“A spirit of fear”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
This pandemic is getting old. That’s pretty much been the case since it started, but now that we’ve been living under its shadow for four months, I imagine we’re all very ready to move on, to one degree or another.
As I’ve observed behavior across the country throughout this, and especially as I’ve paid attention to the responses of Christians far and wide, it has struck me that many have developed a spirit of fear. Not all—in fact, most of the Christians I know who fall into the categories of highest risk for death due to the virus have been the most resolutely fearless, most at peace with the prospect of going to see Jesus sooner than expected, and frankly, the most crotchety and irritated with others who don’t see it the same way.
It’s easy to dismiss their attitude as unscientific, misguided, or stuck in the past, but the simple fact is that they’re the ones who bear the greatest burden of risk in this scenario, and the patronizing responses to them have often been downright disrespectful, by young and healthy folks whose lives are not at any elevated risk.
As I’ve watched this and wrestled with facts, interpretations, and most importantly tried to determine God’s will in all of this, the distinction that stands out most in my mind is not between young and old, between, scientific and unscientific, between caring and heartless, between rational and irrational, between humble and arrogant, or any of the other dichotomies we might have expected. It’s simply between those who are fearful, and those who are courageous.
This doesn’t always correlate with general attitudes toward the pandemic—often the fearful ones don’t take it seriously at all, and some courageous ones are convinced they’ll be dead by next Tuesday; but the way we handle these divergent beliefs is the point. It reminds me of Paul’s situation when he wrote the letter to the church at Philippi. Imprisoned and facing a death sentence if convicted, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. (Php 1.20-22)
He isn’t even sure what he wants to happen, continuing on to say, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (v23). Having reasoned through to that conclusion, he expects to be spared, apparently through God’s providence. Yet, as the letter continues, he shows that he’s not entirely confident, in 2.17 entertaining the notion that he may “be poured out as a drink offering,” and saying that he wants to send Timothy with further news, “just as soon as I see how it will go with me” (2.23).
We may sympathize with his plight to some degree since, whatever our tentative conclusions may be with respect to the virus in whose shadow we now live, the possibility that we’re wrong always hangs in the back of our minds, tempting us into ambivalence and vacillation. While we can’t do much at the present time to validate our theories and predictions (apart from simply waiting), we should certainly “join in imitating” Paul, as he encouraged the Philippian Christians to do, so long ago. His was in an unthinkably stressful situation—not a mere 4% maximum death rate, among the less than 1% of the nation’s population that has tested positive for the virus over the past four months, but instead something much closer to a genuine 50-50. Yet, even in his uncertain situation, what was his overall demeanor? What characterized his spirit? “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” he tells them in 1.12. “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” he said in 1.20, as we noted already above. We began to look at 2.17 earlier, but didn’t complete the verse: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” He tells these Christians, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4.6).
His other letters written during this time (Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon) all display the same resolute courage, that he will defend his Lord before both Caesar and anyone else he has the opportunity to teach; that whatever the outcome of his next few weeks might be, he will “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Php 3.14). We would do well to imitate his brand of strength, in our own uncertain times.
In that instance, Paul’s well-reasoned conclusion proved to be correct, and he was freed, allowing him to continue his fruitful work. However, he wrote a letter to Timothy later on having been imprisoned a second time, and by all indications, he didn’t make it out alive this time. Yet, he didn’t build unnecessary walls, suspend God’s less convenient commandments, or allow these fleshly concerns to take control of his spirit. Instead, he opens up his letter by reminding Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2Ti 1.7). We, too, must remember this fact, and refuse to take on a spirit of fear.