The coronavirus pandemic has led to an exponential rise in mental health conditions triggered by all-pervading death anxiety. Prof John Wyatt says Christians must daily rekindle biblical hope as an antidote to fear-driven government policies
This article was first published by Premier Christianity magazine in August 2020.
It’s a familiar scenario: I’m walking down the street and turning a corner when I nearly collide with a stranger wearing a mask. Instantly they flinch and cower backwards, a look of pure terror in their eyes.
Fear is stalking our streets. It’s on our TV screens as the daily death count is announced. It’s on social media as the latest conspiracy theory racks up millions of views. It’s in hospitals and care homes as visitors and relatives are forbidden from entering their doors. And it’s in our own homes as we worry whether we might have become infected and whether we will pass the virus onto our loved ones. This sense of unease is hardly surprising given the context we’re currently living in. In fact, in the first few weeks of lockdown, fear was government policy. “Stay at home, save lives” translates into: “Stay at home or you will die or inadvertently kill someone you love…”
The deliberate fuelling of fears about infection within the community was seen by government and health officials as an essential means of reducing the death toll. And in the UK and in many countries around the world it seems that fear has worked, at least in part, by encouraging people to comply with the lockdown. But once those terrible fears have been aroused, once reporters have shared the horrifying images of mass graves, rows of unconscious bodies in intensive care units, stretchers with body bags on them, the images are not so easy to erase; they have been imprinted on our minds. Psychiatrists and counsellors call this ‘death anxiety’ and, for many of us, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been to bring out deep fears about our mortality that have been previously suppressed. Many health professionals have reported that the current wave of death anxiety is leading to a marked increase in a range of psychological symptoms.
A paper published in July 2020 in the medical journal The Lancet reported on increased evidence of depression, anxiety and stress related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The mental health issues showed themselves in health phobias, panic buying, binge-watching television, increased alcohol consumption, more calls to helplines and a rise in domestic abuse, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Lost jobs, greater economic uncertainty and disrupted education also bring serious mental health consequences.
You might think these things would be much less of a problem for Christians. After all, we are people who claim to believe in a loving and all-powerful God. A God whose purposes of redemption and restoration of the entire creation cannot be shaken. Yet all the evidence suggests that many of us who are Christians are also struggling with anxieties, fear and depression as the virus continues to spread around the world.
“Enough bad news. Please can we focus on something positive?” I hear you say. Well, I promise that I’m going to get to the positive stuff, but first we need to spend a little more time trying to understand the roots of our anxieties and fears at this extraordinary time. Diagnosis comes before treatment.
Fear has its place. When I step out into the road and a horn blares just behind me, that sudden shock of emotion – the surge of adrenaline that hits my heart, the gasp that fills my lungs – are all part of an essential survival mechanism. But living each day with my mind churning and my heart racing, because I am thinking about the possibility of becoming infected, of loved ones dying, of losing my job, is not normal.
If I am finding that my mind is constantly preoccupied with worries, anxieties and fears, then this should be a wake-up call. Fear is not a healthy emotion for everyday life. It is damaging and life-destroying.
So many of our anxieties come from dwelling and obsessing about the future. Tim Keller summed it up beautifully when he said: “Worriers are visionaries minus the optimism.” We think that by worrying and stressing about the future we can somehow control it. The truth is that we are control freaks. We want complete control over our dangerous and frightening world so that we can know we are safe and totally secure. Then we will be able to relax. We’ve constructed an idol that will keep us safe. But the coronavirus has blown our illusions of control to smithereens and our idols have failed. We are constantly reminded that nobody seems to be in control. No one knows whether there might be a new spike in infections. At any moment an invisible plague could strike us down or those we love. No one can predict what will happen to the economy, to our job prospects, to our savings, to our children’s education.
Welcome to reality. The truth is we never were in control.
TIMES OF TESTING
For thousands of years God’s people have had to face unexpected natural disasters: famine, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, as well as plagues. And, over the centuries, God’s people have understood that these unforeseen and apparently destructive, meaningless events should be seen as times of testing. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but anyone who reads through the Bible knows that testing from God is a recurring theme in Israel’s history and in the early years of the Christian Church.
God allows his people to be subjected to various tests and trials not out of malevolence, but as a way of revealing the truth about our hearts and about who or what we are ultimately relying on. Here is the apostle Peter writing to Christians facing torture and death at the hands of the Roman state: “…you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith more precious than gold that…is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7, ESV, emphasis mine).
You don’t know whether gold is real or counterfeit until it is tested by fire. The purpose of the test is not to destroy us, it is to reveal to us the deepest truth of our hearts so that God can draw us back to himself. As the Christian counsellor Ed Welch put it: “God is not playing mind games with us: he is forging a relationship.”
