The Western storyline goes something like this: “On the day we were born we were as pure, real, and true as we can be. But then we got messed up by authority figures—parents, teachers, and especially religion. So our mission in life is to be true to ourselves. Don’t listen to what anyone else tells you. Be brave. Be real. Be authentic. Only you can know who you really are. In the end, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to be happy.”
There are benefits to this storyline. We get to live in the city we choose, not the village we grew up in. We get to choose the job we want, not the one we inherited from Mom and Dad. We get to choose our partner, not the one Mom and Dad choose for us.
It’s a storyline of rugged individualism, freedom, and control.
But COVID-19 exposed this storyline’s deficiencies, didn’t it? We can’t exist as individuals; we need social responsibility. We’re not free; we’ve been in a lockdown. And we have no control; instead we have uncertainty.
Our plans for 2020 got ripped up, and we can’t plan anything yet for 2021. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone next year. Nothing is certain anymore. We only have contingency.
But this unsettling contingency—and the pandemic’s deconstruction of the Western storyline—is a gospel opportunity. The world is shaken in new ways and searching for answers in new places. A more secure, satisfying storyline is needed, and Christians should be sharing it.
What Are We Free For?
Until recently, the secular storyline has been the “better” storyline. We told ourselves there is no God. As a result, there’s also no moral accountability. We get to do whatever we want. The trade-off? There’s also no purpose. But we told ourselves that we can create our own.
Suddenly, with COVID-19, the existence of God might not be such a bad thing after all. God gives us a basis for moral accountability. And that’s all we’ve been talking about in 2020—moral accountability—with #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the need to wear masks.
The pandemic’s deconstruction of the Western storyline is a gospel opportunity. The world is shaken in new ways and searching for answers in new places. A more secure, satisfying storyline is needed, and Christians should be sharing it.
One of my colleagues, who does Christian ministry on college campuses, says the last few years have been especially fruitful. Many students have become Christians. One factor is that college students arrive on campus with unprecedented freedoms; suddenly they don’t have teachers and parents telling them what to do. But they don’t know what they are free for. Because they have no purpose or direction. They are rudderless.
But if God exists, so can purpose.
COVID-19 has exposed that we have a choice of two storylines.
Storyline #1 says there is no God. We are only atoms and molecules, just one of many species of life on this planet. The universe does not care about you. Viruses come and go. Species come and go. This pandemic is just one of many events in the ebb and flow of this universe. It has no meaning. It serves no purpose.
Storyline #2 says there is a God. He loves you, made you, and saves you. He sent his Son to be one of us. Jesus died for us and now lives for us. We can also live for him and be part of his mission to bring love, mercy, and justice. Even if we can’t see why God would allow a pandemic to happen, we can trust he has a good purpose behind it.
The second storyline allows us to live with uncertainty, trusting there is someone else behind the wheel who knows where the bus is going. The first storyline, meanwhile, is like being in a bus with no driver—and with no way to take control of the wheel.
It’s OK to Not Be OK
Up until now, we’ve only had one way to tell our Western story: “I’m OK, and you need to accept me for who I am.” This sounds great, but, as Will Storr counterintuitively observes in Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed, the outcome is a disproportionately high level of stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide in the West. This “I’m OK” storyline has led to an unforeseen culture of perfectionism. We now have to prove to ourselves, and to everyone else, that we really are OK. If that sounds exhausting, it’s because it is.
With Jesus, though, we can replace this with: “I’m not OK, and that’s OK. Jesus accepts me for who I am.” Of course, there’s more to this story: God also puts his Spirit in us, and each day he makes us more and more into the people he wants us to be. But with Jesus we don’t need the perfect Instagram pic, the perfect wedding, the perfect Christmas card.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to pretend we’re coping. There’s no pressure to keep it all together. In fact, it’s the opposite.
During pandemic isolation, many friends were posting about their lockdown activities—baking sourdough, barbecuing brisket, learning an instrument. But we only had to scratch a bit beneath the surface to find fear and dysfunction beneath the veneer.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to pretend we’re coping. There’s no pressure to keep it all together. In fact, it’s the opposite. He wants us to recognize we are fundamentally not OK apart from him. We can’t save ourselves or prove ourselves—and that’s a freeing thing.
Explore Different Entry-Points
I remember hearing Tim Keller explain in a sermon from Acts 16 that there are at least three different emotional entry-points to the gospel.
We have Lydia who was reasoned into the gospel. She had a logical discussion with Paul, and the Lord opened her heart to believe.
We also have the servant girl who was possessed by an evil spirit. She had a power encounter with Jesus and was set free.
And then we have the jailer. His world literally falls apart as his jail is destroyed in an earthquake. If the prisoners have escaped, that’s too much shame for him to bear. He’s about to take his own life. But then he sees Paul and Silas. He wants the peace they enjoy.
Up until now, Western Christians have largely evangelized the same way we would evangelize Lydia. We use reason: public talks, discussions, forums. But COVID-19 offers ways to explore the other two entry points.
Many of our friends are like the servant girl. They’re afraid of the invisible. But they can discover freedom in Jesus who has power over the unseen and unknown. Other friends of ours are like the jailer. Their lives have fallen apart due to COVID-19. They’ve lost businesses, careers, income streams. But they can see, in Jesus, a way of life that brings peace.
Global calamities like pandemics expose our weakness and the fragility of our dominant narratives. This year we’ve hoarded toilet paper and became more addicted to vices. Our comfortable paradigms have been shattered and the ugliness of human nature exposed.
We don’t like who we became in 2020. But in Jesus we can find true power, true freedom, and true peace. The pandemic has revealed multiple emotional entry-points to the better story of Jesus. It’s time to leverage them.