Peace in the Pandemic

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the top: Hollywood has ruined the idea of courage for the rest of us.  Don’t get me wrong; I love movies, especially stories of heroism.  But think about how heroes in popular movies often behave: They show no fear as they leap across gaping chasms without a rope, or walk calmly into battle zones as bullets spray and bombs burst all around them.  We watch, and think, “That’s real courage.”  We feel like cowards in comparison.  But that’s not courage; it’s foolishness.  In real life, people who behave that way die within seconds.  Courage isn’t a lack of fear; it’s feeling afraid, but doing what needs to be done anyway.

I bring this up now because we’re in a time of uncertainty, which no doubt has many of us very anxious.  If that’s how you feel right now, or if you are close to someone who does, please understand that the answer to anxiety is NOT “Hollywood courage.”  Christians especially need to hear this, because we often misinterpret the biblical command to “fear not.”  For instance, many of us love to quote Philippians 4:6-7,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That’s a great promise, but we misuse it when we say, “Just stop worrying.  Pray instead.”  Quite frankly, most of us can’t stop anxious feelings from tormenting us, no matter how much we pray.  That’s especially true in our current moment, when we’re all living through a crisis like nothing we’ve ever experienced or imagined.  I heard an illustration in a sermon once that I’ve never forgotten.  The preacher said, “I have a challenge for you.  For the next ten seconds, I want you to not think about red monkeys.  Alright?  No red monkeys, for the next ten seconds.  Ready…go.”  Of course, no one could do it, because the harder you try not to think of something, the more certain that one thing–red monkeys–would pop into your mind.  His point was that trying to stop worrying cold turkey doesn’t work.  But there is an answer: Instead of trying to empty your mind of anxious thoughts, focus on filling it with other, better things.

Perhaps that’s why, just after Paul tells us to be anxious for nothing, he writes these words (Philippians 4:8-9):

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

I think what Paul is saying is that the God of peace doesn’t work through magic; He doesn’t make our fears go away.  Instead, He works through faith.  When we choose to think on the things of God instead of the things we are afraid of, we experience peace.  For example look at the phrase, “whatever is true.”  Anxiety prods us to think of possibilities that may never happen–“What if I get this disease?  What if someone I love dies?  What if I lose my job, and we can’t pay our mortgage?”  It’s only reasonable to be afraid of these things, but obsessing about them does no good.  But there are things we KNOW are true–“God is in control.  He loves us enough to die for us.  He will do something wonderful through all of this pain and anxiety.”  When we are focused on those things, those “true” thoughts push out the “what ifs” that drive us crazy.

But it’s not just about what we think. It’s about what we do.  As Paul says, “practice these things,” referring to the Christian life.  Paul is saying, “Live the way I’ve been teaching you to live.”  So read God’s Word, and put it into practice.  Every day you read it, there is something in there for you to work on.  Checking up on your neighbors, forgiving your enemies, being generous to those who have less, praying for those who are hurting, writing encouraging letters to people who are struggling…these are all things we can do even in a time of quarantine that will align our lives with the instruction of Scripture.  When we think this way and live this way, “the God of peace will be with” us.  In other words, God’s peace comes to those who obey Him.  He works through faith.

But I must add one more thing: There are people among us (more than you may know) for whom anxiety is a daily struggle, even in good times.  If you are one of them, I hope you are getting help from a mental health professional.  There is no shame in that; anymore than a person with a stomach ulcer should be embarrassed to take an acid-blocking medication.  But for the rest of us, how do we comfort our friends and family members who struggle with anxiety?  Pray and listen.  Pray for them to experience peace. And listen to what they say.  Ask them, “What specifically are you afraid of?”  Then sit and listen, without judging or trying to “fix” their issue.  For instance, a friend may say, “I can’t stop thinking about what might happen if one of my kids gets this.  I am just terrified.”  You can certainly tell them that this disease seems to be much harder on the elderly than the young, especially kids.  But even knowing that may not “cure” their anxiety.  Just listen.  If, when they share their anxieties with you, you can show them that you care, it is a great way of bearing their burden.  Their load gets lighter, because they finally feel that someone else understands what they are going through.

At First Baptist Church, we have a vision to bring peace to chaos in our community through transforming relationships.  There is no better time to pursue that vision than now!

 

Regarding the coronavirus

Most Christians know that the most frequently-repeated command in Scripture is “Fear not.”  It doesn’t mean that it’s a sin to feel afraid.  After all, Jesus clearly expressed fear in the Garden of Gethsemane.  God knows we can’t control how we feel, but we are responsible for how we act when we are afraid.  “Fear not” means we can’t let fear control us.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot in these days when coronavirus dominates the news.  One of the main reasons the Gospel spread so fast in the ancient world is that those first Christians refused to be overcome by fear.  The sociologist Rodney Stark wrote a book called The Rise of Christianity, in which he sought to understand how the Jesus movement, lacking in resources, social standing or religious freedom, and in spite of periods of intense official persecution, became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by the Fourth Century.  One reason the Church grew was that, during the great epidemics that would sweep through ancient cities, Christians stayed, tending to the sick, while the rest of the populace fled for the hills.  Why would they do this?  Two reasons: First, they took seriously the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves.  They couldn’t consider themselves true Christ-followers if they didn’t step up when their neighbors were dying.    Another was that they did not fear death; in fact, they welcomed it as a promotion to a better world, where they would be face-to-face with their Savior.  As Paul wrote from literal death row, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  In a time when Christianity was known as a religion for slaves, the courageous faith of those ordinary believers opened a door for millions of Roman citizens to encounter the Gospel.

I am not saying the coronavirus is going to be anything like those epidemics of old; I certainly hope it won’t be.  But I am praying that, no matter what happens, we modern-day Christians would not driven by fear.  Can we be honest?  In my lifetime, we haven’t done so well at this.  In the early 1980s, for example, when most Americans first became aware of the existence and rapid spread of AIDS, when no one knew what caused the illness, and people who had contracted it were treated as lepers by most, American Christians, by and large, were just as fearful as the rest of the country.  What if we had behaved like those early Christians instead?  What if we had been the ones to minister to AIDS patients, in spite of the risk, driving them to doctors’ appointments, tending to them in their beds, weeping with them and holding their hands as they died?  Don’t you think our ability today to share the Gospel of Jesus with homosexual men and women would be different?  Don’t you think our cultural credibility in speaking truth in love would be enhanced?  We had an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and we blew it.

For another, much less serious example: When people were in a panic over the so-called Y2K crisis, when some speculated that power grids would shut down at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, leading to the collapse of world economies and rioting in the streets, were we the voice of reason?  Did we exhibit calm in the midst of anxiety?  Not exactly.  I knew some Christians who preached that everyone should buy their own cow so that they would have a source of dairy products when all the grocery stores were no more.  Once again, too many of us were driven by fear.

Let me say it once more: I don’t know what will happen with this disease.  I have great hope that bright scientific minds will find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment very soon.  I am praying toward that end, and so should all Christians.  But don’t stop there.  Pray that we would not let fear control us.  That means we will not pass along hysterical rumors.  We won’t obsessively watch the news, and we won’t believe everything we read on the internet.  Factcheck.org is among many great websites to use in checking rumors you hear, or just call your local doctor’s office.  Heed the instructions we receive from medical authorities.  Right now, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control recommend good handwashing, and seeking treatment if you feel sick.  Most of all, pray along with me that God would allow us to rise to the challenge of whatever comes, that this time we would be the people of God that our community needs.  Pray that, if our worst fears about this disease are realized, we will act like those early Christians, loving our neighbors and refusing to fear death.  Pray, and wait for an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus.