By now you are probably aware of the problem waiting to erupt the instant the clocks strike midnight on the last day of this year. Computers all over the world will suffer mass confusion because, to abbreviate dates, only the last two digits of a year were used. This space-saving stratagem has worked fine until now, but in the year 2000 the two-digit year-designator will be lower than the previous year, and some computers, faced with this anomalous date, will not function properly.
This problem would be little more than a practical joke were it not that computers have become ubiquitous. I do not mean just personal computers; I mean everything “computer,” including embedded chips: TVs, stereos, telephones, microwaves, answering machines, toasters, cars—the list goes on and on. We are so dependent on computers that no one can accurately predict what will happen when the New Year arrives.
Predictions vary widely. Some expect only minor disruptions. Others predict the end of civilization as we know it. The prospect looks slightly better now than it did six months ago, but the consensus seems to be that while Y2K will not completely disable our economy, it will cause a significant disruption. The problem is so vast and multifaceted, however, that no one really knows what will happen.
I am not afraid of the millennium bug. I see it like the flu, which can be very mild or quite severe, but a healthy person can bounce back to full health in a relatively short time. Human society—in good economic, political, and spiritual health—can fully recover from any Y2K problems in a matter of months.
I am concerned that the world is not in good health. People do not die of the flu, but they do die of complications. A healthy person rarely develops such complications, but a person with a weak immune system can be in grave danger. I see signs that the world’s immune system is weak. If I am correct, the failure of several key computer systems could trigger a cascade of other failures, the cumulative effect of which could be truly catastrophic. Let me list some problems I see, so that you can better judge for yourself the world’s current state of health.
The world economy. There was a time when most of the world’s population lived on self-sustaining farms, and economic disruptions were local and easily overcome once their cause was gone. The modern economy is specialized and global; events happen in remote parts of the world that effect the price of goods we buy. Man has created a marvelous and efficient system of exchange of resources and products that spans the entire globe, but the more complex and intricate this system has become, the more vulnerable it is to disruption—and the more difficult to repair. Even if all the computers in the United States were made ready in time, the Y2K bug could effect other countries and thereby destabilize the entire world economy.
This potential is increased by the fact that the world economy is already shaky. The economic powerhouses of the Far East have been struggling for a year to get back on their feet. Their troubles have further weakened an already weak Russian economy. Meanwhile, South America is showing signs of economic instability; Brazil’s economy is floundering and threatening to pull down the other countries. So far, the United State’s economy continues to be surprisingly strong, but can it remain strong when some of its most important trade partners are in serious trouble?
Political storms. Serbian aggression against the other peoples of Yugoslavia threatens to erupt into a conflict that could destabilize much of Europe. Russia is a disaster waiting to happen. If the small amount of authority that the present government now enjoys finally disintegrates, the conflicts we have witnessed in Yugoslavia will look trivial compared to the chaos and destruction we will see in Russia. Nuclear weapons that Russia still warehouses will most certainly be sold to rogue nations like Iraq—another trouble spot. America continues to search for a solution to the problem that Saddam Hussein poses; nuclear weapons would greatly embolden him. Add to the list North Korea and Iran; both are on the verge of nuclear capability while they face domestic unrest.
Terrorism. Terrorists seem to have more destructive weapons at their disposal and are increasingly willing to use them. Biological and chemical weapons are relatively cheap, easy to develop, and very deadly. President Clinton recently warned the American public that we need to prepare for such an attack within the borders of the United States. Terrorists could exploit any disruptions caused by Y2K to stage such attacks.
A divided American society. A cohesive society is capable of weathering a surprising amount of distress; a fragmented society cannot. The impeachment debate has been very revealing in this regard. A culture war being waged in our country has created a huge rift through the middle of American society that will not soon be bridged. American society is as sharply divided now as it was just before the Civil War.
How Should We Prepare?
If experts cannot predict the magnitude of the Y2K problem, I certainly can make no more reliable forecast. But if Y2K does spark trouble in one or more problem area, it will be a major disaster and it could be catastrophic. In light of such a possibility, what should we do, if anything, to prepare? Material abounds about measures one should take to prepare for life without the normal supplies of electric power, water, or food; others have dealt with this much more competently than I could. I will address a more fundamental and important aspect of preparation for potential disaster: the preparation of our souls.
I have been studying the book of Isaiah. Chapter eight contains very appropriate advice for our Y2K preparations. To understand the book and the advice in chapter eight, one must put oneself in the shoes of those at the time. It was a hard time. God allowed His people to suffer greatly over a long period of time; the people of Jerusalem suffered under cruel siege for years. Isaiah, a prophet of God, predicted the sieges and warned the people in advance, but the people paid little heed and took little comfort from his words. Allow me to explain briefly how the Kingdom of Judah got into such a predicament.
After the death of King Solomon, a civil war tore the kingdom established by the children of Abraham into two hostile kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. The northern kingdom quickly departed from worship and devotion to God. The southern kingdom, though far from faultless, was less rebellious towards God. In the eighth century B.C., when Isaiah lived, God sent the Assyrians to punish the Kingdom of Israel. As Assyria began to maneuver for invasion, the king of Israel became nervous. To bolster his defense, he sought an alliance with two of his biggest neighbors, Syria and Judah. Because Syria was willing and Judah was not, Syria and Israel attacked Judah, hoping to replace Judah’s king with one who would join them in their alliance against Assyria.
