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A lot of Christian pixels have been spilt over the past several weeks about vaccination, conscience, the weaker brother, civil obedience, the freedom to gather, the desirability of not excluding anyone, and more besides.
I wasn’t really planning to spill any more. However, there is one facet that I haven’t seen anything much written on, and which I think is important.
In dealing with differences opinion among Christians about how to handle various covid-related issues, the lens many people have used is conscience. Given that people have different views, we should be considerate with each other, not force people to go against their consciences, not cause one another to stumble, and so on. Bring on Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10.
However, I don’t think conscience is the main issue, at least in most cases.
Just to clarify—when I say ‘conscience’ I am talking about the inner grief or pain we experience when we transgress the moral standards that we hold. Those standards may be aligned with God’s standards or not (depending on how morally well-educated we are), but the experience of conscience is that awful sick feeling we get in our guts when our moral decisions part company with our moral compass. Conscience is like a moral geiger counter—it starts beeping louder and louder the closer we get to doing something morally toxic (according to whatever values we hold), and then administers a nasty shock if we go ahead and do it.
Conscience, then, relates to what we view as morally right or wrong, or good or evil. And this is why it’s so important (as passages like Rom 14 tell us) not to force one another to go against our conscience—because the conscience is tied to what we genuinely believe to be sin.
I know of some people on various sides of the covid debate, for whom there are questions of conscience—for example, who think that the covid vaccines were developed in morally reprehensible ways (e.g. by relying on stem-cell lines from aborted foetal tissue). If that is someone’s position, then ‘conscience’ may well be a primary category for talking about it.
For most others, however, conscience is not the issue.
The issue is more often fear, or its little brother, anxiety.
Fear is different from conscience, although there are also some similarities. Like conscience, fear doesn’t come up with its own content. It’s a reaction we have to something we perceive—not a moral standard, but an approaching threat or danger. Even if we are ill-informed or mistaken about the nature of the threat, we will still feel the fear in our guts, and react accordingly.
If conscience is a moral-hazard-meter, fear is a danger-meter. And just as some of us have more tender or sensitive conscience-meters than others, so some of us are more fearful than others. More anxious, more risk averse.
It’s possible to be too fearful—that is, for the level of our fear to be disproportionate to the actual threat, perhaps because we have over-estimated the threat or are misinformed about it, or because our fear-meter is on the sensitive side. A hyperchondriac is someone with a malfunctioning fear-meter—who gets anxious over every tiny symptom because it could possibly indicate a life-threatening disease.
And for the opposite reasons it is also possible to be too fearless—I’m thinking of you, adolescent boys, and of everyone who does not fear Him who can cast soul and body into hell (Matt 10:28).
Most of the debates I see around covid-19 relate to fear and anxiety, not conscience.
We are afraid of various things to differing degrees—that the vaccines aren’t really safe, that catching covid will be life-threatening for us or our children (or parents), that gathering with others increases our risk of catching it or passing it on, that mixing with the unvaccinated is a particular threat, that it would be a PR disaster if our church became a super-spreader, and so on.
How we work through these fears with individuals and as a Christian community will be similar in some ways to how we talk about issues of conscience—we should be considerate and kind to each other, and recognize that we will react differently. But there will be differences too, because fear and conscience are different, and the gospel speaks to them in different ways.
How does the work of God in the gospel transform our experience of fear and anxiety?
Whole books could be written about this, and recently have! I know of two new titles about anxiety coming out from Matthias Media in the next couple of months. (See below in the PS for details).
Time and space allow me only the briefest of summaries.
Through the gospel of Jesus, God recalibrates our fear-meter by liberating us from our greatest fear—the fear of death and judgement (Heb 2:14-15; 1 Jn 4:17-19). Because we know that the sovereign God has loved us in his Son, and given us all things in him, we can face anything that life throws at us with rejoicing and hope (Rom 5:1-11; 8:28-39). We can cast our anxieties upon him, knowing that he cares for us (1 Pet 5:7), and has already won the victory that gives us peace (Phil 4:6-7).
Moreover, the gospel sets us free from the crushing burden of our pride and selfishness and inwardness. God gives us a new heart of love for others, such that we are willing to put ourselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The natural fear and timidity we feel when we are threatened with suffering can be overcome by the power and love and self-control that God gives us by his Spirit (2 Tim 1:6-9).
