“We cannot live in fear.” It’s been said over and over by pastors and prophets and pundits and politicians across America.
As of late October 2021, I personally have one dead friend, a dead relative, another friend who the doctors gave 50/50 odds of survival but finally seems to be recovering after weeks intubated and medicinally paralyzed, a couple others who were hospitalized, and several others sick but fortunately not seriously. And that doesn’t consider the other 700,000 dead Americans and nearly 9 million now living with “long COVID” symptoms (estimated at over 20% of the cases).
It’s been said that we’re in a spiritual battle against the COVID virus.
Maybe some demon did cause that one critical mutation in a SARS virus that kicked off the pandemic in the Far East in late 2019. But what has happened ever since in America was predicted precisely by many epidemiologists and sociologists in early 2020. They understood what was likely to happen based on how people were prone to behaving and how the virus was already acting. And when people have unprotected contact with infected people, they get sick. It’s a completely natural phenomenon that has been understood for many decades. And this pandemic has happened exactly as predicted, even though those predictions were ridiculed at first. A virus doesn’t require continued demonic activity to spread – it only needs poor choices by humans.
So I’d rather talk for a moment about fear.
The Dividing Line
Consider this: what is the dividing line between fear and caution?
Here are some bits of advice most of us have heard, in some form:
- “Don’t kiss someone you know has the flu.”
- “Don’t share drinking glasses with someone who has a cold.”
- “Wash your hands frequently to stay healthy.”
- “Use hand sanitizer during flu season.”
- “Get the flu vaccine every year.”
- “Get the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine.”
- “Get the polio vaccine.”
- “Be extra careful around old people; they’re more susceptible to colds and flu.”
Pretty much everyone agrees those precautions are smart. Nobody cries “That’s living in fear!”
Where’s the line for COVID-19?
Consider this increasingly-restrictive list of recommendations and think about where you might draw the line.
- “Live with no restraints. COVID is not dangerous.”
- “Live with no restraints; COVID is dangerous but unlikely to really hurt you.”
- “Live with no restraints; COVID may hurt you but won’t likely kill you.”
- “Stay home if you have a temperature.”
- “Take vitamin C and D and zinc to help your immune system.”
- “Don’t kiss or hug someone you know has COVID-19.”
- “Don’t sit too close to someone you know is infectious.”
- “Try to socially distance if you’re not certain they’re healthy.”
- “Stay six feet away from others whenever possible.”
- “Use hand sanitizer after touching something in public.”
- “Don’t hug people.”
- “Fist bump instead of shaking hands.”
- “Don’t touch anyone at all.”
- “Wear a mask to reduce the chances you’ll breathe in what others just breathed out.”
- “Cloth masks aren’t good enough. Only an N95 or KN95 is good enough.”
- “Don’t eat indoors in public restaurants.”
- “Get vaccinated.”
- “Get a booster vaccine shot.”
- “Mask and vaccine and booster.”
- “Avoid unnecessary crowds.”
- “Avoid all crowds, including church services.”
- “Stay home and avoid everyone at all costs.”
Somewhere on that list is each person’s line of “that’s far enough.”
But is that truly a fear response, simply because someone has a personal line which they won’t cross? What makes it fear instead of caution?
Assumptions and Accusations
So in the absence of a clearly-defined line, I wonder who gets to make that uninformed, assumption-filled judgement about someone’s spiritual condition or emotional state or intellectual decision-making process? Can a judgement even be made at all, without full awareness of their individual personal health limitations, and their social situation, and who they might need to protect? Or are they the only ones who can answer about their own decision?
It would seem that if someone is more restrained, then others who are less restrained tend to blame it on fear. It’s an accusation that even an intellectual choice is based in unacknowledged soulish fear.
There’s no grace for others being simply more cautious, or having unspoken factors affecting their decision.
Unfortunately, this topic has now been framed as a great spiritual battle against the evil spirit of fear. If someone chooses anything that limits free assembling of people in religious activities, it’s framed as fear. And the spirit of fear has been paired in such sermons with the spirit of division, because challenging such decisions is seen as dividing the body.
This is foolishness.
It leaves no room for being wrong about that caution line.
It creates an awkward situation if the caution line is found to be in the wrong place – now repentance is necessary for having incorrectly judged a sizable group of people based on their chosen safety zones.
1 Corinthians 8
In fact, I believe it’s the very thing Paul warned against in 1 Corinthians 8. He readily acknowledged in verse 7 that a personal limit might be based on weakness (“since their conscience is weak“) or lack of knowledge (“not everyone knows this“). But then his point was not about WHERE the line was; as he said in verse 8 – “we are no worse… if we do not…, and no better if we do.” And this topic Paul was discussing was based on actual Old Testament commands that were being violated in some people’s conscience. He wasn’t making light of the struggle to understand how to choose well. Instead, at the core, his point was about how we treat those with a different caution line than us. It’s about sinning against our brothers, and thereby sinning against Christ (1 Cor 8:12).
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor 8:9)
But this also works in the reverse. If someone else is less restrained, those who are more restrained seem to blame it on foolishness. There’s no grace for others being less cautious. And with COVID vaccines, it’s also being blamed on fear – not of COVID, but fear of the vaccine.
In reality, someone not being vaccinated because they’re cautious about the vaccine is just as much an issue of conscience and intelligent choice as are cautious measures of masking and distancing and not meeting publicly. Even if some are convinced that the supposedly intelligent choice has been corrupted by misinformation, it’s still a sinful judgement to accuse someone of fear instead of cautious limits.
As soon as we make that personal conviction a point of accusation of demonic influence, we sin against our brothers and sisters. It’s cursing the careful application of the very intelligence that God created in them. It’s cursing their desire to honor their bodies and others’ health, no matter whether it’s a choice TO or NOT TO vaccinate.
Disagreement is Okay; Accusation is Not.
There’s no doubt that we will continue to disagree on the wisdom of vaccination or masking or other choices, but as soon as we accuse our brother of fear, and weaponize that accusation to force uncomfortable compliance against one’s conscience, we are acting sinfully. 1 Corinthians 8 is pretty clear about that. And it doesn’t require forcing someone’s compliance: the mere public assertion that fear is leading to incorrect lines of caution is damaging: it creates an inappropriate peer pressure to violate one’s conscience.
I’m not arguing FOR vaccination or masking or distancing here. I’m also not arguing AGAINST those things. Such matters need to be settled for public health. Disease has exploded in our community – and even in my church – almost certainly because people’s personal limits were looser than was wise. That’s true at a community level, it’s true at a local church level, and it’s even more true at the nationwide level.
But the pandemic is less of a crisis for the body than the spirit of accusation that has manifested.
Yes, it’s a spiritual battle we’re in right now. But I submit that it’s not against COVID, and it’s also not against fear. And it’s absolutely not against each other.
Instead, perhaps we ought to refocus our teaching onto love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self control, and on laying down our lives for one another, not preferring our own comfort or even our own lives over our brothers and sisters. Those attributes seem to be sharply lacking in this season.