Two verses stand out as I think about our current worldwide isolation and “social distancing.” The first is Psalm 119:71 – “It is good that I have been quarantined, that I might learn your statutes.” The second is Paul’s response to his own circumstances as recorded in II Cor. 7:4 – “I am overflowing with joy in all of our quarantining.”
You noticed something fishy with my translation? Of course. In both verses, I have simply substituted “quarantine” for “affliction.” Doing this recently helped to drive home the point for me. Yes, being quarantined is a complicated matter and can easily be perceived as affliction, though I’m discovering an upside to having normal routines disrupted.
Here’s what happens when we are quarantined: isolated from others, our normal patterns are dislocated and general schedules go out the window. True, we may not always notice the positive effects of this isolation. Before being quarantined, we might have complained about the “rat race,” busyness, and lack of time for relaxation. During isolation we still have plenty to complain about. It may be loss of income, health concerns, anxiety, governmental overreach, or boredom. But what about after quarantining?
I suspect that, in spite of being forced to isolate and regardless of the anxiety prompted by a pandemic, many of us will look back on these days as a fortuitous experience where we were compelled to do what we simply could not bring ourselves to do on our own, namely, break the routine, get back to simple pleasures long neglected, and re-establish crucial habits.
Just yesterday Kathy and I did something for which we don’t ordinarily feel like we have time. We played two board games, something we never do. Kathy started a jigsaw puzzle and I have been reading stuff for which I don’t ordinarily feel like I have time.
There is a metaphor in the Bible for social distancing. It’s called “the wilderness.” And there are at least five possible reasons for this occurring. See if any of these apply to your life…
First, John the Baptist illustrates the natural role of the wilderness as a place where preparation for later effective ministry can take place (Mt. 3:1; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 1:80; 3:2; Jn. 1:23). John spent much of the first 30 years of his life in isolation so he could come out of the wilderness for a dynamic 6 months of ministry before being executed.
Second, we may opt for solitude out of fear, anxiety, or depression. Elijah’s desperate, even manic, travels into the wilderness are recorded in I Kings 19:1-18. Driven by fear of Jezebel, likely depressed in the aftermath of his mountaintop experience on Mount Carmel, stressed out beyond belief, he is visited by an angel in the wilderness (19:4) who encourages him to continue on his journey. He will eventually encounter God on Mount Sinai in a cave. What a serendipitous outcome!
Third, sometimes going into the wilderness is compulsory. Just check out Israel’s forty-year ordeal in the desert. Likewise, Moses spent forty years on the backside of the desert in order to stay alive (Ex. 2:15-21; Acts 7:23, 30). Or take a fresh look at the Holy Spirit “expelling” Jesus to be quarantined in the wilderness for purposes of testing (Mt. 4:1; Mk. 1:12; Lk. 4:1).
Fourth, at other times a season spent in the wilderness may arise out of necessity. Check out Jesus’ voluntarily opting for wilderness isolation and rest upon hearing the news of John the Baptist’s execution (Mt. 14:13; Mk. 6:31-32). While there, he used the occasion to perform the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.
Fifth, at other times retreating into the wilderness can border on “taking a vacation.” In Mark 1:35 and Luke 5:16, Jesus got away from it all for a time of prayer. In Luke 4:42, it appears Jesus just needed a little peace and quiet. And in Luke 9:10-12 it appears that Jesus needed some quality time with his disciples. An isolated place was just what the doctor ordered.
However you choose to view this time of enforced isolation, one thing is certain: just like all of these characters in the Bible who benefited by time spent in the wilderness, so we can be thankful that God is at work during our quarantine to do something valuable in our lives.