As we grow in faith, love and hope, the kind of fear that belongs to our old lives begins to diminish—the fear of death, the fear of what others might do to us, the fear that protects ourselves and our wellbeing and our possessions at all costs. This is why Christians have always been the ones to care for the sick during plagues, to give away their possessions rather than hoard them, to treat lepers when no-one else would go near them.
The new eyes of faith also change our perception of risk and control. When we come to understand that God is sovereign, not us, we realise (if we didn’t know it already) that events aren’t within our control. The anxiety-producing illusion (bolstered by technology) that we can master our environment, and manage every aspect of our lives, and control our futures—that dissolves when we realise that God’s will determines the future, not ours. We are but a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:12-13).
The gospel changes our experience of anxiety and fear, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
For example, if there’s a genuine threat to our safety, our fear-meter alerts us to its presence, and allows us to take evasive action. We also don’t have to court danger foolishly in order to show our gospel fearlessness—like the Christian snake-handlers, or those who say that the ‘blood of Jesus’ protects from covid-19 infection.
Nor can we avoid our fallenness, and the fact that we will sometimes be afraid or anxious when we needn’t be, and vice versa—because we’re misinformed or aren’t thinking straight about the danger; or because our faith, love and hope are still works in progress (as they are for us all); or because our fear-and-anxiety-meter is wonky for some reason (sometimes we call this an ‘anxiety disorder’ or a ‘phobia’).
However, here is the key point, and the key difference between fear and conscience.
It is often right to act against fear; it is never right to act against conscience. We may need to exhort the fearful to overcome their fears through faith, love and hope (as the NT frequently does). But we would never exhort people to overcome their consciences.
This will play out in how we relate to one another about covid-19 and vaccinations. In some circumstances, it will lead us to encourage one another to overcome our fears; in others, to encourage one another not to downplay real threats, especially if our behaviour is a threat to others. In all things, it will mean to act in faith, love and hope.
Speaking about the current situation in the part of the world I inhabit (in Sydney), it seems that the actual dangers associated with covid-19 are receding greatly. With so many people vaccinated, the overall level of danger is now more what it would have been like during a bad flu season in the past. In other words, as with a bad flu season, there’s a slight chance of catching the disease (in a city of 5 million people); if you do and you’re unvaccinated, it can be nasty (and even life threatening); but if you’re vaccinated, the chances of serious illness or hospitalization (let alone death) are very small; if you’re very old or otherwise medically compromised, the risks are greater; the risk of experiencing a bad reaction to the vaccine is not zero, but is so close to zero as to not be a threat.
Please note: I’m not saying, as some overly fearless people did early in the pandemic, that covid-19 is ‘just like the flu’. It’s clearly a more virulent, transmissable and dangerous virus. However, the massive levels of vaccination in Sydney have changed the risk equation. From all that I’ve read, the level of actual risk we now experience is much diminished.
In a bad flu season, we acknowledge the various risks, and take some precautions, but we don’t over-react. I suspect that if our fear-meter is currently blipping significantly about coming to church or mixing with people generally—much more than it would have during a bad flu season in the past—it may need some attention. Perhaps the level of anxiety has been stoked by the general craziness of the last several months, or by the opinions of others (expressed in the mainstream media or on the internet).
In these circumstances, with patience and kindness, let us help each other not to give in to fear. Let’s not give up meeting together, but keep encouraging one another, and all the more as the Day draws near.
I confess to feeling a bit of anxiety in writing this piece, particularly on behalf of those of you who might suffer from various kinds of anxiety issues or disorders. I know about this well—three members of my immediate family have or are being treated for anxiety disorders.
There are multiple and complex reasons why our fear-and-anxiety response becomes dysfunctionally over-active. And dealing with that medically and professionally, not to mention coming to terms with it Christianly, is a real and complicated question.
Two new books from Matthias Media on this subject are due out early next year: Anxiety and me by Guan Un, and When the noise won’t stop by Paul Grimmond. Stay tuned for more details.
And as I was looking for images to accompany today’s post, I came across this one from one of my favourite TV shows growing up. Recognize it?