions—and soon.
No doubt you’ve experienced some not so pleasant surprises in life. In fact, this has been the experience of much of the world in the recent crisis—with some having a lot worse circumstances. Of course, facing hardships isn’t a new phenomenon. We all must do so from time to time.
Yet as human beings, it’s easy to lose perspective. What may seem like a huge wave of problems to us should be kept in the context of the care of our Almighty Father. When you and I feel overwhelmed, we often blow even small things out of proportion and inquire of God, “Why are You letting these things happen to me?” Remember that even the most serious matters are not beyond the power and comfort of God to see us through.
God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life, is in ultimate control of what takes place on earth, even if we aren’t always aware of it. Furthermore, He has promised to protect and provide for us if we put our trust in Him.
In hard circumstances, it’s vital that we look to God to direct us and provide a way through them. How can we do that? What can and should we be doing through this process? God has given us five basic tools—prayer, Bible study, fellowship, meditation and fasting—to help us cope with the difficult situations of life such as the one Megan and I found ourselves in. And these tools are not only for the difficult times. They’re crucial for everyday growth as Christians!
Tool #1: Prayer
The day before my father texted me, Megan and I received a phone call from the home office of our employer, the United Church of God (publisher of Beyond Today magazine). The caller expressed concern for our situation and recommended that we consider advancing our departure by 10 days.
In Africa, there are three major international airports: Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A few days prior to this phone call, both Johannesburg and Nairobi had canceled all their U.S. flights, leaving Addis Ababa as our only option to fly home—via Ireland. However, as each day passed, we noticed many airlines canceling their flights to and from Ireland. We wondered what we should do, and we took the problem to God.
The apostle Paul tells us, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Recognizing our plans might need to change immediately with shifting circumstances outside our control, we knew it was crucial to involve God in all our decisions.
My wife and I asked for God’s direction and involvement in our decision. We asked that He give us wisdom to make the best decision. There were many factors to consider: Were there any loose ends we needed to tie up? Would changing our flights cost a lot of additional money? Would we even be able to find earlier flights?
After speaking with nearby Church leaders and with friends, family and some U.S.-based ministers, the answer seemed clear: It was time to go home as soon as possible.
Tool #2: Bible study
We received the above call on a Sunday. On Monday we made the decision to depart on Thursday—just three days away! Talk about last-minute packing! It’s interesting how in a stressful situation, our natural instinct is to immediately drop everything we consider to be nonessential and focus on self-preservation. Megan’s favorite scripture is Matthew 16:26: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Many people who tithe (give a tenth back to God) recognize that God blesses their finances in a way that appears impossible, with the remaining money seeming to go further than the full 100 percent would have gone without tithing. This concept also applies, as my wife and I learned, to our time. “We’ve got a lot to do,” I told Megan, “but let’s make sure we don’t neglect our Bible study just because we’re busy and in a rush!”
It would have been easy to put it off, but all too often if you put something off it will never get done. Also, what’s more important than the Word of God? Of course, a person shouldn’t neglect an immediate, crucial task such as attending to a crying, hungry child or a broken water pipe, but we should take care not to make excuses to put off Bible study.
Throughout those quick days of packing, I listened to some of our Ambassador Bible College online classes (available at abc.ucg.org/courses) with pauses every so often to record a few new notes in my Bible. I’ve learned the hard way the lesson that being busy is never a good excuse for neglecting Bible study. A relationship with the Father and Son is a two-way conversation! We have to talk to God through prayer, but we also have to be willing to listen. And what the Bible says is God communicating with us!
Tool #3: Fellowship
Although it was ultimately my decision to return 10 days early, I didn’t make it alone. The Bible admonishes us to seek wise counsel, so that’s what I did. Many people I spoke with were able to offer me insight and wisdom from their own experiences and various ways of thinking. But discussing the problems that come our way isn’t the only thing that Christian fellowship—spending time with God’s people—is good for. When we find ourselves in a stressful or scary situation, it can be helpful to reflect on Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, which reminds us that we’re not struggling alone.
It might at times seem like no one understands what we’re going through. (There was a time when the prophet Elijah thought he was the only person left who was still obedient to God!) That feeling can be really discouraging. So as Megan and I rushed to pack the entire apartment into a few boxes and tie up our loose ends, it was very beneficial to our mental stability to talk with friends and family on the phone.
It’s nice to know that there are people out there praying for your success. It’s a pretty comforting (and humbling) thought to know that people are coming before the very throne of the Almighty God in prayer on your behalf. Wow, what an encouragement!
Paul compares God’s people to a body in which every member does its part so the entire body can be healthy and spiritually strong (Ephesians 4:15-16). Hebrews 10:25 tells us, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (New Living Translation). God knows that regular fellowship with other believers is important!
When circumstances prevent getting together, as we’ve all recently experienced, it’s vital to stay in touch by other means.
Tool #4: Meditation
One of the most undervalued tools God gives us is that of meditation. We live in a world that is constantly speeding up. How often do you and I take the time to just sit and think about God, His Word and His way of life? If we’re honest with ourselves, probably not often enough!
On our 17-hour flight home, I spent many hours thinking and meditating on the past year. I thought about all the prayers God had answered. I thought about what we had (and hadn’t) accomplished. I thought about all the wonderful friendships we had made in Malawi—only possible as a direct result of God compassionately pouring out blessings on His children. I took some time to consider what the future might hold for us.
God is working out His purpose in you and me, and we should make time to meditate on all that God has done for us, and consider how He is accomplishing His purpose within us. We should think about how to apply scriptural principles in our lives every day (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-2), considering how to really live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4). Meditation is crucial in growing to become the kind of people God wants us to be.
Tool #5: Fasting
As most of our readers may know, there are some trials that cannot be solved by our own strength or through prayer alone. Jesus Christ plainly expects His followers to fast—to abstain from food and drink for a time—telling us, “When [not if] you fast . . .” (Matthew 6:16-17). Fasting should be a regular part of a Christian’s life, teaching us how we must rely on God and prioritize our spiritual life above physical desires.
In the face of the current pandemic and the economic difficulties that will no doubt follow, what should we do? Where should we turn? Should we look to government bailouts? Should we look to rapid production of a vaccine or other treatments? Should we trust our fellow man to solve these problems? No, not ultimately, as the Bible makes clear (Jeremiah 17:5). Rather, we should humble ourselves before the Creator of the universe and petition Him to heal the nations if it might be according to His will.
He tells us in Isaiah 59:1, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear.” Yet again, we all must humble ourselves. And we should pray for others to do the same, interceding for them.
Take some time to read through the previous chapter, Isaiah 58, that leads up to the statement just quoted. In this chapter, Isaiah was inspired to explain how a person can have an effective fast. It tells us what we need to do, and the right attitude we should have when we fast.
In these turbulent times, let’s endeavor to put into practice these five tools—prayer, Bible study, fellowship, meditation and fasting. Let’s learn to trust in God, not in man!