Fear of death is not a Christian virtue

I’m going to start right up front with the disclaimer that this is 1) not a claim to speak for the Forney church of Christ or Focus Press, for whom I preach and write – thus why I’m writing on this website, under my own name and 2) a personal opinion on what the Bible teaches on this matter, yet one of which I hope to persuade you.

The point of this article is not to debate the risk level of the coronavirus, or really to discuss the virus at all. My point in this article is not dependent on the dangerousness of the virus. On the contrary, my point is that the danger of the virus is irrelevant in the face of Biblical commandments.

I’m writing to posit two Biblical truths and apply them to our situation.

First, Christians are not to fear death.

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” While I’m here, I am to try to follow Christ’s footsteps, but death, whenever and however it comes, is to be viewed as gain. Do we believe that? Do we act like we believe it?

In a letter to a sickly woman named Mary Willis Shelburne, C.S. Lewis shared these thoughts on the matter of death for those in Christ:

“Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well. Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you… What is there to be afraid of? You have long attempted (and none of us does more) a Christian life. Your sins are confessed and absolved. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” (Emp. added.)

One of the most beautiful blessings about Christianity is the knowledge that death is not the end. I suspect the cause of our confusion on this issue is that we have neglected to ground ourselves in faith that we will be far better off on the other side.

I am not running toward death – I wear my seatbelt, drive the speed limit (or… thereabouts, you know), work out and try to eat reasonably, etc. I would very much like to see my children grow, and care for them and my wife, serving God all the way. But neither am I going to live my life in fear. To die is gain.

Arguing from a different angle, James wrote that our planning for the future must be done with an important fact in mind: “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). While we put off religious duty and wait for the virus to disappear, or a vaccine to eradicate it, or whatever else may save the day, we aren’t guaranteed that we’ll be here to see the other side.

Aside from the COVID deaths themselves, over 2 million Americans have died of other causes this year while waiting on life to return to normal. You aren’t guaranteed that you will be able to fellowship and share the body and blood of the Lord with God’s children a year from now. But you can this Sunday. Jesus told us not to worry about tomorrow, but instead to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33-34).

Fear of death is antithetical to our faith. We are a religion founded on resurrection, practiced by millions who cower in fear of death. This should not be.

Second, we have work to do.

It was wrong of us to determine our course of action based on risk rather than on Biblical command. If God told us to do something, we are to do it and let Him work out the details. Preaching the Gospel has routinely gotten people killed throughout church history. No, persecution is not a direct equivalent, but it establishes for us that obedience – even in the face of great risk – is required. Even when Paul escaped Damascus in a basket to avoid persecution (Acts 9:25) he did so to go somewhere else and preach, not to go home and hide and wait for favorable conditions.

While we wait for our favorable conditions, the work remains waiting for us. Christian service cannot be accomplished in a setting in which we are not seeing each other face to face. When’s the last time any of us obeyed 1 Peter 4:9 – “Be hospitable to one another without complaining”? How long are we going to be okay with blowing off Acts 2’s example of gathering together, praying together, learning together, and serving each other together? Were we “loving our neighbors” by isolating them into depression and possible suicide?

The reason it was so easy for most of us to accept “virtual church” and continue on without the assembly is that our concept of church is so small and powerless. (Somebody should write a book about that.) Other than the preacher or a select ministry team, just about everybody else is interchangeable in many cases. You come to them and get what they’ve provided for you.

What happened when the lockdowns began? The preachers went to the buildings and recorded their sermons, and everybody else stayed home. If we had a biblical view of church, in which we need each and every member growing to maturity in Christ to strengthen each other (Ephesians 4), the idea of everyone doing “church at home” would have been a complete oxymoron. There’s no such thing as church at home.

Biblically we’re supposed to be evangelizing, discipling, praying together, being hospitable to each other, serving each other, and the list goes on. Very little of that can be done over a phone call or a Zoom, particularly for 9+ months.

So, to be clear, I’m not just arguing about getting back to Sunday worship. I’m arguing for going far beyond that, to practicing community as a Christian family. And while many (if not most) have continued to see their biological families through these months, we accepted isolation from our spiritual, eternal family indefinitely. Do we mean it when we call our church family our “family” or not?

God gave us work to do (Ephesians 2:10), and it’s my contention that we need to keep on doing it. You are free to disagree, but the burden of proof is then on you to show where we have the authorization to abandon that work, and how long we’re allowed to go without doing it.

