As COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill, we have seen both the beautiful and also ugly sides of humanity. Stories of sacrifice leave us inspired, like a priest giving up his ventilator for younger patients at the cost of his own life. Others expose the uglier side of humanity: the hoarding of toilet paper, spring-breakers cramming into beaches and bars, and even racism and violence against Asian Americans.
COVID-19, like any other significant crisis, lays bare who we are: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Moreover, its revealing nature does not discriminate. New York governor Andrew Cuomo called the virus “the great equalizer” after his brother, CNN journalist Chris Cuomo, was diagnosed with COVID-19. It ravages every country, community, family, and class. It strips away the securities and identities we cling to, exposing our frailties and the gods we have come to worship.
Chiefly: the god of self.
The Western narrative is built on the premise that personal freedom is the highest priority. This is why some still frequented bars, beaches, and parks during early calls to practice social distancing. Many respond, “Well, it won’t affect me.” Although for the vast majority that may be true, our insistence on personal freedom, especially in Western countries, may have been a key factor contributing to the virus’s spread.
The hoarding of groceries, masks, and toilet paper revealed how we value our personal flourishing to the detriment of the broader community’s. Calls to end the lockdown sooner, in hopes of getting a head start on economic recovery at the “cost” of the elderly or at-risk, similarly reveal our willingness to let others suffer so we don’t have to.
We also see self-idolatry in our homes during this lockdown. Working-from-home parents with children might find lose patience with their kids or spouse, struggling to live selflessly in times of stress and close quarters. Others indulge fear by breathlessly monitoring Twitter or the news, filling our now-open calendars not with acts of service for others, but with needlessly scrolling through stressful headlines on screens.
This quarantine and pandemic have confronted us with the realities of our self-idolatry. We see not only the spiritual toll but also a dire physical toll. Our addiction to personal freedom is making this situation worse.
This virus has brought death and destruction to the economy and human lives, unlike any other crisis in the 21st century. However, one silver lining is that what we used to turn to for escape (sports, hangouts, movies, travel) are no longer available. Instead of obsessing about when this quarantine will end, what if we consider how we might use this pause to be transformed?
Recognizing the depth of our self-idolatry should lead us to repentance. Jesus offers clear instructions to his followers that ring true in any context, but now more than ever before: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).
Jesus calls us not to double down on our freedom, but to sacrifice it out of love for our neighbor. There is no better time to do that than now. Instead of spending lockdown indulging our self-idolatry, perhaps we could instead do these three things.
1. Audit Your Soul
Rather than searching for the next thing to watch on Netflix to distract yourself, spend some time searching your soul for other idols being exposed under the pressure of this moment. Where, specifically, does this pandemic expose your soul? Where are the imbalances and vulnerabilities in your home life, your working life, or your thought life?
2. Love Your Neighbor Sacrificially
Christian love is sacrifice (1 John 3:16), and what an opportunity we have now to prove it. This could mean grabbing grocery items for your elderly neighbors, donating your stimulus check to your church or a family in dire financial straits, or simply staying home and sacrificing your itch to be entertained.
3. Give Hope
Idolatrous people in times of crisis turn inward. For some this looks like hoarding; for others it looks like being overtaken by fear and panic, dictated by the airwaves. Yet Christians are called to be different; to be ambassadors of hope who know their ultimate future is secure. As we talk with our friends or post on social media, can we choose to express hope rather than despair, joy rather than cynicism? The world desperately needs this, and we can proclaim it both in what we say and how to live: the hope that neither death, nor life, nor a pandemic can separate us from the love of God through Christ.
Eugene Park is associate pastor of True North Church in Palo Alto, California. He is married to Sylvia and is the father of Elijah and Sydney. You can follow him on Twitterand Medium.