April 2, 2021

Reconciling our Hopes and Fears

Considering the past months of pandemic as a whole, two emotional states seem to stand out above everything else: fear and hope. In particular, fear of the Coronavirus – catching it, spreading it, getting quarantined and stigmatized because of it, or even dying from it – and hope in the vaccine – for resistance from serious illness, reduction in viral spread, and return to normalcy of life and leisure. More contagious than the virus itself, these emotions have swept the nation and shaped this COVID-19 era we live in. Believer or non, it doesn’t seem to matter; people seem extremely fearful of the viral infection (disproportionately so, considering the understood risks of serious illness or death), and most everyone seems to be clinging to the hope that the vaccine will result in the demise of COVID-19, along the lines of smallpox, polio and diphtheria from earlier times. Whether reflected in fearful facial expressions and stiff staff interactions along hospital corridors, or oncoming neighbors crossing from sidewalk to the other side of the road to pass by, or expressed in quips and commands at grocery store checkouts, or comments and conversations during virtual gatherings, these two emotions – panicked fear or unfounded hope – reign supreme. While there is a time and place for being legitimately afraid, as well as for holding out rational expectant optimism, problems arise when these strong emotions are given a life of their own and misdirected. That is, when they are allowed to act independently of biblical truth and drift away from our faith in Christ. To “live a life worthy of the calling we have received” (Eph. 4:1), all things need to be brought under the lordship of Christ, our hopes and fears included. The ambition of this brief essay is to explore this concern and provide some practical suggestions as to how we, as followers of Christ, might direct our hopes and fears in a God-honoring fashion.

Truth be told, there have been times during this crisis when I’ve found myself on this same emotive bandwagon, yo-yoing between being overly fearful or overly optimistic. The fearful bit was mainly during the early days and weeks of the pandemic, when little was known about the illness and news reporting was rife with worse-case scenarios. While our hospital wasn’t overrun by COVID-19 admissions by any stretch of the imagination, I was involved in the management of many cases, which I found unnerving. Despite being well-sealed in personal protective equipment – N-95 mask, safety glasses, face shield, headcover, gown, and gloves – I nonetheless felt exposed and vulnerable. In our Intensive Care Unit where our sickest COVID patients were, my job was to assess heart function by performing transesophageal echocardiography. Although it’s a wonderful technology for visualizing the heart without having to transport patients or interrupt treatment efforts, it necessitates direct patient contact. There’s no way of carefully negotiating the transesophageal probe tip past the endotracheal tube and nasogastric tube without getting pretty close and personal with patients, their viral-laden respiratory secretions included. After completing such a case and doffing my protective wear, I recall walking past the empty ICU waiting room where the television was airing a medical update. Our Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, was announcing that because Alberta’s case numbers were on the decline, certain governmental restrictions would be relaxed. “Good news,” I muttered. And then to my surprise and embarrassment, a flood of emotion seized me. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I began to shake and even sob. Fortunately, there was a neighboring washroom where I could duck into and compose myself. As I stood there gazing into the mirror, I saw staring back at me reddened eyes fatigued and fearful.

In more recent weeks, I experienced quite the opposite feelings. This time, instead of fear and trembling, it was relief and rejoicing. While sitting at my computer and wading through my emails, I came upon one from the Alberta Health Services. It was an invitation for immunization. Due to my frontline hospital work, I reckoned, my name was included on the list of healthcare recipients to receive the early roll-out COVID-19 vaccine. All prior concerns of vaccine safety and ethical questions suddenly faded into the background. “Die another day,” I joked aloud to myself, and got this surge of warmth and sense of optimism for the future. Ideas of hope flooded my mind; ideas that I could finally be safe and secure, and life could be good again. It wasn’t until that evening while I was reflecting on my day that these emotions and ideas were checked. It dawned on me, as I was making an entry in my prayer journal, just how worldly my thoughts had become. In the midst of the stress and strain of it all, I had allowed my worldview to shift away from God at its centre. His sovereignty and Christ’s work of salvation somehow got sidelined. Convicting rhetorical questions then came to mind. Is the Corona virus really my biggest fear? Is the next generation vaccination truly my greatest hope?

The Bible isn’t silent on such questions. In reference to fear, we are commanded hundreds of times not to be afraid, and reminded that “God did not give us a Spiritof fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). This implies, of course, that the fears we experience aren’t divine warnings, but come from the world, the flesh, or the devil himself. Jesus redirects our fears by saying, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Misplaced fear, then, actually represents a sin requiring repentance. Rather than increased panic, our response should be increased prayer.

