COVID-19: Compliance and the Thinking Christian

Neither “doing as we’re told” without asking questions, nor “doing what we want” in defiance of the authorities is an option for the thinking Christian. And neither course of action will bring this crisis to a harmonious conclusion.

A Couple of Clarifications

First, I have not communicated clearly or often enough about my appreciation for those who are working on the front lines of this pandemic. So let me start by saying a big thank you to those who continue to faithfully serve during this time! While the rest of us are avoiding COVID-19 like the plague (which, you know, it kind of is…) you are not able to keep your distance. This is very good work that demands a level of self-sacrifice that we all appreciate.

Second, if I have not made my views on the reality and seriousness of COVID-19 clear enough, let me do so now. In a post last week I said that, “COVID-19 is real. People are dying because of it and we should do what we can to mitigate its effects.” I still believe that and I agree that people need to comply with all reasonable social distancing orders.

Intelligent Compliance

While I will continue to encourage this, I will also continue to encourage intelligent, and not merely blind, compliance. Neither “doing as we’re told” without asking questions, nor “doing what we want” in defiance of the authorities is an option for the thinking Christian. And neither course of action will bring this crisis to a harmonious conclusion.

God’s word tells us to honour, pray for, and be subject to our leaders (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:17), but there are also limits to our compliance, as we see in Acts 5:29. This means that we cannot and should not blindly accept the doctrine of either side of the debate that is currently raging in the public square. Instead, we must examine the truth of scripture, apply that truth to the public debate and our own actions, and then leave the consequences to God.

At What Cost?

Many decisions have been made these last months based on the goal of minimizing the number of deaths and, of course, we all want to minimize COVID-19-related deaths. The question is at what cost? It may sound callous to think of this in terms of cost-benefit analysis, but in reality that is what everyone on all sides of this debate is doing. Some believe the overall human and economic cost of shutting everything down will be less than the cost of taking a more blended approach. Others believe the opposite.  

Leaders and policy-makers have to make decisions on a daily basis about minimizing death in a wide array of scenarios. As a society we have decided on many issues (automobile safety, for example), and even with COVID-19, that some number of deaths is tolerable – or at least inevitable – in order to preserve civil liberties and the minimal functioning of our society. 

How to Knock Out COVID-19 Completely

Think of it this way: if we really wanted to knock COVID-19 out completely, wouldn’t the best solution be for every individual to stay isolated in a locked room with a bathroom, emerging only to eat food that is delivered by someone in a hazmat suit that has been certified non-COVID?

We all agree that’s a ridiculous scenario, right? And we all agree that doing nothing is equally ridiculous. So between those two extremes we have to decide on the right path. And we should most certainly not be afraid to wrestle with different ideas, concepts, and proposals. If we really want to seek the welfare of the nation in which we live (Jer. 29:7), we will enter into reasonable and intelligent debates about massive decisions that have both short-term and long-term implications.  

George Orwell, COVID-19, and the War Metaphor

As examples of over-enforcement multiply and as we see snitch lines and people’s willingness to use them, we may want to take one giant step back, turn our heads side to side with our eyes open, and observe what seems to be happening around us. As I said in a post last week, “with the penchant for sensationalism on the part of some of the media, and the lust for attention and control on the part of some of our politicians, there may very well be aspects of this crisis that are being overstated. And some may be positioning themselves for greater access to the levers of power once the crisis has abated.” And so, “careful inquiry is always warranted in unusual times when people stand to gain anything, and in the midst of this crisis there are those who see opportunities for improper gain.” Since I wrote that, my optimism about government over-reach has faded significantly. I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of obedience in the context of Romans 13, which, taken (as it always should be) along with the rest of scripture, does not advocate absolute obedience to the state. This means we should not simply “do what we’re told” in every circumstance. When those in authority attempt to leverage a crisis to expand their control over those under their authority, we should not hesitate to speak up.  

The War Metaphor

And so we should be alarmed when we read words like these from a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail that bluntly states, “Canada is at war. It’s a war that is going to be costly, though how costly is impossible to say. It may also be long.” If we are going to swallow this suggestion whole we should expect some indigestion in the near future. This quote from George Orwell’s novel 1984 seems timely: “[T]he consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.”