DO NOT BE AFRAID
Time and again when the God of the Bible reveals himself in a new way to his frightened people his first words are: “Do not be afraid.” They are words of comfort and reassurance, but they are also a command. Fear and anxiety are not just chemical processes that we can do nothing about; at some deep level fear represents a choice about what or whom we are going to put our trust in. Which god we are going to rely on.
When David was captured and was facing torture and death, he poured out his heart to God, saying: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). The issue isn’t so much about whether we will experience fear and anxiety. What is important is how we respond.
My wife works as a counsellor for adult victims of abuse. She and her colleagues have a simple but profound mantra that they frequently pass on to those they are trying to help: “You can’t change the past. You don’t know the future. But you can change the way you think in the present.”
When I experience the next wave of anxiety and stress, I need to remind myself that I am not just a helpless victim of forces outside my control. I can choose what to focus my thoughts on and where to place my trust. Of course, if anxiety or depression are making it impossible to carry on with normal life, then it’s essential to seek professional help. Medical assessment, talking therapies and medication may all be required for severe mental health problems. But, even in the case of serious psychiatric illness (and I speak as someone who has been a psychiatric in-patient on more than one occasion), we are not helpless victims. We have the God-given dignity of choice.
PRACTISING THE DISCIPLINE OF CHRISTIAN HOPE
GK Chesterton once wrote that there were two sins against Christian hope – the sin of presumption and the sin of despair. Presumption is not compatible with Christian hope because it blithely assumes that everything will go well. There will be no problems, no struggle, no testing, no suffering. God will ensure that we pass effortlessly through this life and into his presence – just have faith. This is a fantasy. Genuine Christian hope has to be grounded in truth and reality.
Despair is an equal and opposite sin that is also incompatible with Christian hope. Despair says: “Nothing and nobody can help the current situation. There is nothing to cling on to. I’ve been abandoned and I am on my own.”
I have to be honest and say that at different times in my life I have been guilty of both sins, presumption and despair, but I have learned that instead of embracing these sins we are called to practise the daily discipline of Christian hope. If discipline is too uncomfortable a word, let’s call it the daily choice of Christian hope. I believe there are three aspects to Christian hope.
1. HOPE FOR TODAY
We all know that if we wish to remain healthy we need to practise physical hygiene. Just because I washed my hands yesterday does not mean that they don’t need a wash today.
If I am going to practise the discipline of Christian hope, I need to practise mental hygiene. That means monitoring the content of my thought life and choosing to fill my mind with positive and healthy thoughts rather than negative, damaging and unhealthy ones. And just because I did this yesterday, does not mean that my thought life isn’t important today and every day to come. There is a daily discipline of choosing what I am going to focus my mind on. An excellent place to start each day is gratitude. It’s interesting that if I focus my thoughts on naming every person and every blessing that God has brought into my life, it’s very difficult to be filled with fear at the same time. As I choose to remember the good things that God has given me, I am reminding myself of his character. I need to remember that God has shown me he can be trusted and that he has brought people into my life who can be trusted too. And as I think of the coming day, and all the dangers and challenges it may bring, I choose to believe that whatever happens, God will be there with me.
These words were found written on the walls of a cellar in Germany at the end of the Second World War: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when he is silent.”
It may be helpful to keep a collection of positive material for when we feel besieged by fears and negative thoughts. This could be Bible verses, poems or songs that have a special resonance and meaning for us. Words through which God has spoken to us in the past and which we can use as a focus for our thoughts and prayers.
2. HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
So many of our anxieties are focused on negative thoughts about the future. As we practise Christian hope, we remind ourselves that God is going to be with us in the days, weeks, months and years to come. In Psalm 23 David reminds himself of the future faithfulness of God: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you are with me” (Psalm 23:4, ESV). And a literal translation of the last verse says: “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). God’s goodness, forgiveness and blessing are going to dog my steps whatever happens. He is on my case and he doesn’t give up.
My life, my family, my future are not going to be destroyed by the coronavirus. God is faithful to his promises. He is going to pursue me. Whatever happens, he will be there. I can change through God’s help. I have more to learn and more to receive.
3. ULTIMATE HOPE
Christian hope does not stop at the remaining years before our death. It is always shot through with longing and yearning for the new heaven and new earth. As Paul says in Romans 8:22, creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth”, and the coronavirus pandemic is just another example of that groaning. But the creation is not groaning in despair. It is longing for the future.
Daily hope, future hope and ultimate hope are all linked. “Hope is to hear the melody of the future. Faith is to dance to that melody in the present.” (Anon). The faithful God who is here for us today is the same God who promises that he will pursue us with blessing and mercy for the rest of our lives. Beyond the grave he promises to raise us up to be part of the wonderful new creation that he has planned all along. And with joy and tenderness he tells us: “Don’t be afraid.”