By Trevin Wax
Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts. (Psalm 90:12, CSB)
“Teach us to number our days carefully…” Really, Lord?
Whether we think “numbering our days” means taking an account of what you’ve done at the end of every day, or considering the time that’s passing, or counting the days since some of us were in a worship service filled with people, numbering our days in a pandemic can be a little depressing.
It’s not surprising then that the psalmist’s next word to the Lord is this in verses 13-15:
Lord—how long? Turn and have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your faithful love so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days. Make us rejoice for as many days as you have humbled us, for as many years as we have seen adversity.
We’ve certainly been humbled. This pandemic has reminded us that our years aren’t infinite, that our power has limits, that we can’t see into the future, or make elaborate plans. Any illusions of control vanished in a moment.
More than ever, the number of society’s questions outpaces their answers.
Why should we number our days carefully, as the psalmist says? Because that’s how we develop wisdom in our hearts.
The Bible is where we turn, not so we have immediate answers to pressing questions facing our culture, but because it’s what shapes us into wise people who can discern the current moment and bear witness of the gospel to our neighbors.
The Bible also introduces us to grace, which is vital if we’re going to be the church God has called us to be.
That means we have wisdom in the decisions we make, but it also means we show grace to people whose discernment may lead them to other conclusions or practices.
I want to point out a couple of timely areas where the church can be a source of wisdom and grace for a shaken society.
COVID-19 and cultural confusion
We look at numbers and rates and spread, and some people interpret it all one way, while others see it differently. One person’s caution is another person’s paranoia.
Church leaders right now feel like they’re rafting down a river of rapids. There are competing narratives about how to proceed.
When do you reopen? How? When do you step back?
Should you require masks? If so, are you ready to turn people away from the sanctuary who don’t want to wear one?
How do you keep small groups and Sunday school classes together?
What should we do for the kids?
How do we move forward when our volunteer base isn’t on the same page about how to proceed?
Pastors respond to one email from a church member irate about how the leadership isn’t taking sufficient precautions, and right after they’ve got a voicemail from a church member who can’t believe the church hasn’t opened back up.
Scroll through articles shared on social media or Facebook comments or Twitter threads, and one of the things you’ll hear from people is: I don’t know what to believe anymore or who to look to.
We may not have the answers on where to get the best information in a season like this, but as the church, we’re people of God’s Word—the unmatched source of wisdom and grace.
Biblical wisdom and grace empower us to defer to one another, knowing we’re not dealing with cut-and-dry issues.
We’re in the realm of wisdom, and one way we lead in this moment is to come to our convictions in a way that shows grace to others, leaving space for them to disagree.
Increasing political polarization
COVID-19 is already a hot topic in the political back-and-forth between opposing parties in the United States. We’re in an election year, and every four years, we’re told that this is the most important election in our lifetime.
Pastors and church leaders feel the heat of this subject, as well as other cultural issues. If a pastor on one Sunday says black lives matter, he’ll hear from church members who assume he must not support good and faithful police officers.
If he prays for the law enforcement officers in his congregation or if he makes a distinction between peaceful protests and riotous anarchists, he’ll hear from church members who assume he no longer cares about racial injustice.
How can the church lead well in a time like this? Again, wisdom and grace.
We need wisdom to know that in an increasingly partisan age, cultural forces are arrayed against the person who tries to hear from and understand opposing perspectives, who doesn’t jump on bandwagons or immediately adopt the narratives spun by one side or the other.
We also need grace—grace to weep with those who weep, to allow lament to open up the opportunity to see the world from a different angle.
Grace to recognize our fallen and flawed nature, and to know that our perspective doesn’t capture the whole.
Wisdom is required because we know we need each other; grace is required because we need to bear with each other.
Wisdom and grace for the church of the future
A global phenomenon of this nature can’t help but leave the church changed in some pretty significant ways.
We may see a winnowing of churchgoers who were less frequent in their attendance.
These churchgoers who had superficial relationships and only attended every now and then may be less likely to attend after such a long season of not gathering with the church. I believe this may be most true of younger Christians.
We may also see a renewed commitment of more frequent churchgoers who will never again take for granted the privilege we have in gathering with other believers.
Many churchgoers considered themselves faithful were actually “part-timers,” only there two or three times a month on average.
These churchgoers are more likely to prioritize church attendance on the other side of COVID-19, having realized how much they’ve missed gathering.
Here’s what this means: In churches where the majority of people on a given Sunday were less frequent in their attendance, we’re likely to see a profound and persistent dip in attendance after COVID-19 has gone.
In churches where the majority of people on a given Sunday were more frequent in their attendance, we’re likely to see a rise in attendance after COVID.
In both cases, though, we’re going to see a new normal when it comes to patterns of church gathering, and some of these changes are going to differ between older and younger generations.
Let’s go back to Psalm 90. Teach us to number our days, it says. Then, How long, O Lord? But look at what comes next in verse 16:
Let your work be seen by your servants, and your splendor by their children.
The psalmist prays for the next generation. He isn’t just praying that God would establish the work of his hands, but that the next generation would blossom and grow, that seeds would be planted now that would bear harvest later.
Once you take your eyes off your own fleeting life and the short years you are here and you see yourself in a long line of generations that have taken refuge in God, and you see yourself as a link in a chain that will extend to future generations of the church.
Then look at how this psalm ends in verse 17:
Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish for us the work of our hands—establish the work of our hands!
Somehow, because of the mercy and love of God, in light of all the problems going on in our society, in light of all the challenges the church is facing, we don’t stand by with pessimism and sadness and become paralyzed with fear.
Instead, we believe that what we do matters for eternity because God establishes the work of our hands. And His love is greater than all the chaos and confusion of this moment.
TREVIN WAX (@TrevinWax) is the senior vice president of theology and communications at Lifeway, as well as a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He is the author of several books, including This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel and his forthcoming B&H Publishing title, Rethink Your Self: Looking Up Before Looking In.