In a video chat last night, a friend admitted, “I’ve been crying a lot, and I’m not sure why.” COVID-19 has given us many reasons to weep. We’re out of our routines, the stock market has plunged, and we imagine millions dying. This virus and economic crisis punch us squarely where our spiritual armor is weakest: mortality, money, and our fear of missing out.
In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul distinguishes between two kinds of sorrow—a sorrow that “leads to death,” and a “godly sorrow.” The latter “brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (v. 10). Godly sorrow, he writes, produces “earnestness,” eagerness to repent, and a “longing” and “readiness to see justice done” (v. 11). The question the church faces now is which kind of sorrow COVID-19 will bring.
We are in the midst of the most widespread societal upheaval that many people alive today have ever experienced. Already our institutions, habits, relationships, and culture are shifting before our eyes. Frank M. Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, shared with the New Yorker, “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are.” The question we are facing is not whether we will experience sorrow and change; the question is how. As biblical prophets walked with people through catastrophes, their advice was never to just endure until it ends. Instead they focused on proactively changing relationships with each other and with God.
As a cultural anthropologist who grew up in a middle-class white United States home and then lived for much of my adult life in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa, I study the ways cultures adapt and change. Social scientists dub people like me WEIRD—Western and educated, from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries. My home culture is especially weird compared to much of the Majority World in our responses to loss and unpredictability. Yes, we WEIRD people have much that will help us against the coronavirus—well-funded research labs, hospitals, and democracy. But dealing with financial, mortal, and daily uncertainties is not our strong suit. This current upheaval slams us up against some of our deepest lies and idols. It demands strong muscles that many of us have let atrophy. Identifying how our culture has left us poorly prepared for this can move us toward the kind of sorrow that produces repentance and justice.
Mortality and the myth of perpetual productivity
In America we learn that we are what we do. We treat those who aren’t productive, young, or fashionable as not worth our attention. Everything in us has been taught to recoil at two of the most pressing realities of COVID-19: lost productivity and dying people.
In middle-class white America, introductions nearly always involve the question “What do you do?” Jobs, college majors, and contributions to an ever-churning productive economy come to define who we are. I have been taught to love schedules, precision, and hard work. Time is our commodity to use or save, not waste or spend. Economists account for human value by measuring wages and the goods we produce, and this seeps into everyday thinking.
Meanwhile, we idolize youth and treat death as the final failure. “No one in America ever looks forward to growing old,” anthropologists Lowell Holmes and Ellen Rhodes Holmes write in an anthropological analysis of American culture. Our magazines, advertisements, and media portray young people as productive, important, and beautiful. Youth are people who matter. As theologian and social worker Joyce Ann Mercer points out, we find it “almost impossible to imagine what vocation means or what forms it might take in older adulthood.” In a culture that shows little regard for the aging or the otherwise seemingly unproductive, COVID-19 forces us to re-account for their value as we face losing them.
In our glorification of youth, we recoil from death. In Nicaragua, I remember learning that someone died when a woman ran past our home wailing with grief. In South Africa at the height of the AIDS pandemic in 2006, a friend told me she had attended a funeral every week for nearly a year. I believe I have attended only two funerals in ten years. In many parts of the world, mourning is a public event, wrapped in widely shared rituals of care. In such cultures, death is still unwelcome, but unlike in my culture, death is familiar and shared in community.
For people who have learned to avoid death and rest at all costs, how might this pandemic lead us to a godly sorrow of repentance? The Christian view of rest and death is radically different from what pervades our culture. Theologian Norman Wirzba writes that “Sabbath is not an optional reprieve in the midst of an otherwise frantic or obsessive life. It is the goal of all existence.” COVID-19 is bringing some people long hours, others temporary waiting, and others layoffs. All need the message that work does not define us. We are made also to rest. The prophet Jeremiah told Israel that for all the time they had refused to practice Sabbath rest, disaster would force rest upon them (2 Chron. 36:21). Are we pushed now into receiving the rest we have neglected to give ourselves?
Death, our final rest, is also not an enemy to fear. In the context of telling his disciples “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus reminded them that God cares even for the grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, and all the more for humans (Matt. 6:25, 30). We do not escape worry by ignoring death, but by facing it with Christ. Accepting godly sorrow in this time might mean learning from experts like medical doctor Atul Gawande about how to start conversations about mortality. Rather than cling desperately to longevity, we can ask God for the life that is truly life. That life includes receiving rest even now.
Money and the expectation of human progress
An estimated $3.6 trillion disappeared in one week as the stock market collapsed. The impact will be felt most not by stockholders but by those at the bottom of social ladders through layoffs, closed nonprofit organizations, and evictions.
