Are face masks the new sackcloth? Modern American Christians read in the Bible frequently about sackcloth - that itchy fabric made of goat’s hair donned as an indication of repentance, mourning, inability, and humility (e.g. 1 Kings 21, Esther 4, Isaiah 37, Lamentations 2, Joel 1, Daniel 9, Revelation 11). We gloss over those verses quickly with nothing to compare sackcloth in our culture. Until perhaps now.
Face masks are a point of controversy these days of coronavirus. Like sackcloth, they’re uncomfortable, inconvenient, and goofy-looking. People argue over whether they really work to help curtail disease-spreading or not. Various leaders the Lord has put over us are recommending them. It makes sense to me that, rightly used, they can’t do much harm, and they probably can do a lot of good.
One thing they do accomplish: they humble us. No matter how hard my favorite seamstresses try to make them cool with various logos and styles, they can’t. I still look uncool. I get to feel some of how little and shameful I really am. I hate pulling a mask over my face. Yet, I find that when I do, it is a visible reminder of what should be the inward posture of my heart. Sackcloth didn't “do” anything in days of old. But people in those days had a better sense of the whole person. They didn’t divide the spiritual from the physical the way we do. They were willing to humble themselves when they saw that God’s mercy was their only hope. The outward physical expression helped to shape the inward man.
We don’t know all of God’s purposes in this pandemic. We do know the Lord wants to humble us; we know that he is humbling us. It’s hard for proud Americans to willingly cover their faces. The thought of wearing a mask in worship is repulsive. Yet, in days of old, people willingly wore far more uncomfortable garb publicly together as an expression of willing submission and helplessness before the Lord.
I wonder if we’ve really been humbled yet as a land. Certainly, some of our health and wealth has been removed. I sometimes wonder as I read the tone and content of the debates, have our hearts been humbled? I’d like to think my heart has been. Then, I’m asked to wear a mask, and I think “I don’t really want to go that low.” There is a strange repugnance in my heart every time I pull my face mask on. It’s a repugnance that drives me to prayer every time for the Lord to be merciful to us. In the face of our historic pride and self-reliance, I wonder, what would be the harm in people willingly expressing their shame and weakness before Almighty God and fellow man? Will face masks do good to our neighbor? They might, but I suspect that they could do even more for ourselves - and in a different way bless our neighbors greatly.
Perhaps the ancient city of Nineveh serves as the greatest historical example of such humility. The Lord sent Jonah to preach to them. They heard Jonah,
And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’ When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. - Jonah 3:6-10
This is not to argue for a law on face masks or to judge those who do or do not wear them. It is simply to urge us all to consider the posture of our hearts, whether we don a mask or not. As we go to the Lord humbly, we can do so knowing with confidence that he will loose our sackcloth and clothe us with gladness so that our glory may sing his praise and we may give him thanks forever (Psalm 30:11-12).