Anticipating a few commonly raised objections:

“‘Love your neighbor’ means not exposing them to risk.” Yes, I know that “love your neighbor” was trotted out, as always, as the old reliable argument we can bend to mean whatever we want (sexual liberation, doctrinal compromise, political point scoring, and whatever else the moment needs). The Bible itself defines what loving one another looks like, though, and there is no sense in which all of us avoiding one another for a year fits into that definition.

It was one thing to accept “15 days to slow the spread” in the name of loving our neighbor. But if at that time it had been pitched to us as “staying home and abandoning Christian fellowship for months with no defined end point to slow the spread,” I suspect we would have been far more reluctant to view it as a loving gesture.

“If it saves just one life, it’s worth it.” If one life is the standard, we can never meet again. Every single year we have the potential to inadvertently spread the flu to an elderly, immunocompromised member. Every single week we all take the risk of getting into a car to drive to worship. Staying home would eventually save one life in both of these cases. Are these equivalent to COVID? Of course not. But I’m not the one who came up with the “one life” standard, I’m merely arguing according to its logic.

“People stay home to keep from spreading germs all the time.” You are fully capable of discerning the difference between one sick person isolating (typically for a short, defined period) and everybody – sick or not – isolating indefinitely, and have no need for me to explain why the two aren’t equivalent. The same goes for staying home for a Sunday when the weather makes assembling dangerous.

You can see the frustration in my tone, I’m sure. Week after week of bare minimum Christianity can have that effect. We simply are not being the church if we are not making disciples and fellowshipping with one another. Our response has robbed us of our identity and told the world that we’re just as focused on this life and afraid of death as they are.

With a knowledge of how beautiful and horrific eternity can be, a world at risk should motivate us to far greater activity, not lesser. Worship is too important. Fellowship is too important. Evangelism is too important. Disciple making is too important. Service is too important. It’s time to get back to work.


A quick postscript:

While everything thus far has been in the realm of opinion, this is not: if you’ve gone to restaurants, traveled, and/or gone into other people’s homes yet still are holding out on the Sunday assembly or other church gatherings, repent and get yourself in there. What that says is that you’re willing to accept at least some level of social risk, but being with the church is not high enough on the priority list to be worth that risk.

And, if that logic tracks with you, I’ll leave it to you to weigh up the same arguments as they pertain to going to the grocery store.

Fear is the name of the game. Stop playing.

The year was 2001. When we hear that number, our mind automatically goes to 9/11. However, in the 8 full months preceding 9/11 there were a number of major news stories from the year that have been largely forgotten.

You may remember, though, how that summer featured a constant stream of shark attack reports. I have memories of watching story after story on shark bites, typically accompanied by helicopter footage of evacuated beaches. It was a major talking point that had a tangible impact on the livelihood of coastal businesses that rely on tourism. Government agencies scrambled to distribute information on the slim likelihood of shark attacks, and how to take steps to avoid them. Summer 2001 was and is widely referred to as “The Summer of the Shark” as a panic swept the nation.

The truth of the matter was, there was nothing unusual about shark attacks in 2001. The numbers of attacks and deaths were actually lower than the year before, when little attention was given to the matter. But out of nowhere, and for seemingly no reason, the power of the media led America to believe we were experiencing an unprecedented string of shark attacks. It was wildly irresponsible, with real life affects on real people, but they did it anyway.

I led with that because in order to rightly observe the world, you need to understand things like this happen. Many people don’t realize they happen. Others refuse to believe it when they do. Others know it happens and still fall for the trick from time to time (guilty – JW). But it’s simply a fact that the media can and does drive fear whenever they want. They’ve done it over and over again this year.

Since the start of the outbreak, we’ve had fear-inducing headlines like:

And if the virus fears weren’t enough, we can throw on:

In reading that list, you might have thought “Oh yeah, I forgot about that” with regard to a couple of the entries. They come so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. But are you seeing the pattern here? These kinds of stories get rushed to print/post immediately because they drive all kinds of interest, and yet the corrections and retractions get a fraction of the coverage. With many of these, it’s pure speculation rather than actual reporting.

The other tactic at play in these stories may be the more nefarious of the two. To quote a Michael Malice catchphrase, they are factual, not truthful. For example, it was factual to say that sharks were attacking people in 2001. But it wasn’t truthful to report in such a way to imply that we were facing a never-before-seen spike in shark attacks. It is factual to say there is another swine flu strain in existence, but it’s not truthful to run that as a headline and lead people to believe we’re in danger of it.

