These are not unprecedented days. That’s important to say, because unprecedented has become one of the most overused descriptors of the past year.
To call something unprecedented is to make a very bold statement. It is not merely to say that “this thing hasn’t happened before,” but to say that “nothing even reasonably similar to this thing has happened before.”
To be sure, most of us have seen events this past year (even this past week) that have no clear parallel within our lifetimes. There is really nothing in my lifetime like the COVID shutdowns and stay home orders. The national civil unrest is at a level that I have not witnessed before, though those just a bit older than I am could make a very convincing case that the late 1960s were much more unstable in our nation.
And that already suggests the problem: I didn’t live through the late 1960s, so our current situation seems totally new to me. But to think that it is unprecedented expresses historical ignorance. Even people slightly older than me have seen circumstances like these before.
And that point needs to be broadened. To think that because we haven’t seen an event before that that event is without precedent is not only to be ignorant of history—it is to invite folly.
Solomon laments this pattern in Ecclesiastes 1: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”
There are two dangerous consequences of thinking that our circumstances are unprecedented. The first is that we shut ourselves off from the wisdom of the generations that preceded us. Think of the teenager who is going through ordinary teenager drama. His parents seek to give him counsel which he rejects, saying, “You just don’t understand.” The reality, though, is that they likely do understand.
There have been pandemics before—and on a much more devastating scale than what we’ve experienced. There have been—and continue to be—much harder experiences for Christians than anything we’ve seen yet. Those Christians thought and wrote about their circumstances, and we should seek their wisdom. We don’t need to start from scratch on these topics. We’re just not that special.
Second, in thinking that our circumstances are unprecedented, we give ourselves permission to act in ways well outside the bounds of normal obedience to Christ. If we think we’re in extreme times, we justify acting in extreme ways.
But Paul tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
In other words, we shouldn’t think that our pressures are unique. The temptations that we face have been faced before, they are not unprecedented, and we aren’t exempt from obedience to God.
About Michael Riley
Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.