In the small college I attended, a professor nearly universally adored would often offer hilarious one-liners. If he saw a student distracted and not doing what he or she should be doing he might say, “Don’t just do something; stand there!” One of my favorite lines is—and yes, I have completely and forever stolen this from him—”If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a billion times: don’t exaggerate!”
We all tend to exaggerate our lives. We tend to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think by minimizing our flaws. We tend to think less of others than we ought to think by exaggerating their flaws. We exaggerate our circumstances, thinking that no one before us has ever suffered as we have or has ever had to endure a boss like we have or has ever been so rudely treated by the overworked cashier in the grocer store who has no control over whether toilet paper is in stock yet is harangued by an endless stream of angry customers as we have. (How dare she not greet me with a friendly smile!)
While the current state of America is difficult, we tend to exaggerate even this. Consider how many times “unprecedented” has been used to describe this version of coronavirus (the very fact that this is a version of coronavirus suggests precedence). The Spanish flu in 1918 might argue precedence. So, too, might the Black Death that killed about a third of Europeans in the 1300s, and even interrupted war between England and France and ended Viking exploration of North America. There was the Justinian Plague that started in AD 541. It began in northern Africa and within a couple hundred years (how long have we been in quarantine?) had killed 50,000,000—fifty million!—people, which was one-fourth of the world’s population at the time.
The reason we exaggerate our current struggle is because our vision becomes myopic; we cannot see much beyond our immediate selves. Into this myopia God offers us corrective lenses. When we read the Prophets we sometimes are given a glimpse of something that corrects our faulty vision. Consider the prophet Joel.
Joel begins his prophecy by describing invasion in terms of a series of locusts (Joel 1:2–12). The land is devastated and famine is the result. The people are then called to repentance, for the invasion is judgment from the Lord (Joel 1:13–20). He goes on to describe “the day of the Lord” (Joel 2:1–11). Then we read a remarkable offer from the Lord.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?Joel 2:12–14
In the midst of a terrifying proclamation of coming judgment God offers his people mercy. If they would repent and return to him he would relent from the coming destruction. Notice closely what Joel says about this. He acknowledges that God is above human comprehension and then he adds that it’s not too late for the Lord to “leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God.”
In chapter 1 the fields were destroyed. The grain and the wine are non-existent since there was no harvest. The grain offering and the drink offering are “cut off from the house of the LORD.” God offers to relent from disaster and thereby enable the people to worship him.
What had led to this impending disaster was the people’s self-centeredness. Rather than worship the one true God who is worthy of worship, they chose to worship gods of their own design, which are no gods at all. They worshiped gods—idols—that they thought would bring blessing and prosperity (crops!) yet could do nothing for them. God says that if they will worship him he will enable them to worship him by providing the necessary grain and wine for their offerings.
Worshiping God forces us to look beyond ourselves. This does not mean we overlook ourselves; it means that we are not the center of the world, let alone the universe. We must work and rest and serve others and yes, care for ourselves, but all the while we must worship God. By worshiping him we focus on what is truly important in this world, and this worship of him orients our lives correctly. We cease being the center of everything we do and our focus is correctly centered on God. Through this proper focus we are better able to love others and show kindness, even when the unprecedented disaster happens and we have to wait another day to rebuild our stock of toilet paper.
As we spend time in prayer today, let’s refocus our attention on God. Let’s acknowledge that he has given us the grain and wine necessary to worship him, for he has given us his Spirit. Let’s pray for one another, that we might be able to look beyond ourselves to find ways to demonstrate to others God’s love to us in Christ in tangible ways, ways that reveal that we are not the center of everything that happens. Let us never forget there is one thing that cannot be exaggerated, that cannot be stated too strongly: God is worthy of worship. Let’s worship him today, with all of our life.