The media’s gross misconduct is only half of the issue, though, because without our tendencies to overreact, to talk down to our neighbor, and to want to be the first of our friends to post the latest news, their headlines would do little to spread panic. If we weren’t lapping it up and running to Facebook and Twitter to lecture other people about paying attention to the latest headline, these things wouldn’t spread. In our hurry, though, fact-checking and waiting for confirmation are left totally in the dust. Our critical thinking skills are often the first casualty of panic. Take, for example, this fabrication that was shared far and wide on social media.

No photo description available.

To start with, the first line is wrong. The death rate is well below 1%. But it gets worse from there. For example, there’s statistically no chance that every person in America is going to get the virus. The idea that 1 out of every 5 Americans will come out of this with permanent heart damage should have gotten this person laughed off the internet. With wildly exaggerated claims like this we’ve stopped just short of having Andy Dwyer declare “THE VIRUS IS SHOOTING AT US!”

Yes, the coronavirus is very real. I am not saying it isn’t, and I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind. I’m not saying any of those things. But one can acknowledge both the reality of the danger and the reality that the constant attempts to drive fear are out of control (unless one is a binary thinker, of course). Yes, it is dangerous – but we know who to protect, we know what is safe and what isn’t, and we know the hierarchy of risk by age and health status. Just making up scary claims out of thin air or running with the first hint that things might possibly get worse is irresponsible and dishonest. Why do they do it, then?

Why was Neil Ferguson’s model that predicted 2.2 million American deaths the only one reported at the start of the outbreak when the man has a track record so bad he should have been banished from the industry years ago?

Why is Sweden being condemned but New York being commended?Isn’t the place with the lower death rate and the intact economy the one who was right?

Why did major outlets run a headline telling us not to celebrate a lower death rate? Shouldn’t we be happy that fewer infected people are dying?

Because fear sells, and apologizing for being wrong about the fear is out of the question.

So, knowing those two principles, we can know for certain how we should act going forward.

#1. Stop giving them attention, and stop spreading the panic on social media. Turn the TV off, and ignore the headlines to the best of your ability. Thankfully they’ve played their hand too far and many are beginning to do just this.

#2. When you know the tactics, notice when they are being used. When you see the next shock headline (because total disengagement is almost impossible), take it with a gigantic grain of salt. Don’t post the speculatory articles, but rather wait for the actual research behind the speculation to surface.

#3. Learn to comb through the mounds of garbage, gather the information you need, and walk away. Use your critical thinking to sniff out those stories that seem too perfect to be true.

When you save all that time by shutting off the TV and staying off of news sites and social media, you’ll find extra time to spend in prayer, Bible study, exercise, reading old books, and connecting with friends via phone call or video chat. Which option do you think will leave you better off?

White Fragility is anti-Gospel

Original post from Facebook (links below):

I’ve been hesitant to speak on this and have been reading and watching stacks of material to make sure I understand it correctly before I do, but I think it needs to be said: not all efforts against racism are created equal.

Before you go assuming I’m on whatever side you think that statement puts me on, the disclaimers:
Yes, racism exists (both individual and systemic, in the original sense). Sadly, I’ve seen it first hand even in the church and have heard plenty of accounts from others as well. Yes, it’s important we fight racism. I’ve been writing on this matter long before the events of the last 2 months, so don’t take any of this as me downplaying racism. However, it’s incredibly important we choose carefully in our approach to this matter.

Specifically, I want to address the “White Fragility” theory presented by Robin DiAngelo. First, because it has become the go-to resource in our national discussion, racing up the bestseller charts and even selling out on Amazon and being handed out and suggested by many within Christendom. Second, because it is representative of much of the ideology of Critical Race Theory, the prevailing viewpoint in our national discussions. Learning DiAngelo’s work helps one see much of the ideology being shared on television and in print today.

