By Manny Keyser
Emotional responses can be a tricky thing to navigate. They can be triggered by real events that affect our lives and the people we love. Sometimes, they responses can be conjured up irrationally. Humanity is unique in that our natural emotional state can be contrived by things that are unnatural and illogical. We can become fearful during a scary movie, and then later in the evening hearing a bump, become overrun with emotion. Tears swell our eyelids as the Hallmark commercial concludes. Laughter ensues as we watch people injure themselves or get pranked on Punk’d, Ridiculous or America’s Funniest Home Videos. The closer we are to the incident and the participants, the more intense the emotion. Even when the incident or crisis is real our emotional reaction is not always rational.
Fear and love are two of the strongest emotions present in the human condition. They can cause both positive and negative returns. Thomas Aquinas was one of the first writers to begin connecting human emotions and the Christian experience. In his work, Summa Theologiae, Aquinas unpacked fear as a gift, a goodness that can only be found if one receives it through Christ. He explained that fear was something God had given humanity as a blessing, a way of experiencing God’s grace. This understanding of fear is a motivation to reveal love to others. Aquinas further concluded that living in a state of fear was actually a sin and counterintuitive to Christ’s commands. Our ability to navigate this tension of experiencing fear and not sinning is tied to the actions we take when we experience fear.
If believers respond to fear with a disregard to our value, running recklessly into danger, then love is not in us. If we scoff at the scientists and the government, continue to gather and carry on with our lives as if there is not a threat to self and others during this Pandemic, we do not reveal love. Choosing this behavior reveals that we really do not love ourselves or our neighbors. If we justify these actions with talk of freedom and faith in Christ, we are really just brandishing pride. Thus, we put ourselves and the most vulnerable among us at risk, a rather unloving course of action.
Equally, an inward response to fear produces a self-seeking passion that isolates us from others and paralyzes us from caring for anyone around us. This is why overnight, toilet paper and daily food rations in grocery stores became extinct. This type reaction stockpiles sanitizer and causes us to abandon relationships. Wisdom is overcome by survival mode, a fear of not surviving. Christ-centered open-handed living is shadowed by self-centered desire to feel safe and secure through material goods and things we believe we can control.
Aquinas saw both of these responses to fear as sinful. Neither self-disregard nor self-protection are proper Christian reactions to fear. Instead they are a product of living in fear. As believers we are are not called to live in fear but rather live in power, love and sound judgment (2 Timothy 1:7). We can be afraid. We can be concerned. We can worry. All of these emotions drive us to action. The sin, then, is in our response to these emotions. Will we sin in the midst of fear or will we acknowledge our fears and choose to act like Jesus?
Christian responses to fear must be seen through the person of Christ. First Corinthians 13:4 reminds us that love is not self-seeking. A proper reply to fear is to love others by caring and being generous. Those that want to run headlong into danger need to respond with cautious care and service. Isolationists and hoarders can take a deep breath and be generous. As a pastor and a counselor, I am trying to guide our people away from sinful responses and toward grace-filled interactions. Jesus called us to love one another at all times. This happens in the routine of normal life, but also in the midst of crisis and persecution. This pandemic gives us the opportunity to display the love of Jesus in the face of fear. We have an unprecedented chance to overcome sinful reactions with Jesus-like action. Together the church can show grace, mercy, and even share toilet paper. To be afraid is human. To give into that fear is sinful and unhelpful.
I wish I could offer you a step by step solution to combat your fear response. Our human nature does not make generalizations or quick tips helpful, only defeating. However, I do think some simple practices and thoughts can keep our humanity divinely in check, centered on Jesus and answering our call to be his disciples.
- Is my current response to the pandemic rational? Am I being overwhelmed by fear-based commentary?
- Am I considerate of others in my actions? Am I being generous with what God has given me to manage?
- Spend time remembering God’s faithfulness to you in your past. Start with thanksgiving. Elaborate on the attributes of God.
- Reflect on your purpose. What is it that God has called you to do to fulfill the great commission? Stay in the moment. God has put you in this place with a people for a purpose!
- Social distancing does not mean disengagement! Spend time everyday connecting with your faith community and family. You may not be able to physically be present, but you can still connect.
- Take time to realign your priorities. We have a massive forced shut-down and we are still trying to take control of everything. Set a time right now to consider your top 5 priorities in life. Do these help you work and rest well? Do they enable you to love your family and others well? Do they promote Jesus’ kingdom and commands?
I hope these questions will help you to manage a gospel centered fear response. May they even help you share with “your One” an alternative approach to managing this Covid Crisis.
Manny Keyser (@mannykeyser) is the Lead Pastor of Parkwood Baptist Church. He can be reached at 904-725-2500 or Manny@pbcjax.org