We're All Going to Die!

Halloween is almost here. Thus there are plenty of opportunities for you to be frightened out of your gourd. But even if you are not into that sort of thing chances are that you at least raised your eyebrows in response to news of Ebola in the United States last week. It appears that this most dreaded of viruses has indeed made its way to our fair land by means of one unfortunate soul who landed in Dallas. Not known to miss any opportunity to inflate their ratings, news media outlets sprang into action. Coverage included such riveting events as a man walking around the tarmac in Dallas without the benefit of a hazmat suit. Then there was live coverage of an ambulance ride from the airport to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. I was briefly curious how that dude wound up without hazmat gear, but aerial coverage of an ambulance on the beltway gets dull pretty quickly.

I certainly do not mean to minimize the devastating impact that Ebola has had upon the population of those West African nations where its spread is rampant. Nor do I discount the seriousness of the handful of cases that have arisen in other parts of the globe, including here in the United States. It is by all accounts a dreadful thing worthy of all proper precautions and care. But getting whipped into a frenzy that borders on hysteria…it’s just not helpful, nor is it necessary.

There is an interesting biblical account of the ancient Israelites found in the book of Numbers (now there is a truly frightening thought…an entire book of nothing but numbers!). Chapter 21 relates the story of how, in response to their constant complaints, whining, and outright rebellion, God saw fit to send “fiery serpents” among the people. Predictably the serpents began biting the people and the people began dying, causing survivors to make the following request of their leader, Moses: “Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.”

Seems like a reasonable request.

Moses indeed prayed. What is interesting to note is that God did not do what the people desired. Instead God told Moses to put his sculpting skills to work and fashion a model serpent out of bronze. This serpent statue was in one way or another mounted to a pole and lifted up before the entire camp with the following instructions: If you get bit, look at this and you will live. But the snakes meanwhile did not go anywhere.

God does not take away snakes. He may not take away Ebola. It might even get worse before it gets better. God has not taken away cancer or fatal car crashes. He’s not taken away AIDS or heart disease or murder or organ failure or depression or suicide or poverty. It is all still here, not to mention snakes. This summer a sobering tragedy occurred in my own neighborhood on July 4th. As all of us were gathering to enjoy the fireworks many people were playing and swimming in the lake. Somehow a little girl slipped unnoticed beneath the surface and never came back up. We all went from Frisbee and sparklers to somberly walking home past the divers’ trucks as they pulled into the neighborhood without any flashing lights or sirens, their investigation a foregone conclusion. One of my daughter’s first grade classmates was already gone.

But God, somewhat to my chagrin, has not drained the lake.

The hard reality is that even if God were to take away lakes, snakes, Ebola, and whatever else one might like to include on the list; even if all those things go away we all, whether after 7 years or 107 years, still die in the end. Could this be precisely the reason why God chooses not to take away these things?

Our kids’ biggest need is not water safety, although let’s certainly be sure to provide that for them if we can.

Our biggest need is not to be rid of venomous snakes, although I for one hope to avoid them at all costs.

Our biggest need is not the eradication of Ebola, although I still think that guy at the airport should have been dressed in a hazmat suit like everyone else. What could he possibly have been thinking?

The difficult lesson taught to us by the ancient Israelites’ wilderness adventures is that God does not always do what we want. But he has done what we need. Toward that end the fiery serpents remained because the fiery serpents drove the people to look to God. God was interested in saving the people not from fiery serpents, but from death. And the specter of death remained centuries later when Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). And today no one, even if confined to a sterile bubble, is guaranteed another minute. Thus in light of such dire circumstances it seems one would do well to consider God’s provision in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Of course it is fine to be concerned about the myriad issues that plague humanity. Efforts to find solutions, cures, and justice are well worth the while. In fact I believe that God would have us fully engaged in such work rather than avoiding or ignoring it. But we should not let all the noise keep us from contemplating the one thing that matters most. If we recognize our need to be reconciled to God and acknowledge the provision he has already made in order for that to occur, suddenly everything else becomes considerably less frightening.