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Just as important as our decision are our well-chosen words. Christians have a message to share and many comments or phrases hinder our most basic posture and message of love for others. Here are some phrases summarized from an essay published in the Praxis Journal by Andy Crouch, and some additional ones:
What we SHOULD NOT say:
“Everything’s going to be fine,” or even, “You’re going to be okay.”
This is not true even on the most normal day. In particular, most people we interact with are going to experience a great deal of distress in the coming days. Almost certainly they will witness distress, through the media and in person. We should be preparing them for real difficulty, and the truth that God will be present in whatever difficulty they encounter.
It is absolutely true that people immersed in media of any kind react to news and rumors in unhelpful ways. But meeting anxiety with an accusation of overreacting is not likely to help. What is almost certainly true, however, is that our reactions are misplaced — that we are reacting in ways that do not increase our trust in God and our love of neighbor.
“There is nothing to worry about”
Not only is this inaccurate, it’s incredibly arrogant. All of us are trying to make the best decisions with the information we have. This phrase, and sentiments like it, communicate that the medical health experts, officials who have access to the most specialized counsel and data, and even those affected by the disease — are wrong. What we do know is that we are dealing with a highly contagious disease and everyone, everywhere should assume that the virus is present in their community. We also know that hand washing and “social distancing” can make a huge difference in its ultimate transmission rate.
And that is why we need to deliver several messages with all the confidence we can.
What we SHOULD say:
“Love is the reason we have changed our behavior”
Remember the reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather, is not self-protection. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbors — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. One of the basic axioms of the Christian life is that the “strong” must consider the “weak” (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.
At the same time, some people are taking steps, sometimes extreme ones, to protect themselves and their families, often out of terrible anxiety, and this will likely increase as quarantine directives are extended. This is not a Christian posture. We do not change our behavior out of fear. In a very different context, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I want you to be free of anxieties” so that his community could serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32). We prepare for our expected needs, and others’, so that we can be free of anxieties and serve freely when the time comes.
It is entirely possible to prepare, even to prepare urgently, out of love. Rapid decisions to prepare are not panic unless they are accompanied by aggression and anxiety. Christians should be preparing — urgently in some cases — but not panicking.
“Expect and prepare for challenges.”
This is not the same as saying, “Worry,” or a violation of Jesus’ command in Matthew 6 not to give thought for tomorrow. Our model here is Jesus, who warned his disciples over and over that their worst case scenario was going to come true.
On the night before he faced the ultimate tragedy and disaster of Golgotha and the Cross, none of his disciples had any real idea what was coming in the days and years ahead (tradition says that all eleven original apostles died as martyrs). So even as he spoke words of comfort, Jesus made clear that his friends would suffer: “In the world you will have tribulation — but take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
There is no reason to expect COVID-19 to be the “end of the world” in any sense. Instead it falls in the large category of events that Jesus also prepared his disciples for, the “wars and rumors of wars” that would not mean the end of the world (Matthew 24:6).
So we should help one another to face whatever today and tomorrow bring, without anxiety. This means that all of us have the primary responsibility, as far as it depends on us, to be well-rested, soaked in prayer and contemplation, and free from personal fear and anxiety. We need to guard our lives and trust that God will make up what is lacking in our own frail hearts, minds, and bodies.
The best definition I’ve ever heard of anxiety is “imagining the future without Jesus in it.” When we realize that Jesus is present today and will be present tomorrow, we can be set free from worry. We need to teach and practice the Christian disciplines of prayer, praise, petition, and lament that help us see Jesus in our sufferings, both real and anticipated, and place our trust in him.
“Do not be afraid.”
In some ways this is the first word of the Christian life. Certainly it is the first word angels speak in the New Testament. We do not need to be afraid of anything — that will be true even when we are on our own death bed. The only thing to fear, as Jesus said, is the one who can cast body and soul into hell. But we have been rescued from that fear, and having been rescued there is truly nothing that can separate us from the love of God.