Follow Intelligently, Not Blindly

As we continue to discern both the obligations and limits of what we are told in Romans 13, let’s watch and follow intelligently but not blindly. Ultimate authority resides with God’s word and not the words of men – regardless of how much delegated authority they wield. If, under threat of punishment, we fail to speak the truth of God’s word at a time when it is most needed, we and everyone around us will pay a steep price. Let’s continue to obey God in all things, including these words: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior…” – 1 Timothy 2:1-3 While blind obedience will not do, neither will the complete lack of respect for our leaders I have seen in so many social media posts. Strive to find the balance between blind obedience and sinful disrespect; one is not better than the other.

Who Will Save Us From This Pandemic?

When the pandemic ends, when the cure is found, when the world is busy telling us who the true heroes of the story are, will we find ourselves worshipping at the altar of human achievement or bowed in reverence to the God who heals our diseases?

Our daily struggle between faith in God and faith in human ability has been magnified by our current crisis. Never in our lifetimes has there been such a powerful universal sense of helplessness and great efforts are being made to subdue this unwanted feeling.

We do thank God that work is being done to find a cure, but while we wait we might be tempted to think that the fate of the world rests in the hands of politicians and of those working hard in labs everywhere. We might even think that if we could just throw more people and money at the problem, a great human achievement might come about.

But overcoming this crisis is not ultimately dependent on human intelligence, effort or ingenuity. And if we think it is, we are in great danger of tripping over our own pride right into the next available ditch.

Not By Numbers But By Faith

In Judges 7 Gideon assembles a significant fighting force to come against the army of another nation. He’s done his homework. He knows the numbers and figures he has the resources to defeat the opposition. But then God says this: “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’” – Judges 7:2 (ESV)

God sees a danger in all of this human calculation. God sees that if Gideon wins by the numbers, his men will be tempted to think that their human power and effort were what mattered most. Their faith in themselves will be strengthened instead of their faith in God.

So God reduces Gideon’s army to a fraction. He does this so they will have no reason to boast of their own strength. And Gideon goes along, showing his faith in God’s power. When they defeat their enemies it will be obvious to everyone that the power behind the victory was not of human origin. It will be obvious that God’s power won the battle.

Action Still Required

And yet Gideon’s men still engage the fight; human effort is still involved. Could God win the battle without them? Yes, of course. So why doesn’t he? We might ask the same questions about COVID-19. Why did God allow COVID-19 to spread in the first place? Could he cure it in an instant? And if he can, why doesn’t he?

These are questions worth exploring, but while we are exploring them let’s not neglect to notice that among all the other good that God is bringing about through this crisis, he is also presently working through human beings to bring this disease to an end. And the people God is working through, many of whom do not understand (or perhaps, even believe) this are probably filled with a great sense of purpose right now. How much more, then, would those God is working through who DO understand this be filled with a sense of purpose, honour and gratitude that the Creator of the universe saw fit to use their efforts in the process?   

When God includes us in his work we are filled with faith and confidence. What greater source of confidence could we have than to know that the God who created and rules over everything fights for us? And yet we often succumb to fear and try to fight these battles with only our own power. God desires for us to know that we can’t save ourselves. Not only does he desire for us to know, he sees to it that we are often reminded.

A Reminder

Consider the current crisis his latest reminder. When we come to the end of this pandemic, we will most certainly be tempted to say, “Our own hands have saved us!” That would be an enormous mistake. When the pandemic ends, when the cure is found, when the world is busy telling us who the true heroes of the story are, will we find ourselves worshipping at the altar of human achievement or bowed in reverence to the God who heals our diseases?

Perhaps he is waiting for us to humble ourselves, recognize our own inadequacy in fighting this virus, and cry out to him to do what only he can do. Are we willing to do that?

COVID-19: The Cost of Overreacting

Several disclaimers before we get started. COVID-19 is real. People are dying because of it and we should do what we can to mitigate its effects. But approaching this with an “even if it saves one life we should do it” mentality is too simplistic. Action and reaction – if by saving one life you put another in danger, what is the right choice?

So I want to draw your attention to a couple of pieces I read yesterday that I would describe as “forcefully responsible” questioning about what is currently happening with the government’s responses to COVID-19.

