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Reckoning with the Pandemic and Resetting for 2021

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My five-year-old daughter is fantastic at hide-n’-seek. My two-year-old son is terrible at it. He begs me to come find him as he squirms behind a small chair—fully visible to anyone in the room. Many of us spend our days behind the small chair of distraction and comfort. We hide from ourselves and pretend that no one—not even God—can see us truly. But for most of us, the myriad of societal changes from the current pandemic has pulled the chair away, leaving us without distractions, with added suffering, and ultimately with nowhere to hide.

In ten years, instead of asking, “Where were you on 9/11?”, we’ll likely be asking, “What did you do during the lockdown?” or “What happened to you during the pandemic?” These days will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark on us. We may well be witnessing a new normal in terms of our economy, businesses, schools, churches, healthcare systems, and public attitudes. For many across the globe, the new normal will include moving forward without those they love.
As a Christian, how will you answer that question in ten years? “What will the passing of time reveal about the decisions you’ve made?”

You have a precious opportunity right now. Even with the advent of vaccines, most experts still believe we are now only at this pandemic’s “halftime.” We have a key moment to embrace Scripture’s call to examine our walk with the Lord and to make these final six to nine months of the pandemic count. Therefore, let us examine our hearts based on what Jesus identified as the two greatest commandments—loving God and loving our neighbor. You might think of these commandments as a road map for the Christian life

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36–38)

Jesus clearly wants us to love God with all that we are, and while terms like heart, soul, and mind overlap considerably, it may be helpful to use these terms to consider different aspects of the way we love God.

Loving God with Our Hearts
Let’s consider the heart in relation to our desires and emotions. Emotionally, did you become angry, distant, sad, depressed, or anxiety-riddled over the pandemic? Were you filled with guilt (over a decision you made) or shame (feeling like you weren’t enough)? When the inevitable strong feelings arose, did they drive your life? Or did you see them as pathways to Christ?
Emotions, even difficult or negative ones, aren’t wrong. In fact, awareness of our emotions is very good. But our emotions should be in the passenger seat as a helpful guide, not in the driver’s seat. We are to follow the pattern of the psalmists and of Jesus, who brought their feelings to God. We should do the same with our feelings, no matter how confusing or ugly they are. God’s Spirit will help you process them. You will learn about yourself and savor God’s love for you in the midst of feeling weak, frustrated, or alone. To address your emotions in this way is a good first step in deepening your relationship with Christ in the coming months.

Loving God with Our Souls
Your soul will live forever, and it’s the seat of your deepest convictions. The Christian’s soul belongs to Christ. It’s come home, in a sense, and now lives for Christ’s convictions and purposes in the world.

The pandemic changed the calculus of life rapidly: the decision to marry, divorce (tragically), have more children, buy a house, move to a new city, start a new career, or make any other number of big changes became immediate. The pandemic shuffled the deck of assumed realities about life and the world. It caused people to wrestle with the question, “Is my life, right now, filled with the kind of meaning I want?”

For some, asking that serious question resulted in swift and decisive changes — for better or worse. Without the hurry and distractions of life (at least during the first months) we were forced to reflect. What arose in your soul when the world stopped and you paid more attention? Did your desires to change or do something new arise from a soul that has been captured by Jesus, full of his leadership in your life? Or did something or someone else motivate change? Living from a soul redeemed by Jesus is the most powerful, fulfilling thing you can do.[1]

Loving God with Our Minds
Loving God with our mind is the inescapable need to pursue knowledge and understanding of God. This can come in many forms (books, preaching, discipleship, etc.) but the hinge is time spent in the Word of God. How did the pandemic affect the way you engaged God’s Word with your mind?

Where did your thoughts go—if not captured by Christ and his words—in your quiet moments?[2] Fantasy? Entertainment? Obsession? Or were you just staving off boredom through silly amusements? How could you re-structure your life to reinforce good Scripture-intake habits? Perhaps you could find a partner to build more sustainable ones. I encourage you, start smaller than you think. Reading the whole New Testament plus Psalms and Proverbs is a great goal for 2021. However, if you’re “out of shape” in terms of your daily Bible reading, set a more manageable goal that will motivate you to regularly hear and be shaped by God’s Word. If our minds are not being transformed day by day in Scriptures, then be sure that the world will gladly conform us to its way of thinking.[3]

Loving Our Neighbor as Ourselves
Jesus draws a straight line between the love of God and the love of God-made and God-loved fellow human beings. Somehow, century after century, we try to make this complicated. We tend to think abstractly about neighbors as a way to avoid responsibility and reality—a hide-n’-seek chair of sorts. Instead, think concretely about “loving your neighbor,” focusing on the physical and emotional relationships nearest to you.

How have your relationships fared with family, friends, neighbors, church members, and co-workers? Did you show up big for one another? Or did the pandemic bankrupt your relationships, causing you to realize they had little substance in their accounts? Relationships are two-way streets of giving and receiving. No one is a superman or superwoman who only gives. Rather, we give, receive, share our weaknesses, and offer our strengths as people loved by Jesus.
A good metric for loving relationships in this season of suffering is, “Did you cry with people?” If your neighbors who were struggling didn’t reach out for help in this season of pain, then it might be time to re-think your strategy of loving them (let alone evangelizing them). That strategy might start with sharing your own needs and being vulnerable.

Whether examining your relational love is encouraging or discouraging, remember a few things for the days ahead. Everybody wants deep community and yet no one seems to know how to get it. That’s because we want “Friends”-like community with Netflix-like convenience. Loving your neighbor requires Christ-like sacrifice and commitment. We are a self-obsessed culture. We search for meaning everywhere while failing to realize that meaning often comes from sacrifice in the context of relationship. Loving your neighbor well requires self-denial to prioritize others above yourself in your rhythms and commitments.

Looking to the Future
We may well be moving into the second half of this pandemic, as the cavalry of modern medicine looks to be cresting the hill. Regardless, though, we should take the time to evaluate who we’ve been and what we’ve learned about God and ourselves. And we should set a plan to finish strong. Hopefully, the pain of the pandemic has taught us that we can no longer act like kids hiding behind chairs.

[1] Genesis 2:7, Psalm 49:15, Matthew 16:25-27
[2] 2 Corinthians 10:5
[3] Romans 12:1-2

Justin Karl is planting Citizens Church on the east end of Birmingham, AL. Previously, he was a teaching pastor at Sojourn Church - Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of Southern Seminary.
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