Our sorrow as the market crashes is not just about lost money. Americans are not so much addicted to money as we are addicted to progress. Social scientists agree that the narrative of time as a steady movement toward an ever-better future is deeply influential in Western cultures. “The constant pursuit of material wealth is not so much a desire to have things for their own value as to provide evidence for one’s friends and neighbors that one is succeeding and getting ahead,” write anthropologists Holmes and Holmes. This economic crisis strikes fear not just because we imagine layoffs and homelessness (which might motivate us to genuine concern for neighbors) but because our narrative of relentless human betterment is destabilized. Suddenly we find that things are not getting better.
We believe this metanarrative of a perpetually improving future not because God works that way but because we tell ourselves that human-made technology works that way. Since the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment, Western people have grown to trust in human innovation and the upward trend of capitalist growth. We expect economic prosperity because humans will make it so.
The economic pattern of most of the Bible is not upward growth. More often, prosperity comes and goes in cycles or sudden interventions. In the metanarrative of the Bible, God oversees the rise and fall of civilizations. Individuals and societies thrive not because their cleverness mitigates all risk, but by the gracious care of God. Human innovation has an important role to play in coping with COVID-19, but the pandemic has also exposed our over-reliance on human ingenuity for protection.
Godly sorrow as we face the lie of human-made progress will mean remembering the source of Christian hope. Many Americans traveling to the Majority World incorporate “hope” into organizational names like “building hope” and “bringing new hope.” Over the years, though, I have learned that my Majority World brothers and sisters often have the kind of hope that comes of suffering, endurance, and character (Rom. 5:3–5). Hope I grew up with was often an imitation built of privilege, a thriving economy, and a modernist narrative of progress. Living paycheck to paycheck or with no paycheck has the potential to produce hope that is like gold refined by fire (Rev. 3:18). The hope we need now will be built on a God who meets the desperate.
Fear of missing out and human attempts at authenticity
The past weeks brought a flood of emails reading “canceled.” Losing these activities hurts not just because we will miss seeing friends or keeping busy but because our culture teaches us that these activities make us us. Long before the coronavirus, we were living in an epidemic of what Harvard Business School writer Patrick McGinnis dubbed FOMO: fear of missing out.
The cultural commentator David Brooks diagnoses this condition using Kierkegaard’s term “the aesthetic life.” A person in this aesthetic lifestyle lives to “rack up experiences,” becoming “eventually paralyzed by self-consciousness.” “You tell yourself that relationships really matter to you—scheduling drinks, having lunch—but after you’ve had twenty social encounters in a week you forget what all those encounters are supposed to build to.” As we consume both purchases and activities, we have what theologian William Cavanaugh calls a detachment problem. Rather than being too attached to the stuff we buy, we are too quick to discard what matters. We gorge ourselves on activities and products, ever eager to have what’s next.
Many cultural analysts have pointed out that American consumption is fueled by a desire to prove who we are. Whether filling our lives with stuff or activity, we are “concerned primarily with what other people of our social position or age-set have, think, or do,” according to anthropologists Holmes and Holmes. Tim Keller and others note that Westerners use consumption and activity to claim and display their “authentic self.” In contrast to much of the world, Americans use consumption rather than tradition or family as a primary source of identity. Historian Meic Pearse writes in Why the Rest Hates the West, “Only an abundance of riches such as no previous generation has known could possibly console us for the emptiness of our lives, the absence of stable families and relationships, and the lack of any overarching purpose.”
As we give up sports tournaments, concerts, parties, and coffee dates, we are not just missing opportunities to see friends; we are destabilizing our sense of identity and purpose. According to Richard Rohr, fear of death often reveals an even deeper fear of never having really lived. The combination of a novel virus plus canceled activities means we have to face that fear.
What does godly sorrow look like in the face of FOMO? Now can be a time to recognize what makes life good. Have we sought the good life by chasing ever newer and greater experiences? Are we striving to craft some truly authentic self by what we buy and do? Now is a time to stop spending money and labor on what does not satisfy. Instead this is a time to learn to receive from God “what is good,” that “your soul will delight in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2).
As we confront the ways this pandemic has caught us spiritually unprepared, there is no promise that we will feel any less sorrow. But we do determine what this sorrow will produce. In this time of cultural upheaval, our shared sorrow has the potential to spread repentance. Now is the time to replace our reliance on productivity, progress, and social standing with a longing and readiness to see justice done.
Christine Jeske is a professor of cultural anthropology at Wheaton College. She is the author of three books, including the forthcoming The Laziness Myth (Cornell).
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