Our Deepest Fears and Greatest Hope

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I have long been amazed at those in military operations, those able to quell their fears and remain reasonably calm during hostile encounters as the chaos of war unfolds. From my armchair observation (and I welcome correction!), I suspect these warriors do fear, but they are trained to recognize, embrace, and manage that fear in order to carry on.

The COVID-19 pandemic has elicited a collective fear unlike that seen for some time. An invisible (to the naked eye), motiveless, biological terrorist was on the loose, but about its origins, power, and capacity, we had few answers. Even as more information unfolds at the time of this writing, there are still many questions left lingering.

Perhaps the most significant part of this world event is the effect it has had on our society. It may not be an overstatement to suggest that a good piece of human history has been permanently altered—in a rather all-encompassing way—in a period of three to four months. Indeed, the meaning of the word “pandemic” is roughly “all (pan) people (demos)”; therefore, nobody escapes the effects, regardless of infection or not. And just what are these effects?

First, we have seen a broad experiment in human conformity. Americans (and probably those affected around the world) were glued to their media sources, awaiting a cataclysmic apocalypse. To address the crisis, orders were given and we obeyed—mostly and quickly. And then the arguments began, leading to questions of the individual and conscience.

The pandemic, secondly, has exposed a chasm in American culture with respect to the individual. Perhaps no aspect of pandemic response has exposed this more than that of the mask. Quickly, masks have become political statements rather than pieces of cloth, pitting the “compliant and caring” against the “independent and skeptical.” It didn’t take long for one to begin to smell a whiff of conservative vs liberal and to marvel at the fact that “masking” has become a new litmus test of political philosophy. In this wake, pastors, parents, educators, business owners, CEOs, and others have all scrambled and struggled to determine how to present policy to those they serve.

Further, the fact that “your mask protects me, and my mask protects you” adds new nuance to the adage, “the right to swing your fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Now, one’s personal liberty, via everyday interaction, has become uniquely constrained by others’ opinions—thus the arguments at the grocery stores, educational institutions, churches, and more. Thus the excessively cheery Orwellian soundtrack piped into local shopping centers, reminding arrow-walkers limited to essential purchases to “stay safe, stay home, and keep your distance!” Thus there are new questions about the individual and conscience. In short, it’s messy.

Thirdly, and most significantly, fear has taken center stage: fear of losing one’s freedom, fear of an economy turned to rubble, fear of politicians seizing new power, fear of the virus spreading, fear of what the future will be, fear that people are not taking human life seriously, fear that all of this really was never necessary—even fear that our leaders know far less than we had ever assumed, or maybe worse, far more.

This, I believe, is the main effect of the pandemic: not a study of a virus, but a study of people and their fear. What is the Christian to do? Get educated? Get prepped on tactical fear control? Talk with trusted friends and advisors? Be patient? Wait on the Lord? Pray?

Each of these responses has merit (some more than others), but I believe that most of all this should cause us to direct our eyes to Christ and serve to remind us of what a Christian already knows: God is sovereign, and we are not. Scripture shows this.

Did King David know fear? A Sunday school flannelgraph would suggest the Jewish son of Jesse was a ruddy and robust warrior who never felt a hint of fear; he just gathered his smooth stones quietly. Indeed, one can read the Psalms this way, but what if (from time to time) we read them not as poetry replete with calm, assertive statements of one who never felt fear, but as if the writer was (from time to time) terrified.

In Psalm 31:14 and following, David pens, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; deliver me from my enemies and from those who pursue me . . . Let me not be ashamed, O Lord.” What if we read this not as words from a king confident, warm, and well-fed, but from a king freezing, fleeing, and clinging to his very existence, like a man injured and alone in the woods, told by a friend who goes for help, “I will come back for you; I won’t leave you.” He lays alone, his fear full before him, repeating dubiously but faithfully, over and over: “Let me not be put to shame; let me not be put to shame; save me in your unfailing love.” The flannelgraph image changes slightly, does it not?

And so it is with our fears of the pandemic, whatever they may be. We must recognize them and realize them, and call upon the Lord—however fearful we may be (and regardless of what we fear). We must ask for wisdom and grace to show love and charity and to accept that behind every mask (or no mask) is either a soul in need of the saving gospel of Jesus (with implications far more serious than COVID-19) or a brother or sister in Christ who ought to be preaching the gospel to himself or herself: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”

And what if we fear we will not be spared of death or suffering? Then this: “The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His Kingdom is forever.” This is how Christians overcome fear: with the expectant hope of biblical promise that will be fulfilled, as He has decreed, in glory.

Nate Wambold ’99 is the vice president for alumni and community affairs at Cairn. He can be reached at nwambold@cairn.edu