Over a century ago, Kierkegaard attacked the cozy Christianity he observed in his homeland of Denmark as a mutation into something other than New Testament Christianity. In his Attack upon “Christendom,” he rails against a Christianity that no longer disciples its people to anticipate suffering and instead led people to be worldly wise.
While Kierkegaard’s invectives rang true of the Denmark of his day, one can also wonder whether it would also ring true of contemporary American Christianity. In some significant ways, the pressures of dealing with the pandemic has revealed our inability to endure some simple displeasures for the sake of Christ. I am referring to the varied ways in which people responded to masking requirements, especially in the context of the church service.
Some, and perhaps most, Christians have no doubt enthusiastically embraced mask-wearing as their form of Christian neighbor love in the time of pandemic. Others, though, see it is a harbinger of the oppression and persecution to come and oppose it as a government overreach or even as a symbol of the ease with which the media can cultivate fear and conformity in social behavior. To other skeptics, universal masking is a triumph of phony science. For some watchdogs, masking requirements are a direct infringement upon constitutional rights, even the right to freedom of religion. There is no single Christian response to the masking requirements, and I don’t have all of them in mind here.
What strikes me as peculiar is how some of the Christian pushback to wearing masks in church has played out. Some have switched to churches that don’t require masks. While I can understand the desire to have a more comfortable experience on Sunday morning, it seems to be just one more dimension of consumer Christianity. To the panoply of denominations, worship styles, and preaching ability, we now get to add the option of face coverings. I heard of one church that seems to have headed worshippers off at the pass by holding two separate services: the first required masks for the entirety and the other made masks optional. Though there is wisdom in this approach, it too seems to be dictated by the market of churchgoers and just what they’re willing to endure or prefer.
Perhaps more worrisome, though, is the claim that face coverings directly impede one’s ability to worship (see #7 of https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/7-reasons-for-unmasking-the-masks.html). One recent appeal to a local church’s leadership asking them to reconsider its mask policy stated that some of the people “just do not find an hour under a mask to be a rewarding, connecting time with God and the saints.” This struck me as an odd way of presenting the issue. How pray tell, does a face covering disconnect one from God? I can see it making personal communication more difficult, but connection with God? Does God now move a socially distant 6 feet away when we put one on? Can he no longer here his muffled praises when we sing with a mask? Is it truly possible that a simple cloth covering would keep one from connecting with the transcendent God of the universe? I surely hope not, or we have much bigger problems, folks! Our God is bigger than that and closer than we can imagine (Acts 17:27-28). Perhaps we mistake our comfort too often as connection with the divine.
Let’s return to Kierkegaard’s point. If contemporary Christians find the slight discomfort of a mask enough to disconnect us from God or cause us to switch churches, what happens when we face real persecution? What would happen if we were physically tortured for Christ and the bruises throbbed constantly, not permitting us a clairvoyant thought? What would happen if our children or loved ones were martyred before our eyes, shortly before we were thrown into long term imprisonment and we had to live with that haunting memory for the rest of our lives? Could we connect with God then?
If we should find that masks distract us and keep us from celebrating the goodness of God displayed in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, then I contend we are much more attuned to our own comfort and displeasures than we are to the true God. If we find the discomfort of a mask enough to warrant a change in our faith community or disconnection from it altogether, then what will we do when Christ calls us to take up our cross in a much more painful and difficult way?
A brief look at Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians provides a stark relief as to how far we might be from New Testament Christianity. In this beautiful book, Paul recounts his suffering on several occasions. Paul refers to his suffering in order to bring light to the fact that it is only God’s power at work in him and not his own. In chapter 4, we read these beautiful words: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:7-10).
Paul realized that we are fragile “jars of clay” afflicted with a good many forms of suffering. However, in the midst of life’s hardships, which for him was actual persecution, Paul discovered God’s living power. Please, note that Paul did not discover God’s power apart from suffering, but in suffering. More specifically, it is the kind of suffering that took Paul to the brink of despair, to the last proverbial straw. In chapter 11 he rattles off a host of things that have happened to him. He received 39 lashes on at least five different occasions. He was stoned. He was shipwrecked three times! The list goes on and on. Needless to say, I have had none of these happen to me, and my guess is that you haven’t either. Just as Christ in his incarnation was not immune to suffering and death, so with Paul. It is through this vulnerability, though, that we get to behold something truly transcendent: “the life of Jesus” being “manifested in our bodies.”
Are we prepared to endure these kinds of hardships with this kind of outlook? If the first thing we can think of is switching churches when our church requires us to wear a mask or not conforming to a state mandate that has the wellbeing of our fellow citizens in view, do we have the Spirit-grounded fortitude to endure actual suffering for Christ? I would like to think we do, but I have my doubts and genuine concerns. What should we do? For those of us who find face coverings and masks to be a trying part of life in the virus era, I would encourage us to approach our mask wearing as a form of discipleship, as a means of training our hearts and desires to be ready to suffer more severely should God ever require that of us. Perhaps we’ll discover that the God of the universe is not constricted by masks and still delights in the praises of his people. Perhaps we’ll discover that our natural comfort is not the chief end of the universe. Instead, we might just find that the God of the universe is nearer than we ever imagined. Maybe, we’ll be able to say with Paul that “…our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17, NIV).