Before the attack, God told Isaiah to write in ordinary letters, “Swift is the booty and speedy is the prey.” With these words, God predicted that Israel and Syria, instead of defeating Judah, would themselves be conquered and plundered by Assyria. In addition to recording these words, Isaiah showed them to two witnesses so that irrefutable evidence of God’s prediction would exist when the prophecy came to pass. God also established a timetable for the fulfillment of these events: the destruction of Judah’s enemies would take place before Isaiah’s infant was old enough to talk, about two years.
God then explained to Isaiah in more detail what would come to pass. Because the Kingdom of Israel and Syria had rejected Him, God would send the king of Assyria to overrun them like a flood. So violent would this flood be that it would wash into Judah, covering all but its head with water. But because God was committed to preserving His people and would stand by them in time of trouble, the flood would stop short of completely overwhelming Judah—Jerusalem would be spared.
Through Isaiah, God then addressed the peoples of the world: no matter how hard they tried, they would never be able to overcome His protection of Judah. God asserted that He had matters well in hand and was willing and fully able to repulse any attempt to snuff out His chosen nation. God’s commitment to the Kingdom of Judah was firm, and His people could rest assured that He would stand by them.
Despite His warnings, God knew that His people would not trust Him; He knew that when their situation turned grim, they would lose their faith in Him and look for some other god, some other savior, to rescue them. They simply would not be able to reconcile God’s behavior with what they expected and wanted Him to do. But this rejection of God would cause their downfall; their lives would, in one way or another, crash and burn. Only those who fear and respect God avoid this fate.
God warned Isaiah not to follow the example of his countrymen, not to be frightened when Israel and Syria attacked Judah, and not to focus on the strength of the opposition. Instead, Isaiah should remind himself of God’s might. Looking at the power of the approaching armies might instill one with awe and fear, but Isaiah should fear the power of God, not that of the enemy. In response to Isaiah’s faithfulness, God promised to provide him real, enduring security.
Having heard God, Isaiah decided on a course of action. He sought to preserve those things which he and his disciples would need to endure the hard times to come. First, he gave his disciples the written record (testimony) of God’s predictions about the impending allied invasion. Second, he preserved a knowledge of God and His moral principles (law) by teaching his disciples. Isaiah then waited eagerly for God to do what He was going to do.
Isaiah explained why he wanted to preserve the memory of the testimony and the law. He anticipated that when the siege dragged on and became desperate, his countrymen would turn to mediums and spiritists to give them reason for hope. Isaiah warned against this resort and recommended a wiser way of dealing with the anxiety: “To the law and to the testimony!” Isaiah’s antidote was simple: First, remind people that what was happening was what God said would happen; Isaiah had written evidence (the testimony) to support him. Second, remind them of the teachings of Scripture (the law). In times of suffering, people easily develop a distorted view of God. We readily forget His record of faithfulness over thousands of years and demand that He prove himself anew. But the record clearly shows that God is well in control of the affairs of this world and that He is faithful to His promises. These two bodies of knowledge—the testimony and the law—constituted Isaiah’s survival kit. He knew they were the only sure anchor that would enable any among the people of Judah to weather the approaching storm.
Many differences exist between Isaiah’s situation and ours, but a basic principle applies to both. Isaiah knew that human beings are myopic. We only see what is at hand; the past and the future are hazy, and we can only see the problems of the moment, which loom disproportionately large. We need some way to put things into proper perspective. We need a larger field of vision, a broader perspective on reality. God’s revelation provides this view.
The Bible is essentially God’s self-revelation—an autobiography, a self-portrait. In times of trouble it is crucial to keep that picture before our eyes. You and I know that if times get difficult we will begin to question whether God loves us, whether He is still committed to us, whether He has lost control of events. We do this in fairly quiet times; in difficult times we will do it all the more. In such times, we should do as Isaiah recommended. We must review the record of the predictions God has made to reassure ourselves that things are right on schedule. Even if we do not understand all the details of prophecy, we do know, for example, that God predicted the restoration of the nation of Israel. We can take great heart in these trail markers because they prove history has not veered off track. We must also remind ourselves of who God is and the character that He has manifested over thousands of years. God is full of surprises. He always has been. The worst surprises are those involving pain. Whenever we are subjected to suffering, we wonder how God could put us through it. In times like these, we need to remind ourselves who this God is to whom we entrusted our lives. Without constant reminders of these truths, the afflictions of the moment will obscure from sight the God who is really there.
I do not know if Y2K will trigger a major disaster, but there are some simple steps all of us should take to prepare for it. We must make sure we understand the essential message of the Gospel and sear it into our minds and our hearts. Then should events overtake us and plunge us into despair, we will know where to find sure hope and salvation. I say “sure” hope because human beings are good at finding hope in times of despair, but any other hope is just wishful thinking. Faith in God and His promises is the only ground for hope that will not disappoint. “To the law and to the testimony!”