I recently asked on Twitter, “Has anyone given any thought to what idolatries COVID-19 is exposing in the church and our culture?” Perhaps this is a better way to learn must-know lessons from all of this. The number of articles on the web connecting in general terms this virus with God’s judgment are few and far between. Two helpful ones I’ve found are by R. Scott Clark and Chris Gordon. Both are worth reading as they are neither alarmist nor dismissive.
The bottom line is the coronavirus has simultaneously punched more holes into American evangelical idolatries than anything in recent memory (including 9-11). Consider the impact of COVID-19. (These are simply sketches or else this would be a very long post. It’s already long.)
Case #1: idolatry of isolation. Sure, we’re complaining now because we have to maintain distance from each other. But why? Haven’t we learned over the last 15 years or so to be content with social distance? In the years between 2007 (the first iPhone) and 2020, it’s become more than “OK” to confine our “relationships” to texts, Snaps, tweets, or posts instead of calls, visits or hangouts. We’ve all seen the pictures of four young adults sitting at a booth at a restaurant each one looking at her phone. You rarely catch anyone without a phone on his person or within her reach. I remember reading what I thought was tongue-in-cheek but probably was more true than I realized, when courage for a millennial was defined as “leaving the house without a phone charger.”
Parents would harp on the dangers of time spent in front of a screen for the sake of the eyesight and health of our children. But even that isn’t the greatest cost (buy some glasses, for heaven’s sake). No: we were forgetting how to be human. What has gone unseen is the tearing of the fabric of being human. As a culture were forgetting we are not designed by God to be isolated. In the church? Our level of isolation while perhaps not as great is condemnably close. For many in the church: out of sight, out of mind.
That is until now. God’s providence is showing us the dangers, the loneliness, the pitiable condition a person truly is when he chooses isolation. We think human flourishing and social distance can really work. At least we did.
Case #2: idolatry of health. This one is obvious. Perhaps in the church we wouldn’t admit that we idolize our health (which, I think, is easily refuted). But what do we make of virtual-everything-church? Yes, I know, now “overreacting” equals wisdom. “Loving our neighbor” now means protecting him from getting the virus even if we know we don’t have it. Wait: is that right? (I tend to think it means going to Walgreens to get Mucinex for a sick congregant but what do I know?) I think our forebears in church history would take us to task for a view like this.
Who knows really how deadly COVID-19 is? That’s the problem, truly: it’s “novel” or new so we just don’t know. Taking precaution is essential but it seems as if we are running for our lives. “I’m not afraid; I’m just being cautious.” I hope so. That’s a really fine line. I wonder if the virus works itself out in such a way that we are “burdened” by caring for each other exposed: what then? Christian, is your health or your life more important to you than it should be? Are you afraid to go out? Are you looking over your shoulder to make sure you have 6-feet spacing? That may be idolatry. (Side note: if we truly get sick, when our idols are overturned and we’re sick anyway, is social distance what we need most?)
Case #3: idolatry of wealth. Another straightforward one yet more complicated than our personal health. Livelihoods matter. People must work because God made us this way and it is the means He’s given to provide for our needs (mostly). As in 2008, long term savings and retirements are now at risk. Those on the cusp of retirement or those in fixed income situations are facing serious circumstances. In cases when the basics of material living are in jeopardy, we must act in relief-providing ways. All of us (who aren’t reeling from case #2) have the responsibility to stand in the gap for our neighbors. Now more than ever.
I guess the questions this all forces us to ask are two-fold. Are we now in financial or material jeopardy ourselves because our hopes were pinned to our accounts that now are being pillaged? Are church members numbered among everyone else enslaved by debt (credit cards, student loans, car loans, etc.)? Are our dire circumstances such that we cannot pay what we legitimately owe? Or, is your lifestyle so exaggeratedly connected to material prosperity that the future scares you? Treasures in heaven just don’t mean that much to too many people.
The second question to ask is, has the church prepared stockpiles of mercy for those in need? As the leader of a church I confess ours has not. Perhaps our own ministry azimuth has been slightly off. We need to think about this.
Will we “waste” COVID-19 and hope and pray only for a return to sounder, more “normal” times? Or, will we ask the Lord to show us in what ways we must change the way we view our lives and our faith so that it is God’s kingdom rather than our own that we pursue?