To consider our fears rightly, then, we would do well to dust off the ancient biblical expression, Fear of the Lord, and give it due attention. This bound phrase (which is perhaps better written, Fear-of-the-Lord) appears frequently throughout the Old Testament, and refers not only to a deep respect and knee-knocking reverence for God, but also implies a posture of submission and willing obedience on our part. As Eugene Peterson wisely observed, “Its function as a single word cannot be understood by taking it apart and then adding up the meanings of the parts… It is the stock biblical phrase for the way of life that is lived responsively and appropriately before who God is, who He is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”[1] This entails considering God as He has revealed himself in Scripture, and not some milk toast meek-n-mild version of our own fabrication. There is a critical creature/Creator distinction that we must not lose sight of, nor forget that we are the sinful creature part, and that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present Creator of the universe part (and not the other way around). While God is personal and directly accessible to each of us, He is also “pure and cannot stand the sight of evil” (Hab. 1:13). We may all be familiar that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), but do we also appreciate that He so hated sin that He allowed this same beloved son to be mocked, tortured, and crucified in order to put an end to evil? Prophesied in the Old Testament and emphasized by Jesus himself, judgement is coming. Make no mistake of it. All of us will have to stand before our Maker and give an account of our lives – our thoughts, words, actions and inactions. If there’s anything to instill fear in us, let it be this eternal reality and not some passing pandemic.

Similar to misplaced fear, hope placed in anything other than the Lord Himself is a sin, and if left unchecked, will eventually leave us empty and bereft, despondently facing the abyss. We must hold fast to the true and lasting hope found only in the Gospel of Christ, and understand that in no uncertain terms, our ultimate remedy is found in Christ alone and His salvific work on the cross. The redemptive message for mankind is clear: it is God alone who saves, and not man. The heavy lifting is finished for us. Our role is simply to submit ourselves to God, repent of our past ways, and believe. Through Jesus, there is the opportunity for abundant life, namely the forgiveness of sins, freedom from bondage, healing of wounding, release from evil oppression, and the promise of eternal life. It’s a breathtaking ultimate rescue that renders next-generation vaccines rather pale by comparison. So, even though the effects of the Fall continue to permeate our world today, as we see with the suffering caused by COVID-19 around us and the vast collateral damages, these things don’t have the final word. As the Apostle Paul said in the face of trial and tribulation, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).

Rather than leaning on divine rescue from the troubles in our lives, the secular worldview emphasizes a self-rescue. The prevailing belief is that if we get our COVID shot, then all will be well. While the vaccine may offer some viral protections and a certain way forward, such a self-reliant approach to salvation can’t deliver us from sin, and even points us away from the personal, holy, and active God who does. As the Psalmist reminds us, “The eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love, that He may deliver their soul from death” (Ps. 33:18-19). There is only one way to the Father. As Scripture warns, “all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: you will lie down in torment” (Isa. 50:11).

The COVID-19 pandemic is more than a biological insult on humanity; spiritual forces are at work. The Apostle Paul clarifies, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). The devil is having a heyday with the fearmongering and social isolation. As believers, we need to be not only aware of the issues, but also rooted and established in the Gospel of Christ. Beyond donning personal protective equipment, this entails “putting on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Eph 613). While there may be numerous ways to do so, I’ve found the following three approaches most helpful.

First, it’s critical we immerse ourselves in the life-giving word of God. I’ve made it a spiritual discipline to begin and end each day with Scripture reading. I’ve found that the living and active words of Scripture shape my thoughts over the course of the day and give perspective to my evening reflections. To bring the Word to work, I have my Bible app programmed to send me the verse-of-the-day at noon. Unlike the countless other ‘pings’ I receive on my pager, this one (which never ceases to surprise me) reminds me of the Lord’s constant truth in the midst of my topsy-turvy turmoil.

Second, no spiritual battle can be fought without prayer. Henri Nouwen, who regularly devoted an entire hour each morning to prayer, said, “If we really believe not only that God exists, but also that He is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and space to give Him our undivided attention,”[2] While not all of us have the luxury of taking a full hour for devotional time, I make it a priority to quieten myself before the Lord every morning with a brief time of solitude and confessional prayer. After offering words of praise and thanksgiving, asking for wisdom and strength, and listening to His still small voice, I set off for work, with “eyes fixed on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Third, we need to be with fellow Christians. We can’t face these secular giants alone, and we were never meant to. The Christian life is not lived out in isolation, but begins in holy community. It’s important to appreciate that we are ambassadors of Christ in all that we do, and co-labourers with the Holy Spirit in every activity of our day. As ambassadors, then, our faith needs to be manifested in personal commitment to objective public reality. This means that we take seriously our role in the body of Christ. As per Aesop’s “union gives strength” fable, it’s harder to break a bundle of sticks than a single branch. So too, we’ll have firmer resolve to stand up against the devil’s schemes if we know we’re not alone. And in order to have the Gospel message galvanized in our minds, we need to be living our lives alongside brothers and sisters in Christ. Despite the lockdowns and social restrictions, it’s critical that we continue to make every effort to gather together in some form or another. The COVID catchphrase, “We’re all in this together,” remains empty words of wishful thinking unless we truly are together. Scripture makes clear that we are “not to give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:25). Only in this way, we can we hope to gain the needed support, timely encouragement, and guiding accountability from those who share with us an eternal view on the trials of the times. And as we do so, we can take comfort in the Psalmist’s reminder that “The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him, and in those who hope in His mercy” (Ps. 147:11).

[1] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a conversation in spiritual theology. Eerdmans, 2005.

[2] Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New: an invitation to the spiritual life. Harper One, 1981.

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