In Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, Samuel Wells argues that our ability to make ethical choices is seldom a question of having special resolve at the moment of decision. It is a question of preparation, or “moral effort,” through which we develop habits that form Christian instincts which kick in at the “moment of decision.” He notes, “Learning to live well is about gaining the right habits and instincts, rather than making the right choices.” To illustrate, while the moment that I benched 350 lbs was special, it would never have happened without the hundreds of reps that happened in the months and years leading up to the moment. Preparation is what gives us the opportunity to perform well in a moment.
I point to Wells’s understanding of ethics because, as we continue to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 and quarantine, we need to make time for preparation and moral effort. As we sit in our homes allowing the systems and structures put in place to flatten the curve, we would do well to use our time in quarantine to exert some “moral effort.” We need to put forth the moral effort that will allow us to develop habits that can guide us as we work our way through this crisis and wade into the aftermath of the pandemic. Now is the time of small acts of moral effort. It is time for us to fight our tendency to be heroic and to do the little things that will prepare us to follow the Spirit. As D.L. Moody once said, “There are many of us that are willing to do great things for the Lord, but few of us are willing to do little things.”
My concern is that as we move through quarantine and begin to return to our new normal, we are going to mistake the COVID-19 crisis as the deeper cause of our anxiety, thus falling into the situation described by Friedman in Failure of Nerve, “The issues over which chronically anxious systems become concerned, therefore, are more likely to be the focus of their anxiety rather than its cause … Assuming that what a family [church, nation, etc.] is worried about is what is ‘causing’ its anxiety is tantamount to blaming a blown-away tree or house for attracting the tornado that uprooted it.”
What will it take for us to put forth moral effort throughout the rest of quarantine and to offer faithful testimony post-pandemic? First, we have to keep our deepest problem in mind, and our deepest problem is theological. I don’t believe we can say with any degree of confidence that COVID-19 is a punishment from God. I do, however, believe that the world is not as it should be because of human rebellion. It is a problem that we cannot fix. Christ is the solution to our theological problem. He not only paid the penalty for our sins, he also teaches us what it means to live as members of the Kingdom of God. Following that teaching is no guarantee that we won’t suffer (James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6; 2 Peter 2:9), but there is no other way to live faithfully in this world.
Second, we must keep from succumbing or contributing to easy answers and terrible simplifications that arise during anxious times. As I suggest in Thinking Christian, when “…the previously settled powers and structures of our world are questioned, we would be wise to be cautious of those who offer easy answers or those who reinforce our baser instincts as they tell tales devoid of God and, thus, devoid of hope.”
At these moments in time, it is easy to point fingers. It’s easy to second guess leaders. It’s even easy to think that we could have done better. As Christians, we need to respect the complexity of our collective situation and, rather than pointing to some critical decision or lack of judgment, we need to be pointing to Christ. We need to be redemptive rather than judgmental, understanding rather than condemning. We need to be peacemakers rather than agitators. We need to offer compassion and care rather than engaging in political positioning or demonizing those who do not share our perspective.
Finally, as we have and continue to support those who are working hard to protect and care for us during the COVID-19 crisis, we must begin to diversify our spiritual practices. We will continue to express our appreciation and offer up prayers for healthcare workers and other frontline individuals who are at risk during this time. Yet, we also need to learn lament, deepen our mastery of prayer, embrace silence, give generously, and approach God’s word expecting transformation. We need to practice virtual hospitality and fellowship, challenge our own assumptions by reading something we would normally ignore, become kinder, learn resilience, and find empathy.
There will be many who are part of the body of Christ who have been out of work for weeks or months. Some will have lost their businesses or savings. Others will have lost loved ones. Everyone will be keenly aware of just how ambiguous and unstable our earthly existence is. But, we can also come through this time with a renewed faith and trust in God’s wisdom, goodness, and presence. We can demonstrate what it means to be the body of Christ. We can come through this crisis with new eyes that see more clearly the theological nature of the world. In isolation from so many of the things on which we normally depend, we can reset our desires and remember what it means to live a life dedicated to Christ.
JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind
Image credit: Liza Summer