The Overreaction

The first was by Denny Burk, who asks, “Are policy-makers ‘encouraging mass civil disobedience’?”  Go take a look. I think he has a point. He quotes an article in the Wall Street Journal: “Decrees like those from the Michigan Governor’s office and their capricious enforcement run the risk of encouraging mass civil disobedience that will undermine the point of the orders.”

I’m seeing this here in Ontario, Canada as well. I know of a church that put a lot of thought, planning, and promotion into their drive-in Easter service, only to be given a big thumbs-down by the authorities a few days before the event. Why? If everyone stays in the their family units in their vehicles with the windows up, why can’t we do this? Millions of people are still hitting the McDonalds drive-thru every day. None of the workers I’ve seen in my town are wearing masks. Are they in yours? So if millions of people can interact within six feet of each other without face shields, why can’t a couple of hundred people park in the same place inside their sealed family vehicles?   

We are told not to go to beaches, even though beaches would seem a natural refuge in a time like this – a place with wide walking spaces where we always keep our distance from others anyway. My family was warned about an $800 fine for going to the beach last weekend as we were stepping out of our vehicle about half a kilometre from the beach! We had no intention of walking on the beach, and since there was an OPP officer in a cruiser posted at the entrance, there was no chance we were going to modify our intentions.

People are cooped up and isolated. The mental health impacts will be far reaching and long-term. We can mitigate those effects by reasonably allowing – perhaps even encouraging – people to get outside and enjoy nature. 

Post-Game Analysis?

The second post I read was by Doug Wilson, who always titles his posts so delightfully. This one was called “This Shambling and Shameful and Shambolic Shamdemic.” 

Explaining how all of this might be called a “shamdemid” he explains that:

“What I mean is the vast discrepancy between what has actually happened and what we were assured would happen. That discrepancy is the sham. Draconian actions were taken on the basis of these representations, and that is why the discrepancy is a hot issue. What the computer modeling experts predicted has not come to pass in any way that even remotely resembled their predictions, and which were treated as hard predictions by the politicians and decision-makers. And it cannot even be said that the computer modeling scare made us undertake certain heroic mitigation efforts necessary that would avert the predicted disaster because the models included mitigation efforts.” 

That last sentence is massively important. To be clear, he’s not saying that there aren’t surges in some places. He isn’t saying people aren’t dying or that COVID-19 is imaginary. He’s saying that the earlier apocalyptic predictions, based on models that took mitigation efforts into account, were not even close to accurate.

And on these models decisions were made that are causing chaos in the world economy. And if you care about lives, you need to concern yourself with the economy. I’ve heard many people express the thought that “it’s better to overreact than to under-react.” This is true for some scenarios and false for others. We might all wear masks when we go out in public, and maybe this isn’t absolutely necessary, but there isn’t a lot of downside to doing so. On the other hand, if you overreact when it comes to the economy, things could get dark very quickly. It is well-documented that alcohol consumption and suicide rates increase during times of economic recession. 

There is a cost to overreacting. We need to take that cost into account when shaping our present responses. Some studies have found that for every 1% increase in unemployment there is an equal increase in suicide rates. The unemployment rate in Canada rose 2.2% from February to March of this year. According to the numbers, that’s an extra 800+ deaths by suicide this year in Canada, and the unemployment numbers are going to go up quite dramatically in the coming month.

Call to Action

What’s my call to action here? Don’t follow blindly, follow intelligently. Look at a wide variety of views on the crisis. Discuss and debate. And as you’re doing all of that, don’t succumb to the fear and panic and anxiety that you see around you. Even if all the worst predictions come true,  all of God’s promises will still also be true. We still have hope and faith and love. That should cause us to love our neighbours and to love the truth – all truth. Even the truth about this crisis and our reasonable response.

COVID-19: A Letter to the Skeptical and the Scared

As I sit at my kitchen table writing this I am struck by the contrast between what I’m reading online and what I’m seeing with my eyes. Over the last couple of days I’ve been asking myself a reality check question: Is this really happening? Is there an incurable virus infecting people all over the world? Are airlines canceling most of their flights? Are restaurants and factories closing? I’m not in denial; I know this is happening, it all just still seems so distant.

The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed today in our county and our premier has now ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses. Until today COVID-19 was something we were observing from afar, and then from a bit closer as it made its way to a mid-sized Canadian city close to where we live. And now this disease is making its way even to here, small-town southwestern Ontario.

