A pandemic of loneliness?

dan wu
A pandemic of loneliness? image

There is no doubt the Coronavirus has shaken the world as we know it to the core. I began writing this piece a few weeks into mandated quarantine, when we had just celebrated Easter in a way heretofore almost unimaginable – by ourselves, in our homes. 

While we seem to be heading slowly back towards more regular social interaction, it’s clear that the pandemic already has and will continue to have significant negative ramifications. 

On the other hand, as Winston Churchill is reported to have said (in light of the wreckage of post-WWII London), “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Often a time of great upheaval is also a time of great opportunity to reflect and remake what was, so it is stronger into the future. Add to this our trust in a sovereign God, who said, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). Sometimes God uses dark situations as the black background so the glory of his good plans for us shine more brightly.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste" 

One such example of this in our COVID context is the fear and damage caused by isolation. Initially this did not receive much focus in reporting the pandemic. However, while some initially welcomed the opportunity to withdraw from others, the evidence is becoming quite overwhelming that to do so has serious negative consequences at almost every level of society.

We know there have been good community health reasons behind the lockdown restrictions. But even as we think about it, we need to keep in mind that the desire to isolate can also be for self-serving reasons – I don’t really care what happens to them, I just don’t want anyone near me so I don’t get sick. 

"The desire to isolate can be for self-serving reasons" 

Not only that, we need to take seriously the damaging effects of extended isolation. I recently came across an article claiming (with some evidence) that while the epidemic has slowed in China, there is a new wave of anxiety sweeping the country due to loneliness and lack of interaction. The language that’s being used is “social recession”: a collapse in social contact that has deep and dire consequences. 

Perhaps surprisingly, this rings true with fundamental things the Bible says about our nature. Primarily, God made us as relational beings, so we are only truly whole and healthy when we’re connected to each other – and, most importantly, connected in a right relationship to the God who loves us. In this light, it is not surprising that when we’re cut off from relationships for an extended amount of time, we start to come apart – mentally, emotionally, even physically.

Practical, gospel-shaped living 

I find Proverbs to be a deep, rich theological and practical resource God has given us. Take Proverbs 25, for example. It does not address the situation of social upheaval caused by something like a pandemic directly. In fact, it is about the direct opposite: it outlines the key dynamics of a stable, flourishing, God-honouring society that brings blessing to all its members.

However, it is amazing how relevant every part of God’s word is to whatever situation in which we find ourselves. In this time of social upheaval and isolation, it has been so helpful to have in Proverbs 25 an image of how society should be, so we can seek to recover and bring as much of God’s blessing to each other as we can. It will also help to prioritise these points once we have the opportunity to build our way back to “normal” post-COVID 19 society, as restrictions continue to lift.

Thematically, Proverbs 25 shows us that God’s vaccine against soul-destroying isolation is life-giving fellowship: to give ourselves to each other in love, because God has given himself to us in love. As his people, then, this basic impulse should characterise our lives and drive us to overcome any obstacles we face in making this happen – which obviously has immediate relevance in our situation of isolation and quarantine. 

God uses his power for righteousness

The first point the passage makes is that God uses his power for righteousness. I will give a slightly more literal translation than some of our mainstream English bibles. Verses 2-5 state:

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.

As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, there is no searching out the heart of kings.

Remove the dross from the silver, and a silversmith can produce a vessel;

Remove wicked officials from the king’s presence, and his throne will be established through righteousness.  

These verses set the major authorities over the world in their (relative) place. God is the ultimate ruler of everything (v2), so he alone has the prerogative to reveal some things about his world, while others he keeps concealed and completely beyond our comprehension. In verse 3, he delegates a portion of his authority to human kings as his instruments to carry out his will on earth (cf. Rom 13:7). However, as verses 4-5 make clear, the king cannot do this alone. He needs all his court officials committed to the same goal.

