There’s a disease on the move that’s even deadlier than Ebola.
It is invisible and highly contagious. It spreads with lightning speed and paralyzes its victims. It turns people, communities and nations against each other.
The disease is fear.
Anxiety and dread seem to permeate our nation — and many of our churches — at the moment. Threats abound: Ebola, ISIS, mindless violence, multiplying enemies. There’s a general sense that the world is spinning out of control and no one knows what to do about it — certainly not the institutions and experts we once looked to for guidance.
“The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear,” observes David Brooks of The New York Times. “It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.”
Some threats are real; others are the product of hysteria and saturation coverage of death and destruction. But we aren’t sure which is which. So we hunker down behind locked doors and dire predictions of worst-case scenarios.
“There is no doubt that we will stop this [Ebola] outbreak, end the deaths, and, if done right, build the tools to prevent another large outbreak like this,” writes epidemiologist Larry Brilliant in The Wall Street Journal. “But it won’t be easy. Fear, panic and politics have gripped Americans, with the potential to do untold damage to our nation and the global economy. Our real enemy is a hybrid of the virus of Ebola and the virus of fear. As the famous World War II British poster reads, we need to keep calm and carry on.”
Easier said than done. Instant media spread facts and knowledge as well as rumors, misinformation and doubt. Many Americans now apparently fear anyone coming from Africa, even if they arrive from countries nowhere near the West African region affected by the Ebola outbreak. Some African immigrants who came to America years or decades ago report being ostracized or treated with suspicion since the Ebola scare began.
Eighteen Oklahoma high school students reportedly stayed away from class recently when their parents heard rumors on social media about three students who had just returned from a mission trip to Ethiopia, thousands of miles from the Ebola zone. “Our students were not exposed to Ebola,” Inola school superintendent Kent Holbrook assured a local TV news reporter. “There was no person that was sick on the trip. There was no person sick [in] Ethiopia while they were there. There was no person [sick] on the plane.”
T.J. Helling, a local youth pastor who helped organize the mission trip, told the TV reporter the three students “did more in the last 10 days [during the mission trip] than most people do in their lifetime for other people. We need to remember that we’re here to encourage them and support them, not beat them down.”
I called First Baptist Church of Inola, where the three students attend and talked to an adult member there. She said the fear in the community “shows that the world is lost. But our reaction to the fear shows Christ in us. I’m telling our students, ‘It’s easy to show love and grace to a kid in Ethiopia on a mission trip, but you need to show the same grace to the kids you see every day at school who are fearful of death. God may be building character in you.’
“The church can’t react in fear,” she added — at home or abroad.
Amen, sister. First Baptist of Inola is an example for us all in these uncertain days.
Fear is real. Don’t deny it or mock others who feel it, even when their fear seems irrational. That would make us hypocrites, because we all struggle with it. A friend of mine who did Southern Baptist mission work for many years in the Middle East currently mobilizes churches in the United States. He regularly interacts with Christians and church groups who fear all Muslims, fear everything happening in the Middle East, fear even the thought of going there — or befriending someone coming here from the Muslim world.
“I acknowledge the fear. It’s real; I get that,” my friend said. “But we’ve got to look at it through God’s eyes. If God can turn a terrorist named Saul into [the apostle] Paul, He can turn some of the hearts of the people in ISIS. Jesus is the only solution.”
Jesus calls us to look at the world through His eyes — and to look at Him, not the dangers and troubles that terrify us. Matthew 14 describes the night He came to the disciples walking on water.
“When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ And He said, ‘Come!’ And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?'” (Matthew 14:26-31 NASB)
If bold, impetuous Peter, who walked with Christ Himself, experienced fear when He looked at the world, don’t be surprised if you do. Acknowledge it. Confess it to the Lord. Then look into His eyes, not at the fearful circumstances of our times. Step out of your safe, cramped boat. Befriend a lonely immigrant. Cross a border — and challenge some friends to go with you.
Jesus is already there, even in the darkest places, waiting for you to follow.
— Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board’s global correspondent. To explore ways to follow Jesus into a dark world, visit http://imb.org/go.