the shape of leadership

Christian Coronavirus Clichés

How not to respond to suffering people, and how to

It is difficult to describe the COVID-19 pandemic without reaching for a cliché. We live in “a difficult time” and face “an unprecedented challenge” are two examples. “We are all in this together” is a third.

These clichés capture important truths, of course. The last two months have been hard for millions in the United States, for billions worldwide. Scientists describe the coronavirus underlying this pandemic as “novel” because it has not been identified prior to now.

We have taken extreme measures to slow COVID-19’s spread — not merely for our own sakes, but also for the sake of others. Even so, these clichés seem, for lack of a better word, cliché.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers three definitions of cliché: 1) a trite phrase or expression; 2) a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation; and 3) something that has become overly familiar or commonplace. The problem with clichés is not that they are false. It is that they no longer illuminate the truth in startling new ways.

Examples and Qualifications

This problem is evident in what I have started to call Christian coronavirus clichés. Most of these expressions circulated prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, though some emerged out of it. You can view them online and hear them in personal conversation.

Regardless of when or where these phrases arose, many Christians have used them to encourage those suffering from the disease itself or from the social and economic consequences of our response to it.

I asked friends online to name Christian coronavirus clichés they have seen or heard most. Here is a sampling of their responses:

  • “Faith Over Fear.”
  • “Worship Over Worry” (WOW) and “Praise Over Panic” (POP).
  • “God will get us through this time, so just focus on Him.”
  • “Hope is not cancelled.”
  • “Disruption leads to redirection.”

A few of my friends identified memes that repackaged the outlook of the clichés above using COVID as an acronym:

  • “Christ Over Viruses and Infectious Diseases.” Some versions of this meme even found a use for the “19” in COVID-19 by quoting Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
  • “Confident of Victory I Declare.” What gets declared, I suppose, is left up to the individual declarer.

Before I explain why I think these clichés no longer illuminate, I need to offer a few qualifications. First off, what is a cliché to me may be a lifeline to you. How we respond to those phrases depends on our attitude, perspective and experience.

Also, I recognize the good hearts of those who use these clichés. In the midst of a crisis, they sincerely desire to offer good news to people who need it. As a minister, I am especially mindful of the difficulty pastors face as they talk with others about life’s struggles. Sometimes, you run out of fresh words and have to reach back on the shelf for canned ones, hoping they’ll nourish souls too.

Finally, I also affirm the truth these clichés capture. Precisely because Christ is over all, and I am in Him, my life can be guided by faith rather than driven by fear. Worship can recalibrate my worries.

Because my hope is set on Him, I see how the disruptions I am currently experiencing can redirect my attention and energy in positive ways. And I believe that Christ can heal, both because the Bible teaches it and experience confirms it.

Unhelpful to Some

And yet, can you also see how these clichés come across as trite, hackneyed, overused and therefore unhelpful to some people?

I think of a single friend who feels even more isolated than usual because of social distancing and sheltering at home. Another lost her mother to COVID-19, and still another lost his brother. One of my friends is going through a divorce in the midst of this pandemic. Absent a miracle, another seems headed that way.

These friends have expressed dissatisfaction with the ways Christians have tossed clichés their way, especially online. And they are just a handful of people I know.

Think about the miseries of older people in nursing homes, exposed to the virus but unable to receive visits from family. Remember households on the economic margin with adults out of work, no money in savings, and no clear idea of where the next meal for the kids is coming from. Consider those in recovery, whose stressors are pushing them in the direction of the bottle, pill or needle they have fought so hard to give up.

People who suffer need a response whose notes form the chords of their pain.

Such people are everywhere. They deserve a better response from us Christians than chirpy clichés — however true our sentiments might be, considered in the abstract. The problem is no one lives in the abstract. Instead, we live, as C.S. Lewis put it in his poem, “Scazons,” in “the tether and pang of the particular.” People who suffer need a response whose notes form the chords of their pain.

A Better Response

What might such a response be? Let me offer five suggestions:

First, move offline. Digital technology has been a real boon for millions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook and FaceTime enable us to meet when we cannot do so face-to-face. But when it comes to hard topics, there is no substitute for talking with another in person.

For a variety of complex reasons, social media pushes us to extremes. We tend to look happier on Instagram and talk meaner on Twitter than in real life. Our online avatars represent us, but they also misrepresent us.

Social media also tends to reduce complex issues to simplistic sound bites. Twitter limits tweeters to 280 characters. Facebook readers typically do not read beyond the headline of an article.

Neither extremism nor reductionism are helpful to people when they suffer. What they need is empathy for the complexities of their situation. So if you read online that a friend is suffering, pick up the phone. Or better yet, if you are able to do so safely, go to his or her house.

Second, listen. Job’s friends helped him most when they sat and mourned with him. They only got into trouble when they opened their mouths. No wonder James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak.” There is no rush for you to respond verbally to another’s pain, whether in person or online. You do not have to speak just because they have.

Third, affirm. Too many Christians feel guilty about experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, worry and sorrow. They have been conditioned by Christian subculture to think that such emotions evince lack of faith in God. That’s not a biblical idea. Instead, as Paul puts it, we should “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

Notice that Paul’s instruction is not merely to affirm the negative emotions of the suffering. It is to suffer alongside the suffering, identifying with their fear, worry and sorrow. In the Church, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Fourth, lament. The two clichés above that concern me most are “Worship Over Worry” and “Praise Over Panic.” I share their instinct to enfold life’s sorrows in a blanket of prayer, meditation and song. Indeed, I think that instinct is biblical.

What is not biblical, however, is the desire to worship instead of worry, to praise instead of panicking. The Carter Family, those great pioneers of country music, wrote and performed a song whose chorus exhorted listeners, “Keep on the sunny side of life.” That is often good advice, of course, but the present moment does not always have a sunny side. Sometimes, as David put it, “darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18).

Worship and negative emotions do not present us with a binary choice. When Jesus hung on the cross, after all, He did not respond with WOW and POP. Instead, He took David’s words as His own and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; cf. Psalm 22:1). Only after starting with such heartbreaking honesty did David, and hence Jesus, look for help and hope (Psalm 22:19-31).

If we follow Jesus, we should follow Him in lamentation too.

Fifth, love. The older I get, the more I realize both the importance and limit of words. God made us rational creatures, and words are the tools we use to make sense of things. Suffering stretches our ability to do so, sometimes to the very breaking point, but words are still necessary. They name our pains. They also name the gospel.

But words are never sufficient by themselves. Consider this hypothetical from James 2:15-16: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

None at all!

So, if friends feel lonely, reach out to them. If they are overwhelmed with caring for their young children or elderly parents under home confinement, give them respite, if it is allowed. If you are an employer and can give an out-of-work church member a job, do so. If someone needs food or help with rent, open your wallet.

God wants us both to speak healing words and perform helpful deeds. That is what love requires.

And so, back to the clichés we reach for in this COVID-19 pandemic. We live in a difficult time and face an unprecedented challenge. May the Church rise to the challenge of the suffering within and around us to love in word and deed. After all, we really are in this thing together.

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