You can read the book, or you can watch the interviews, and you can read and watch the counterpoint articles and videos being produced. There is no shortage of her material available right now. However, the best entry-level summary is DiAngelo’s interview with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show from June 17. Asked by Fallon how white people can say they aren’t racist, DiAngelo answered, “I think white people should remove that phrase from their vocabulary, ‘I’m not racist.’ … When I’m talking about the racism that I have, that you have, it’s the result of living in a society in which racism is the foundation. We all absorb it, we all absorb it, there’s no exempting ourselves from it.”
She goes on to say that white people should stop trying to decide if they are racist… because they are. In the book, she sets up a trap to drive home the racism of all whites. Are you a racist? If you say yes, then you can admit it and live with it. If you say no, you’re both a racist and a fragile white because you can’t come to grips with your own racism. It’s the classic “have you stopped beating your wife?” trap translated into racial matters.

This is anti-Christian in every way. Either she’s saying that because it’s natural, racism isn’t a sin (which is not what she’s saying, and would be wrong), or that racism is both natural and a sin. If people are guilty of a sin solely because they are born into a certain race, then the Bible lied to us. If people are guilty of a sin solely because of the color of their skin, and cannot change it, then they cannot be forgiven. This kind of thinking also makes a mockery of biblical unity. Being “colorblind” isn’t the answer, but seeing everything as a matter of color and seeing races as different teams, all of which are inherently opposed to each other, leaves no room for the unity Jesus brings.

3 sin categories in which someone can show racism are hatred, pride, and/or partiality. You hate another person because of the color of their skin, you view someone as lesser than you because of the color of their skin, and/or you treat them differently because of the color of their skin. If you’re guilty of any of those three, repent. The Good News is that there is forgiveness and transformation for you in Jesus Christ. If you’re not doing those things, and you are loving your neighbor as God commanded, you aren’t guilty. Period.

Because these ideas are anti-Gospel, one would expect to see side effects that go in the opposite direction of the Gospel’s destination, and that’s what’s happening. We’re seeing the return of segregation, but this time voluntary. We’re seeing moral relativism that says the wrongness of an act depends on the color of the skin of the perpetrator. We’re seeing the sin of partiality being endorsed. We’re seeing the biblical concept of assuming the best about each other flipped on its head, teaching instead that we should assume the worst. (Spend any time with DiAngelo’s work and you’ll see that she trains people to constantly be looking for racial slights, whether intended or not. If you’re constantly looking for something, guess what happens?) We’re seeing the commands to be patient with one another and tolerate one another in love for the sake of unity be ignored on multiple sides. The mild, unintended insensitivities that may arise and the difficulty of hearing out a brother’s stories are not proof a person is racist. They are proof that cross-cultural issues can be difficult to navigate and will need Christlike patience and love to overcome.

The binary thinking I wrote about recently tells a person that you either accept every issue on one side, or you belong to the other side. Binary thinkers will think that because I’ve taken issue with these things, I must be the racist. Because I said that DiAngelo trains people to see racial slights that aren’t there, that racial slights don’t exist. We are smarter than that. There is room for nuance. Very few things in life are an either/or, and this one isn’t either. One can be fully against racism and still take issue with the methods and ideas of other people who are also against racism.

We must realize the way we fight it, the teammates we choose, and the ideas we espouse in opposing racism make a big difference as to the outcome of our efforts. An ideology that undermines the Gospel and totally precludes the possibility of unity and equality cannot be embraced if we want to reach those ends – as we should.

So, in the sermons we preach, the articles we write, the Facebook posts we make, and whatever else we say, it’s of incredible importance that we let the Gospel be the answer. We can say the Gospel is the answer all day long, but our actions and the ideas we hold to will determine if we truly believe it.

DiAngelo on Fallon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZfiSjTHVqA

DiAngelo on “Challenging White Fragility”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xtZ0nAFHow&

Secular writers on White Fragility:

https://taibbi.substack.com/p/on-white-fragility

The Problem with White Fragility

Ben Shapiro also did a video on the matter, but I’m not linking it because A) I haven’t watched it and B) He wouldn’t be taken seriously by many

Christian writers:

The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity

The Worldview of White Fragility – A Review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility

Segregation:

https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2019/3/12/editorial-defending-black-commencement/

My articles on racism:

https://jackrwilkie.com/2017/09/02/racism-is-real-and-it-isnt-what-you-think-it-is/

Race, the Police, and the Christian’s Response

Why “I’m not a racist” isn’t good enough

focuspress.org/2017/08/15/how-you-can-fight-racism/

3 myths about racism

Binary thinking:

https://jackrwilkie.com/2020/06/18/please-i-beg-you-dont-be-a-binary-thinker/

Further useful reading: 

The Woke Breaking Point