When I was about 10 years old my dad must have decided I was too old to be terrified of the dark. One evening while I was sitting in my room, he came in and shut the door and turned out the light. He did not remember this when he heard me retell it so who knows what really happened but the memory is etched into my brain He didn’t say anything and just stood there. I didn’t know that was his plan so I was waiting for him to try and scare me. I could swear I saw him moving around the room. I could even hear the movements.
A couple of minutes later (an eternity for me) he turned the light back on and was standing in the same place. I asked if he had been moving around the room. He answered that he had been standing in that same spot the whole time. He then told me that is what my brain does when it is scared. It sometimes sees and hears things that aren’t really there. I never forgot this wisdom and haven’t been afraid of the dark since.
In the Apostle John’s first letter he says something hard to understand about fear.
“Perfect love casts out all fear”
1 John 4:18
I have struggled with this passage for a long time. The world is full of fear. From certain perspectives, fear can be a positive thing. If you are walking in a wilderness alone at night, and the noise of a predator stalking you hits your senses, fear can give the energy you need to get away. The Bible talks quite a bit about “fear of the Lord”. So what in the world does John mean when he writes in his letter “Perfect love casts out all fear”? We’ll get back to this in a moment.
Fear is something that resonates in our current times. The coronovirus spreading throughout the world has whipped up a long standing fear that some type of super virus was on the horizon ready to take a toll on the human race. Many pretenders came in previous decades; swine ful, bird flu, zika virus, SARS, and others have come and gone but non quite touched us close to home in the USA. How do we understand the current spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Is there a place for fear?
Fear, in this instance, can cause us to react from our base instincts. It may make us ignore opportunities to love others in Jesus’ name, like caring for an elderly neighbor by doing their shopping for them. In worse case scenarios it may make us actively work against others as we fight over the last package of toilet paper in our local Walmart. It makes us imagine the worse case scenario and apply it as though it is already true. Unfortunately it is in our nature to react to the unknown in these ways.
Fortunately we have so great wisdom from those who came before us.For more check out Martin Luther’s response to a fellow clergy about the plague, Bonhoeffer’s famous sermon on Overcoming Fear, or C.S. Lewis’ essay “On Living In the Atomic Age”. There is even a modern letter worth reading from a pastor in Wuhan, China. Leaders throughout some of the most tragic moments of human history have written on this topic and encouraged others to not let fear drive them. Martin Luther wrote in a letter during one of the regular plagues of the 16th century in Europe ,
“To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbid- den unless it be against God and neighbor, as St. Paul says in Ephesians”
For Luther it is a matter of your level of faith and your duty toward God and others. He believed any state official was to remain in the heart of any dangerous situation in order to serve those they are called to serve. The same with anyone with obligations toward others. Fear was inevitable but was not permitted to overthrow the bounds of love in Jesus we have toward God and others.
C.S. Lewis wrote a lengthy essay responding to fear about nuclear weapons. After World War II, folks worried about the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons in war. As growing tension mounted between two of the most powerful nuclear powers, Russia and the USA, many wondered whether we would make it out of the 20th century. Lewis points out that there have always been threats which have ended life before our natural time. Diseases being chief among the great destroyers in history. Lewis then argues we should not let the fear of these threats imprison us from living the life God has for us. He argues,
“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
C.S. Lewis, “On Living in the Atomic Age”
What are we to do in this day of fear over the coronavirus? The two examples I give above may seem like contradictions. One declares it is ok to flee the plague as it hits your town if you have no obligation to others which you are shirking by doing so. The other says we should not worry about these things and let the unknown find us doing perfectly human things. Are we to cower in fear (as long as our obligations are met) or should we boldly step out and enjoy our lives despite the threat of catching coronavirus?
Surprisingly I think both Lewis and Luther are leaning on the same truth. “Perfect love casts out all fear.” We are not bound by our human desires or fears. We are bound by the truth of a loving God who sacrificed it all for us. God showed us both that God is worth trusting and what it means to be human as Jesus willingly endured the cross on behalf of all humanity. We can trust that following God’s commands for us to show selfless love will be honored by God. We are also called to show selfless love toward one another. We don’t act out of fear but out of love.
In my estimation the most loving thing to do right now is to not contribute toward the spreading of this virus. The virus is most deadly for a particular demographic in the world population. Those who are most vulnerable must be protected by those of us who are less vulnerable. This is the law of love. We should not hoard our resources, fight others for rolls of toilet paper, or shut ourselves off from the world shivering in a corner of our house terrified over the unknown future we face. Nor should we act like there is no threat and go on about our business putting at risk the most vulnerable. None of those options are driven by love. We should practice social distancing (physically but not virtually), share what resources we have with our neighbors, and love those who are most vulnerable around us in whatever way we can.
I am confident we will get through this time together and will learn a lot about our local, national, and global communities in the process. As for me and my house we will look to not endanger others and for what ways we can serve those around us. What do you think? What ways can we follow the law of love during this time of crisis? How can we fight the natural temptation to fear in a way that pushes us away from love?