I am, by nature, optimistic. Ask the people who know me best, and they’d all agree I tend to find the sunniest take on nearly everything, almost to the point of annoyance. But in this strange, uncertain season we are experiencing as the coronavirus ravages our communities and countries, I have been gripped, at various times, by palpable terror.
One night in particular, I read a dire, worst-case scenario projection right before I went to bed and found I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and prayed all night, unable to find peace.
Academically, I know all the reassurances I’ve often given people in times like these. I can quote the psalms and other passages that speak of the goodness of God, His sovereignty, His power over creation. Still, fear sits in the doorway of my heart like an uninvited guest, refusing to grant peace entrance.
On some level, this is a perfectly natural response. A worldwide unstoppable pandemic is the kind of thing humans have feared since the beginning. In the Scriptures, plagues are often a part of God’s package of judgments against heathen nations or ways of chastening His own people. Faithful Bible students today avoid making those direct connections to what is happening now, but plagues are among the most severe kind of natural occurrence. And throughout history, we’ve read where pestilences wiped out entire civilizations. There is a reason we say “avoid it like the plague” about activities we hate. The dread of pandemics is a real and important fear.
And yet, there is a kind of catechesis going on—a way of teaching our hearts and minds—that is unhealthy. It’s a catechesis of calamity, where the constant input of bad news and negative updates slowly erodes our faith and trust in God. So how do we open our hearts again to faith in a time of uncertainty?
1. Back away from the bad news.
How do we open our hearts again to faith in a time of uncertainty?
I don’t think we should bury our heads in the sand and ignore the news. We need to be vigilant to keep up with the latest restrictions in our communities, and to be clear-eyed about decisions we must make as a family and as Christians. And yet if we are honest, much of our engagement with the news is driven by an inability to tear ourselves away. Several times in the last few weeks, my wife has told me, “You need to put that phone down. You are embedding unhealthy fear in your heart.” And she’s right. The truth is, while we are basically quarantined in our home, having our basic needs met and meaningful work to do, there is nothing we will miss by spending a few hours (or more) away from the news cycle. Vigilance doesn’t require hearing every press conference and reading up on every new development.
We are formed by our rhythms. And unconsciously we may be catechizing our souls toward despair, with the constant scrolling and droning of the news. This is not good for us in any moment, but especially in moments of crisis. Our minds and hearts and souls need to breathe—we were not made for constant negative input. So if you are like me, you need to release yourself from the burden of having to always be in the know and instead actively choose to rest in the all-knowingness of God.
2. Lean in to spiritual disciplines.
If we are not careful, we’ll waste this time in isolation with constant worry, layering over our hearts with unbelief instead of allowing God’s Word to shape us. We can be disciplined by the news cycle, by social media, or by this crisis, rather than being fed by lasting spiritual food. If we really believe what we believe, now is the time to believe and practice it through frequent prayer, silence, and reading the Bible.
Reading the Bible more is especially helpful in times like this. We often pause over passages in Scripture that talk about God’s power and might—about Him being a refuge—and get inspired. But these texts really come alive in the midst of a crisis. This year I’ve been doing a read-thru-the-Bible plan, but it has only been in the last few weeks that the Psalms passages have risen up and given me peace in ways they never have before. The Word of God is water for a parched, weary, scared soul. Times of trial, uncertainty, and fear are not the moments to lean away from God, but the moments to lean toward Him—in every way we can.
3. Reach out toward community.
We may be isolated in our homes, but we don’t have to be isolated from our communities. Technological mediums will never replace what we get from face-to-face, embodied fellowship, and we should never consider separation from friends and our local body of believers the norm. And yet, God has graciously allowed us to live in a time of technological advancement, where friends are a text or video call away. I’ve personally found great refreshment in an ongoing group text with four other close friends. What seemed kind of a frivolous luxury when we began four years ago is now a rich and vital blessing.
Times of trial, uncertainty, and fear are not the moments to lean away from God, but the moments to lean toward Him—in every way we can.
We might also use this time to connect with our immediate family. Being locked together in isolation can present its challenges, but it’s an opportunity to work on our most important relationships with greater intention and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
4. Rest in new healthy rhythms of work and play.
One of the perils of being home every day is how it seems to mess up the routines and rhythms that form so much of our daily lives. If you are struggling right now because you’ve lost employment, that can especially be true as you try to navigate both grief and a new way of doing life. And if you’re one of the people fortunate enough to work from home, the challenges of being in one place, day in and out, are often just as pronounced. For one thing, the days sort of bleed into each other—weekdays and weekends become indistinguishable. In our house, we had returned to homeschooling this year, so that part of our daily system was already in place. It was I who had to adjust and realize I should still take time off, step away from the laptop, put my phone down. Working from home doesn’t mean working all the time.
Crises have a way of convincing us that we aren’t allowed to care for our bodies—that we have to remain glued to the grim unfolding drama outside. But we don’t. It’s important, especially during times like this, to find space to rest, relax, enjoy leisure and, quite simply, breathe.
5. Refocus on what we can control.
The other day my friend reminded me of a good way to think through a crisis—a principle that’s so basic it’s profound: There are things we can control, and things we cannot. It’s easy, of course, to nod in affirmation at such a familiar idea, but it’s much harder—some of us might say impossible—to live out. Especially when there’s a pandemic lurking in the streets.
It’s important, especially during times like this, to find space to rest, relax, enjoy leisure and, quite simply, breathe.
I can’t control coronavirus—I can’t control where it spreads or who gets it or what policies are being put in place. I’m not a doctor or scientist. I don’t even know what I don’t know. What I can control, however, is what God has put before me: following guidelines for social distancing, shepherding my family in faith, and doing the work I’ve been called to. Similarly, I can’t control the economic situation, but I can make wise choices, and I can give toward those in need.
My default behavior in a crisis is to neglect what’s in front of me in favor of needless worry and fear concerning those things over which I have no jurisdiction. That’s the opposite of faith. To trust God is to release our burdens and walk in obedience to Him. To be still in the places where we are powerless—and faithful where He has given us responsibility.
6. Fresh grace for the next day
I don’t know how long this crisis will last—no one does. I don’t know when the virus will peak. I don’t have a clue on when we will be able to get back to normal, or what “normal” will mean when all of this is said and done. But I do know what is available to every believer: fresh grace for the day ahead.
I wish I could tell you that I practice these exercises of faith every day, but I often fail. I’m surprised at how fragile my soul can be in the face of crisis, how much I need God. But this—even this—is a good work of the Spirit in my heart. And in yours.
Art by Jonathan Todryk