COVID-19 And America’s Psychological State

Apr 18th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

As I write this, it is difficult to accurately read the psychological state of Americans right now.  We have had weeks of forced isolation throughout much of the nation and the nearly universal practice of social distancing.  All of this goes against our human nature:  God made us for community and COVID-19 is challenging this fundamental axiom of the human condition.  Consequently, for nearly all of us, we are experiencing a profound loss of freedom accompanied by a genuine fear and sense of danger posed by the virus.  The result is often a measure of emotional stress, confusion and fear.  Let’s think biblically about all this.

  • First of all, there is considerable evidence of the negative psychological impact the “shelter in place” edict is producing. It has brought the fear of contagion and of loved ones falling sick. It has created huge uncertainty about nearly every aspect of life.  And with a fifth of the world under lockdown, protracted isolation is also producing loneliness, anxiety and depression.  Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, is certainly correct when he emphasizes that “People are struggling with the emotions as much as they are struggling with the economics.”  People are not only losing their jobs, but also their identity, routine and much of their social network.  Samantha Brooks of King’s College London finds that the quarantine produces trauma, confusion and anger.  In a way, this is common sense.  It is certainly true for me and my wife:  After a typical day right now, with the stress of isolation and the daily news briefing, we are often mentally exhausted.  Consuming media all day long is probably not in the best interest of mental health.  Furthermore, as Tyler Norris of the Well Being Trust notes, “Every one-percentage-point increase in unemployment leads eventually to a 3.5 % increase in opioid addiction, so the pandemic’s economic effects will exacerbate our drug and mental health problems down the road.”  As David Brooks points out, “The pandemic spreads an existential feeling of unsafety, which registers in the neurons around your heart, lungs and viscera.  It alters your nervous system, changing the way you see and perceive threat.”
  • Second, Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general of the United States, writes that “At a time, when we’re being instructed not to leave home or visit loved ones, loneliness may seem like a given, but even before most people knew what ‘social distancing’ was, the pervasiveness of this feeling was apparent. While the experience of loneliness is as old as humanity, recent years, marked by a politicized climate of distrust and division, have felt like an inflection point . . . But even as we live with increasing diversity, it’s easier than ever to restrict our contact, both online and off, to people who resemble us in appearance, views and interests, and dismiss those who don’t share our beliefs or afflictions.  The result is a spiral of disconnection that’s contributing to the unraveling of civil society today.”  Furthermore, given the trends like migration and virtual work and commerce, it makes it even more difficult for us to build and prioritize community.  As God designed us, being connected to others gives us a stake in more than our own interests and increases our motivation to work together.  That truth surfaces the importance of the church.
  • Third, the church, created at Pentecost (Acts 2), is the New Covenant community of Jesus, indwelt by His Spirit, and empowered thereby to represent Him to the world. In the current crisis of loneliness, despair, anxiety and fear, the church of Jesus Christ, rooted in the grace of God, can serve well.  We accordingly eschew the cesspool of modern politics.  We are people of grace—a community of grace and other-centered love. We have the antidote to the poisonous, identity politics that relentlessly emanate from the White House and Congress. It is God’s grace.  Consider the wise words of Chuck Swindoll on grace:

“I can cultivate a judgmental attitude toward those who may not agree or cooperate with my plan. Grace killers are notorious for a judgmental attitude. It is perhaps the single most un-Christlike characteristic in evangelical circles today.  A quick glance back through the time tunnel will prove beneficial. Jesus found Himself standing before the brain trust of legalism, the Pharisees. Listening to Him were also many who believed in Him. He had been presenting His message to the crowd; it was a message of hope, of forgiveness, of freedom.  ‘As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him. So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ ” (John 8:30–32).  He spoke of the liberating power of the truth. Even though the official grace killers rejected His message, He assured them it could make them free. All who embrace grace become ‘free indeed.’ Free from what? Free from oneself. Free from guilt and shame. Free from the damnable impulses I couldn’t stop when I was in bondage to sin. Free from the tyranny of others’ opinions, expectations, demands. And free to what? Free to obey. Free to love. Free to forgive others as well as myself. Free to allow others to be who they are—different from me! Free to live beyond the limitations of human effort. Free to serve and glorify Christ. In no uncertain terms, Jesus Christ assured His own that His truth was able to liberate them from every needless restriction: ‘So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36). I love that. The possibilities are unlimited.”

  • Finally, the COVID-19 crisis could produce the spiritual renewal of American civlization. British historian, Herbert Butterfield, at the end of World War II, struggled to make sense of the horror produced by that ghastly war.  He found solace in the Bible:  “The power of the Old Testament teaching on history—perhaps the point at which the ancient Jews were most original, breaking away from the religious thought of the other peoples around them—lay precisely in the region of truths which sprang from a reflection on catastrophe and cataclysm.”  After World War II in America, Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project observes, America turned to faith in search of truth and meaning.  “In the late 1940s, Gallup surveys showed more than three-quarters of Americans were members of a house of worship, compared with about half today.  Congress added the words, ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Some would call this the Third Great Awakening.”  In God’s providence, times of crisis often produce such “awakenings.”  As humans, a catastrophic crisis reminds us of what Butterfield concluded after the War:  “a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”  Sometimes, he continued, “it is only by a cataclysm than man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”  A crisis can be used by God to bring about a call for repentance and revival.  “Great struggle can produce great clarity” about the fragile nature of the human condition.  Butterfield wrote that “It would seem that one of the clearest and most concrete of the facts of history is the fact that men of spiritual resources may not only redeem catastrophe, but turn it into a grand creative moment.”  Therefore, Nicholson questions:  “Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?”  Let us hope and pray that they will!

See David Brooks in the New York Times (3 April 2020); Vivek Murthy “The Epidemic of Loneliness” in Time (6-13 April 2020), pp. 60-61; The Economist (4 April 2020), pp. 47-49; and Robert Nicholson in the Wall Street Journal (21 March 2020).

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One Comment to “COVID-19 And America’s Psychological State”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    That is our hope and prayer, that this would lead to a spiritual awakening. It should, however, be noted that there is another part to the ministry of Jesus; in Matthew 23 Jesus castigated the scribes and Pharisees. It would also be appropriate to note that during these days, much progress is being made toward the fulfillment of Revelation 13.