The rise of the COVID-19 virus has brought requests for social distancing. Governments and public health officials have laid out social-distancing guidelines advising how far apart we ought to stay in order to reduce the spread of disease. However, along with this social distancing has come an alarming trend—an increase in people lashing out at one another over real or perceived violations of the guidelines. More and more stories of people engaging in this type of behavior are coming to light on social media and elsewhere. At a time when people need more love and compassion, some exhibit less and less.
Let’s be clear: The guidelines currently set out for us to maintain physical distance from other people do not violate any of God’s laws. As Christians, we should follow them to the best of our ability. However, my wife and I have realized that the virus isn’t our only reason to be extremely careful about getting too close to others when we shop for food or other essentials. We do not know who might fall into a fit of rage, yelling at anyone who seems to break their six-foot “bubble.” Asking around a bit, I have found that we are not alone in this experience. One of the side effects of social distancing and the pandemic is that some people are becoming distant from each other in ways that are not good, and indeed are actually harmful.
An Opportunity for Us
The question becomes, How do you and I react when someone breaks the social distancing guidelines by coming within six feet of us? Do we—ambassadors for Jesus Christ—angrily lash out at others? Is that truly the best we can do in showing the love of God? Has the current crisis caused godly patience and general politeness to fall by the wayside? The measure of us as Christians is not only how we treat our fellow man when all is well, but also how we respond to others during times that put us under great pressure. In Matthew 5:46–47, Jesus points out to His disciples that it is easy to love others when circumstances make it easy—such as loving those who love us and those with whom we have something in common. Even the infamous tax collectors of Jesus’ day did that. We are called, as He continues in verse 48, to be perfect—to let the love of God show in us.
If someone does happen to come too close to us, more often than not it is done in ignorance, in forgetfulness, or simply by mistake. Rather than reacting harshly, we can either politely ask them to back away a bit or simply remove ourselves from the situation. The age-old question of “What would Jesus do?” fits this scenario perfectly. Would Jesus Christ yell, scream, or be verbally abusive to others in such circumstances? Will the person you or I yell at come up in the Second Resurrection and remember us from the incident? Romans 2:24 carries a warning about how we represent the Kingdom of God today. Do any of us want the name or Way of God blasphemed because of our behavior?
The challenge goes beyond issues of social distancing. It is becoming more common for people to grow angry, bitter, and unkind toward others for many reasons, not just for getting too close. Since the quarantine was imposed, people have been yelled at or harassed for not wearing masks, even in locations where masks are not required by law. While this current crisis is bringing out the best in some, it is clearly bringing out the worst in others. Face masks may have been in short supply a couple of months ago, but we seem well stocked with short tempers.
How will you and I react if someone angrily berates us for something—anything? Human nature wants to fight back, to lash out against that person. Here again though, we read that Jesus, “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). We must not return anger with anger, which is exactly what Satan wants. Proverbs 15:1 tells us that “a harsh word stirs up anger.” Whether we are reacting to another person’s outburst or to someone disregarding pandemic guidelines, we should not react with hostility and anger. We are to be lights and examples of a different and better way.
There is another danger in all of this. Perhaps we do not angrily react to someone yelling at us, but we simply go on our way. That’s good—but will we then “stew” about that person or incident afterward, perhaps for days? It can be very tempting to hold on to anger when someone wrongs us. Human nature wants to vindicate or justify the self, often by disparaging the other person. “What’s wrong with that guy?” we may wonder. We might even be tempted to tell others our tale about how we were “wronged.” And perhaps we were! But how should we respond to such an incident?
Hebrews 12:15 warns us of the trouble a root of bitterness causes. A key point in Matthew 6 is to forgive others so that we may be forgiven (v. 15). Luke 6:37 tells us to judge not and condemn not, but rather to forgive—lest we be judged, condemned, and unforgiven. But perhaps the most pointed example is found in Luke 23:34: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.’ And they divided His garments and cast lots.” In the very midst of His suffering, He asked forgiveness for others—even while they gambled for His clothing. If someone yells at us in anger, our hearts should be primed and ready to forgive that person, especially in this time of crisis, when people are feeling more uneasy and fearful than ever before.
The New Normal
We must also be careful not to judge others when things do return to whatever the “new normal” will be. In and of itself, wearing a mask does not necessarily signify a lack of faith, just as not wearing one does not necessarily signify recklessness. We will need to be careful not to think less of those who decide differently than we do, within the range of personal choice we are given. By and large, I am sure we will not have that issue, but Satan certainly does like to prod us, and we should not let down our guard against his deceptions and devices (2 Corinthians 2:11).
We know that whatever happens as a result of the current crisis, there are more troubles to come. So long as this world continues to reject God’s way of life, more plagues and disease epidemics are ahead. Our Sabbath services may need to be modified for a time, and perhaps also some aspects of our time spent at Feast of Tabernacles sites.
Despite the uncertainty of the times we face, we need not be uncertain, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). We can remember that God is in charge, and that those yelling and losing their patience are usually simply afraid. They need love and they need compassion. We may need to be physically distant from these people, but we should not be emotionally distant from them. Jesus Christ predicted that in the end times “the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12)—but we should allow it to happen to us!
We can continue through this crisis with patience, love, and empathy for those around us, and in this way, we can let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. May God keep us safe and compassionate during the current crisis—and always!