“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
The coronavirus pandemic has presented immense challenges to people all over the world. COVID-19 has ruined the lives and livelihood of scores of people. Necessary public health measures such as social distancing have made many feel isolated and lonely, thus increasing the incidents of stress and anxiety.
An article published in March by the Straits Times reports that mental health professionals here are attending to more cases during the past year as the Covid-19 pandemic persists.
Christians are not spared or immune from the anxieties that the pandemic has brought in its wake. However, they can draw from the inexhaustible spiritual resources found in Christianity that would enable them to cope. (In fact, numerous studies have shown that religion or spirituality play an important role in mental health. )
Since the dawn of Christianity, Christian writers—theologians and pastors alike—have stressed the importance of spiritual activities such as prayer and Bible study in the Christian life. In his important work on the spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster explains their significance thus:
The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.
It is this grace-enabled capacity to see reality more deeply and truly, to penetrate the surface and the superficial, that would give the Christian the strength and fortitude to remain steadfast in the midst of great uncertainties.
Without doubt, prayer is one of the most important of the Christian spiritual disciplines. As the conservative Norwegian Lutheran theologian, Ole Hallesby, has so beautifully described it,
Prayer is the breath of the soul, the organ by which we receive Christ into our parched and withered hearts. As air enters in quietly when we breathe, and does its normal work in our lungs, so Jesus enters quietly into our hearts and does His blessed work there.
In some mysterious way, God hears and answers our prayers, changing the present as well as the future according to his unfathomable will.
But prayer does not only change things. It also changes the person who prays, transforming him in subtle but profound ways as the Lord does his work in the inner recesses of his soul.
One of the defining features of stress and anxiety is the transient or even stable loss of the sense of meaning and purpose as one’s life is tossed to and fro by the current of events that are beyond one’s control.
Faced with such circumstances, it is quite natural to be assailed by existential and theological questions. Why is this happening to me (to us)? Where is God in all of this? Why doesn’t he do something to rescue us from this tribulation?
In prayer, the believer brings these vexing questions before God. But he does so in a posture of humility as he kneels in the presence of the God who is at once sovereign and loving. In prayer, the Christian is not only reminded of his own sinfulness and frailty, but also of God’s faithful presence even in the midst of life’s darkest moments.
Prayer can reduce the stress and anxieties endemic in these uncertain times. By this, I don’t mean that the act of prayer itself is therapeutic. This would reduce Christian prayer to just one of the many exercises for stress relief or mindfulness.
Christian prayer reduces the stresses of life because it brings us into the presence of God, in whom alone we can (re)discover the meaning of our lives. In ushering us into the presence of the almighty and sovereign God, prayer slowly changes our perspective. It enables us to “see” the things that we were unable to see before because our vision was clouded by anxiety and confusion.
To recall the words of Richard Foster, prayer enables us to “move beyond the surface into the depths”. And as we penetrate the depths of the reality that engulfs us, we find the God whose name is Emmanuel there. And the presence of the Almighty alters our vision, heals our astigmatism, and enables us to see the things that are visible only to the eyes of faith.
This is the experience of Jeremiah, who in the midst of the desolation of the once glorious city of Jerusalem, could declare: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22–23).
When these words were uttered, nothing on the surface has changed. The city still lay in ruins, her population ravaged and killed (2:12; 2:21; 4:10). But the prophet was able to “move beyond the surface into the depths.”
And there he saw the merciful God, whose nature is unconditional love—the God who is ever in control.