Still, the surreality of it all is striking. To this point, what we’re reading about has been the stuff only of the early scenes of post-apocalyptic novels and movies. And yet, right now, it is happening, and people are responding in a variety of ways. Some are skeptical and others are scared.

To the Skeptical…

Skeptics wonder if it’s really all as bad as the media and our government officials are telling us. Granted, with the penchant for sensationalism on the part of some of the media, and the lust for attention and control on the part of some of our politicians, there may very well be aspects of this crisis that are being overstated. And some may be positioning themselves for greater access to the levers of power once the crisis has abated.

But I know enough medical and public health professionals to know that this is real and is in fact a big deal. So take the precautions they are asking us to take. And if you are reading this and consider yourself a Christian, you are bound to obey the government even if you feel they are issuing unwise directives. Unless you can demonstrate that they are compelling you to sin, heed the teaching of Romans 13 and obey commands of 1 Timothy 2:1-3.

To the Scared…

For those who are scared, let’s admit: there are many legitimate reasons to be scared right now. An incurable infectious disease is spreading across the globe, our economy seems to be grinding to a halt, and we have no good idea of a timeline for this crisis. Is it weeks, months or years? All of this is taxing for those who are normally calm and stable, but for those already struggling with mental health this is devastating.

The Bible speaks of fear and anxiety quite a bit. To summarize: it says we shouldn’t be fearful or anxious. Matthew 6:25-34, Philippians 4:6-7, 1 Peter 5:7 all speak clearly to this. But far from being trite, simplistic commands, these statements are rooted in deep wisdom and even deeper eternal truths. God knows that we WILL worry, so he gives us the tools to deal with that worry. God knows that we WILL be anxious, so he explains why we need not be. It is up to us, then, to remind ourselves and each other of these truths and to aspire to fully immerse ourselves in the effort to live them out.

Not Skeptical or Scared

Careful inquiry is always warranted in unusual times when people stand to gain anything, and in the midst of this crisis there are those who see opportunities for improper gain. But don’t twist that careful inquiry into an ungodly skepticism that will blunt your ability to use reason and exercise caution. And being scared is an understandable response to so much uncertainty, but to be paralyzed with fear will prevent you from caring for yourself and for the many others around you who need your help.

We can avoid both by continuing to walk as disciples of Jesus, who, while living through his own crisis, first asked God that it would pass without incident, and when the answer was no, firmly committed himself to doing whatever God determined was best.

Our prayer today should follow his example. We should most certainly pray that this crisis will come to an end immediately, but if the answer is no, we should commit ourselves to work in cooperation with God to accomplish whatever it is he is accomplishing through this.

Panic, Social Distancing, and the Good News of the Gospel: Doing what we can while we wait for what’s next

We are living in a time of unprecedented upheaval. We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime. And if you have not been directly impacted by COVID-19 you are going to start feeling the effects of all this very soon, as our economy seems to be coming to a grinding halt.

I say all of that not to cause you extra stress, but to draw attention to the fact that you don’t need to drown in worry and anxiety (Phil. 4:6). Yes, things may become difficult very soon, but as God’s people, we’ve been prepared for this! That doesn’t mean that these next weeks will be easy. It does mean that we still have a message of hope for a world that’s in panic mode. And we still have good works to do that have been prepared for us in advance (Eph. 2:10).

Social-distancing is the buzzword right now. We are being told to leave some space between ourselves and everyone around us. The first thing I want to say about this is: DO IT! Take this seriously. Other countries that have not taken this seriously enough are now paying a very high price in the loss of human life.

The second thing I want to say is this: social distancing is going to have – is already having – some very bad side effects. We were created by God for community and fellowship. When we are isolated, when we are prevented from being in the presence of other humans who love us, we are at much greater risk of depression and other mental health issues. As a pastor I am already beginning to see this. People who are at 9 on the anxiety meter are being pushed past 10 by this crisis and the panic surrounding it.

So let me remind you again to use the tools that we’ve been given to make contact. Galatians 6:2 tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” If you have friends that struggle with depression and mental health, call them now and call regularly. Send a text, ask them if you can get onto FaceTime or Skype or Zoom with them.

Don’t waste this crisis. Take time to pray. Go for a walk. Enjoy your family. And help those in need. This is not a time to sit on our hands and worry. This is a time to put our hands to work.