The key, however, is what that goal actually is. Verse 5 makes it clear that the God-given purpose of stately authority is so that righteousness might flow from God, through the king and his court, to fill every corner of society. The word righteousness often evokes the idea of rules or morals that an individual might follow. But true biblical righteousness is much richer and more positive. It includes rules and morals, but they’re designed to foster fellowship – deep, stable, just, relationships of love, that form a framework for good to flow freely to people.

However, Proverbs 25:4-5 is also a profound reflection on the nature of power, and how difficult and elusive true justice and righteousness are in human society. These verses press upon us the need to understand in depth how power really works in the world, and to be very aware of our proclivity to use it for selfish, unrighteous ends. Witness the panic buying and the distress this brought to the vulnerable, as they had access to basic necessities cut off by the greed and selfishness of the able, rich and powerful! 

We need to work hard to make sure our own use of power – and the power structures in our society – are wielded to bring righteousness and do good to those who are in need of it.

Our safety in God

However, there is an even greater point to be made here. The first five verses of Proverbs 25 tell us that the God to whom all power belongs is fiercely committed to doing good to those under his rule, even if the full picture of how is concealed from us for now (as verse 2 says, it is the glory of God to conceal things). 

This is so critical for God’s people to remember. Many have scrambled to find explanations for the pandemic in an attempt to have some measure of control over it. Sadly, such attempts have also led to unfortunate consequences such as scapegoating and racism, which only contribute further to societal and personal breakdown and damage. Proverbs 25 helps us to be humble and acknowledge that we may well not be able to grasp the ultimate cause, or the exact part, this pandemic plays in God’s plans.

However, while it may seem ironic, this acknowledgement of our ignorance and inability to understand or control the situation is the foundation of comfort and security in a crisis like this. Proverbs 25 reminds us that even though we are not in control, we know the one who is. He is greater, and stronger, than us, this virus, than anything in creation, and he loves us – a truth wonderfully echoed and amplified in full in a passage like Romans 8:28-39.

As such, even though there is so much about this virus and its effects that escapes our grasp, the most critical thing to remember is that whatever happens in the coming weeks, months or years, God will never leave us. Our true need and comfort is not to be able to reach out and grab a pack of toilet paper, rice, or whatever might replace them on the list of panic buys. It is to be able to reach out and take hold of the righteous God who loves us, and already holds us in his strong hands.

Whatever we go through, no matter how much we cannot understand or how isolated we may feel, we are never alone. God loves us, and will never leave us, and even this crisis plays its part in his plan to hold us in his hands for eternity. Nothing – no virus, fear, loneliness, not even death itself – can snatch us from his grip. 

"No virus, fear, loneliness, not even death itself - can snatch us from his grip" 

If we need any proof of that we have only to look at God’s own Son, the Lord Jesus. He is the true, righteous king Proverbs testifies to, and the one the Bible is ultimately all about. Who, as Philippians 2 says, laid down his life for us. If it helps to look at it this way, we could say Jesus’ ultimate act of isolation, cut off from humanity and God on the cross, drew us into God’s embrace. Thus, when we feel afraid or alone – in this pandemic or whatever is to come in the future – the Bible says we should run to God: hear his voice tell you he loves you, see his Son give his life for you and cling to him. Find life and safety in your relationship with God.

There have not been many times in my life where I have felt truly lonely – even in down times I know I have been surrounded by people who love and care for me. But the times where I have were awful indeed, and that emptiness we can feel at being kept from human contact and relationship during this pandemic can actually be a precious gift that alerts us to the deepest and greatest need we have – to be in fellowship with the righteous God, held safe in his hands. 

Corrie Ten Boom once said, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have”. So, don’t let this crisis go to waste! Use the loneliness and low times as impetus to draw closer to the God who made you, loves you, and whose Son gave his life for you, whether for you it means turning to him for the first time, or drawing closer to him again.

The Rev Dr Dan Wu lectures in Old Testament and biblical languages at Moore College.