German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in isolation today after news that her doctor tested positive for coronavirus. Rand Paul announced yesterday that he has tested positive for the virus, becoming the first US senator to do so. Senators Mitt Romney, Mike Lee, Cory Gardner, and Rick Scott are in self-isolation today. Two members of the House of Representatives have tested positive for the disease.
Yesterday, Dallas County joined eleven other counties, states, and cities to institute shelter-in-place orders for all residents. US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said Sunday that the lockdown affecting large segments of the American public is likely to last ten to twelve weeks. As US News & World Report notes, this is “the biggest change in daily life since World War II.”
Americans are understandably afraid—afraid of the disease, of its impact on our lives, of the unknown. But there are two ways to be afraid.
One is negative and debilitating; the other is positive and transforming.
The wrong way to fear the pandemic
Merriam-Webster defines fear as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”
This is the kind of fear that prompts hoarding of toilet paper and other supplies. It causes us to fall for scams and fake COVID-19 “cures.” It provokes anxiety that is physically debilitating, leading to panic attacks, headaches, breathing problems, fatigue, and depression.
Asian Americans are experiencing prejudice and even hate crimes. Rocks and bottles were thrown at a cruise ship as it docked recently.
Such fear seems more widespread today than in many years, in large part because we are facing an enemy unlike any we have faced in my lifetime. My parents lived in a world where polio was an ever-present threat. Their parents remembered the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed as many as fifty million people and the cholera pandemic that preceded it. And my father fought in World War II; his father fought in World War I.
It’s natural for finite creatures to fear an enemy that threatens us physically, economically, and globally. It is also natural for fallen people to react to what we cannot control by controlling what we can. Thus people are hoarding supplies and lashing out at those they perceive to be threats to them.
Fear that prompts us to do what is irrational and hurtful is addressed directly by Scripture: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). God’s word adds, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). David testified, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4).
How can we experience such deliverance?
The right way to fear the pandemic
Merriam-Webster also defines fear as “profound reverence and awe especially toward God.”
We should respect a virus that can affect and infect anyone. The CDC is now reporting that 55 percent of US patients hospitalized because of coronavirus are under the age of sixty-five. It could not be more vital that everyone practice the physical and social distancing that will save lives and lessen the horrific impact of this disease on our healthcare resources.
But as much as we should respect the danger this virus represents, we should respect even more the omnipotence and authority of the Lord we worship. He is more powerful than any disease or disaster. And worshiping, trusting, and serving him with reverence and awe will give us a sense of perspective and encouragement our souls deeply need today.
In 1948, C. S. Lewis addressed the greatest fear of his day with an essay titled “On Living in an Atomic Age.” In his view, the atomic threat should be seen in light of the fact that not only individual lives but the universe itself is doomed in the end: “Not only this earth, but the whole show, all the suns of space, are to run down. Nature is a sinking ship.” Whether life on this planet ended by an atomic bomb or a pandemic, this would only hasten what was inevitable.
According to Lewis, the bigger question is whether this universe is all there is or not. If so, there is no enduring meaning to be found in such a temporary place. If not, if we and nature “have a common Creator,” then “we are not here as prisoners but as colonists.” And what we do to worship and serve our Creator will endure long after the colony we briefly inhabited is gone and forgotten.
“Those who want Heaven most”
You and I have two choices today.
We can react to this pandemic like secular people “who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We can give in to anxiety over what we cannot control and dread of a future we cannot foresee.
Or we can respond like the children of a God who promises, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Isaiah 43:2). We can believe that our Father will “supply every need of yours according to his riches on glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). When we do, we can know that he will lead us through these frightening days with a peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
In fact, when we glorify and serve our Creator out of “profound reverence and awe,” as Merriam-Webster says, we are more likely—and more empowered—to offer others the transforming love we have experienced out of gratitude for such grace.
In light of this fact, Lewis concluded his essay: “Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.”
How much do you “want Heaven” today?
NOTE: My newest book is particularly personal. I discuss my father’s difficulty believing in a good God after having experienced the atrocities of WWII. I mention how my son Ryan (with whom I co-wrote this book) battled cancer years ago, and how his suffering made me better understand my father’s misgivings.
Making Sense of Suffering is the result of what Ryan and I gleaned in the aftermath of his cancer and, praise God, his remission. Although we discuss the problem of pain, our aim was to provide seven ways you can practically and biblically help others in pain.
We all have people who need our help, but we often feel ill-equipped to journey with them through hard times. I pray that Making Sense of Suffering can help light your way on that path.