Merriam-Webster has chosen “vaccine” as the 2021 word of the year, and for good reason.
Let’s start with the bad news: the World Health Organization is warning of a “very high” global risk from the omicron variant. Its most “jaw-dropping feature” is the 32 mutations that affect the spike protein and could enable it to evade immune defenses from vaccines or antibodies from COVID-19 survivors. Vaccine makers said yesterday they are already working on vaccines that specifically target omicron in case their existing shots are not effective, but it could take months to produce them.
Now to the good news: the South African doctor who first raised alarm about the variant says its symptoms are “unusual but mild.” An Israeli health official said preliminary reports on people infected with omicron are encouraging: “If it continues this way, this might be a relatively mild illness compared to the delta variant, and paradoxically, if it takes over, it will lead to lower infection rates.”
Previous variants such as lambda and mu were initially thought to be dangerous, then they disappeared. And Pfizer’s CEO said yesterday he has “a very high level of confidence” that his company’s COVID-19 treatment pills are effective against omicron.
Whether omicron is a game-changer in the pandemic or not, its explosion onto the scene changes not one iota of reality regarding human mortality. Earthquakes still topple churches; the deaths of famous athletes like Lee Elder and a Home Depot employee killed by a forklift remind us of our own fragility. Composer Stephen Sondheim died at the age of ninety-one; clothing designer Virgil Abloh died of cancer at the age of forty-one. Philadelphia is on pace for its deadliest year ever, but no town or city is truly safe.
By now you’re probably ready for some more good news. You may be thinking that you don’t need me to remind you of your mortality.
But you do. So do I.
“Now, I’ll be here forever.”
I was watching the Green Bay Packers game Sunday, during which Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson was honored and his name was inscribed on the Lambeau Field façade. Woodson thanked the fans and, pointing to his name on the stadium, said, “I played here seven years, and guess what? Now, I’ll be here forever.”
There is something in us that seeks permanence. We carve our initials on tree trunks and in wet concrete. We give money to have our names inscribed on buildings. We all want to outlive ourselves.
However, when a virus emerges for which we have no natural or medical defenses, we are forced to confront our frailty. When any person we meet could infect us with a deadly disease, we cannot evade the fact of mortality. When vaccines lower our risk of catching or dying of said disease, we breathe more easily and long to return to normal. Then, when a variant emerges with even the possibility of evading these defenses and forcing us to start over, our hopes are dashed and the reality of death looms once more.
I daresay our grandparents would not have been so reactive. Theirs was an existence filled with diseases and dangers our scientists have largely vanquished. I have not spent a day of my life worrying about contracting smallpox, polio, or tuberculosis.
But such “progress” has come at a cost.
“You have ample goods laid up for many years”
C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man (perhaps his most prophetic book), observed: “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.”
We now believe, at least subconsciously, that because we can defeat some diseases, we should be able to defeat them all. Because you and I will not die of the Black Plague or Spanish flu, we need not die.
Rather than conforming to reality, we seek to subdue it.
This is a subtle lie of the enemy. He has deluded many into believing there is no afterlife at all. For those who do believe there is life after death, many do not believe hell is real. But for those who do believe that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), his strategy is to render death less threatening by using medical advances to mask its ever-present reality.
Then, when death does come, we are unprepared for what comes next.
Rather than using these few short years to invest in eternity, we waste them in “reckless living” (Luke 15:13). We say to our souls, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19).
The omicron variant, however dangerous it ultimately turns out to be, gives the lie to such deceits. It reminds us once again that we are creatures intended to serve our Creator, finite and fallen people in desperate need of the “God of hope” who alone can “fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).
“There is only one relationship that matters”
So, let’s reframe our mortality by using it to empower us for eternal purposes. Let’s seize every day as God’s gift to be employed for his glory and the good of others. Let’s love our Lord and our neighbor with passion and service (Mark 12:30–31).
If we do, we’ll experience the transforming presence of Christ and the abundant life he alone can give (John 10:10). We’ll exhibit the fruit of his Spirit in ways that give our lives purpose and our witness power (Galatians 5:22–23).
In short, let’s live each day as if it is our last, knowing that one day we’ll be right.
To this end, I’ll close with my favorite reading in Oswald Chambers’ classic, My Utmost for His Highest:
“There is only one relationship that matters, and that is your personal relationship to a personal Redeemer and Lord. Let everything else go, but maintain that at all costs, and God will fulfill his purpose through your life. One individual life may be of priceless value to God’s purposes, and yours may be that life.”
Do you agree?
NOTE: Today is Giving Tuesday. It’s a vitally important day, not only because it focuses our world on giving instead of getting — but because today could be a big step forward in pushing back against the darkness of our culture. Any gift you give to help reach our $285,000 one-day goal will be DOUBLED by a $50,000 Matching Grant. So please give now — knowing you’ll give twice as many people the biblical insight they need to discern the news differently. Thank you.