The Other Pandemic
One pandemic leads to another. Because our lives are never compartmentalized, we can expect that the effects of a global epidemic will not be limited to the metrics of active cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. We know that natural disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires, have far more wide-sweeping and long-lasting consequences.
Covid-19 is no different. Hidden amidst the rubble of the disrupted and destroyed, we find a secondary and more discrete, yet nonetheless active, formidable and deadly pandemic thriving: a pandemic of loneliness.
It’s hardly as if loneliness was a minor issue before Covid. But even as a vaccine promises a light at the end of the tunnel, we are only beginning to discover how much the demon of Loneliness has grown. He has gorged, swollen, and strengthened himself during this past year. Like so many other ramifications of the pandemic, we see not so much the emergence of something brand new, but the acceleration of an existing trend. The phone in your hand has already been drawing people off to their separate corners for the past ten to fifteen years. Now the temptation to isolation has been reinforced and baptized as best practice, not just for yourself, but for society at large.
This is no criticism of masks, social distancing, zooming, isolation and quarantining. This simply is a call to acknowledge our spiritual dependency on community. The Bible doesn’t tell us how to navigate zooming vs. in-person, or family holiday traditions and gatherings. These take wisdom. The Bible does tell us we need not just a relationship with Jesus, but with other people as well.
I Peter 5: 8-9 describes our danger: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”
Notice first how Peter tells us how Satan attacks: by getting us alone. When a lion prowls around a pack of gazelle, how does he capture his prey? First he looks for one who is weak, vulnerable, or hurting, and then what’s his next step? To isolate that gazelle from the rest of the herd. Isolation is the devil’s opening gambit. It’s never going to change. Once alone, all sorts of lies, distortions, and deceptions become more credible because we need others speaking into our life, and we need to look outside of ourselves toward others in order to stay grounded.
Notice secondly our defense against this line of attack. What gives us strength is knowing that our brothers and sisters are experiencing the very same kinds of trials. We need to know and be reminded that other people are experiencing the exact same sort of suffering, pain, loss, anxiety, and discouragement. Suddenly, you are no longer alone. You’re not the only one. Your particular besetting struggles and doubts do not arise on account of the fact that you’re weaker, or more sinful, or have smaller faith. Being armed with this solidarity of suffering has great power on its own. And that is to say nothing of the benefit we receive through positive encouragement, counsel, friendship, and prayer that comes through Christian fellowship.
That’s why the ministry of small groups plays such a crucial role in the life of the church. It doesn’t take theological genius to realize people need community. The world outside the church is wide awake to its need for community. Frankly, it often does a lot better job trying to manufacture community than the church does in ministering to the one it’s already got. Online forums open the door to an endless array of interest-driven communities. These include anything from bonding with Steelers Nation at your own sports bar, to choosing your friends based on your shared appreciation of retro-style photography. But it doesn’t take long to discover the shallowness of communities which never necessitate the exposure of the person beneath the interest.
The gospel, on the other hand, not only binds through a common interest in Jesus, but brings added dimensions of spiritual healing, growth, and personal change. Unfortunately, just because we need it, doesn’t mean that it comes easy. Real community is hard. It was hard before the pandemic. Community takes time, commitment, vulnerability, and trust, not to mention organizing schedules. Nowadays, many of us are lucky to see another human being outside our home, let alone meeting with someone else who knows you.
I want to encourage you to take advantage of one of your church’s small groups. We need to be known. We need to hear other people. We need other people speaking Jesus back into your life, and we need other people to avoid collapsing in the vortex of a galaxy of one, where you’re crushed by the exaggerated gravity of problems that in actuality are being experienced by many others, and that we need to share. God eternally enjoys the community of the Trinity, and he’s made us to enjoy the same connection, both with him and with others.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL.
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