Podcast: A Christian Doctor’s Guide to Thinking about Coronavirus (Bob Cutillo, MD)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Trusting God in Uncertain Times
In this episode, Bob Cutillo, MD, author of Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age, discusses the current coronavirus pandemic.
He explains what's currently happening in the US and around the world; offers a broader perspective on how we should think about this virus in light of history and our Christian faith; and shares godly, practical advice to all Christians as we seek to trust God and love others well in these uncertain times.
Download a free digital copy of Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age along with a number of other free resources related to COVID-19 at crossway.org/coronavirus.
Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age
Bob Cutillo, MD
Uncovering the ways our society has made an idol out of controlling our health, Dr. Cutillo teaches us to think biblically about the limitations of our bodies and see wellness as a gift from God.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Personal Involvement in Medical Treatment
- The Quick Escalation of the Coronavirus
- Comparison to Past Viruses
- A Christian Perspective on Widespread Disease
- Loving Others During a Pandemic
- Reliance on the Medical Advances of the West
- Can We Really Control Our Health?
- How Can Knowing the Facts Help Us Face Outward?
- Practical Tips for Loving Others
- Treating Our Health as a Gift
- A Time to Listen to What God Has to Say
Personal Involvement in Medical Treatment of COVID-19
As we mentioned in the intro to the show, you currently serve on the faculty at Denver Seminary and you're an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. You also serve as a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver. I know Colorado has had a fair number of confirmed cases of this new coronavirus, what is now being referred to as COVID-19. Are you involved in any on the ground efforts to help slow the spread of this virus? And if so, what are you seeing right now?
My primary interaction with the changing events that has been brought on by the COVID-19 virus is as a patient caregiver for primarily homeless populations with the Stout Street Health Center and the St. Francis Center and the Coalition for the Homeless. So I've been a part of the process of gearing up, which has been a big job to prepare for so many unknowns and so many uncertainties, but certainly a desire to be able to test appropriately and then properly to—I don't know if the right word is “quarantine”—but at least to protect those who are potentially contagious from others who are not yet contagious. And you can imagine how big a deal that is when you're dealing with the homeless population who tend to return to a very intensely crowded place. And so we've been doing things like trying to find temporary hotel rooms for people to be in until we know that they're COVID-19 free. So we've been watching this, we've been following this, every day—I'm sure you're getting it to—there's just a new piece of information. It's just becoming ever more restrictive and we're all looking around wondering and hoping that this epidemiological experiment of trying to keep people in place will achieve some success.
The Quick Escalation of the Coronavirus
I think for many of us it's been surprising, even shocking, how quickly things have seemed to escalate not just in the US but even around the world. When did you first realize that this virus was going to be a big deal?
Well, I don't think we probably were aware. I think most of us were not aware until it left China and hit Italy. When it was in China, I think everybody thought, Well, we're just gonna be able to keep it there. Yes, there's an incredible number of cases, but they're using these very strong draconian measures to keep it in place. I think when we saw Italy just explode with the number of cases and realized how potent the contagiousness of this virus is, I think that's when we took note and I think that it's now just a matter of watching and seeing the inevitable happen, that pretty much every country pretty soon will have cases.
Were you surprised at how quickly things progressed after it broke out of China? Was that surprising to you as a medical professional?
Well, yes, I think so because I'm a family physician; but I've been involved a lot with infectious diseases in my life because of working with underserved populations where there's a lot more contagion, and then also working in Africa for quite a while. So I've always followed the epidemics that have transpired and I was looking at SARS in 2003 and then also the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, and they never spread like this one. So I was thinking, Oh, it's going to be something like that. Those were coronaviruses. This is a coronavirus. But it just goes to show you that each virus is novel in its behavior and so I think it took a lot of people by surprise, including me.
Comparison to Past Viruses
We've all been hearing that term, it's a novel “coronavirus,” but different words are being used in different places and in different ways, and I think many people might be surprised to learn that actually these other viruses that we've seen spread in the past—SARS and MERS—were also coronaviruses. Help us understand the landscape of how all these things relate to one another.
These viruses share the same microbiological family—they're all coronaviruses. “Corona” meaning, “crowns.” It's just the way it looks under the electron microscope. But many of these coronaviruses, we've known for years, have been the cause of common colds. There are coronaviruses of many varieties and they have very differing ways that they function. I think what we are aware of is that viruses are constantly in antigenic change—in a mutational change—and so when they change, they change quite rapidly because viruses are mutating at an incredibly rapid rate. They achieve a different kind of virulence and we have to learn each time what it's going to be like. I think in this case it did come from an animal source and it affected the human population. That's happened before, but we always hoped that it wouldn't be human-to-human transmission. I think for a short time in the beginning they thought, Oh, it's not going to be human-to-human. It's just going to be animal-to-human. But in fact, once it started taking off as human-to-human transmission, and with a high degree of contagiousness, it just took off. I think what it shows is that the microbial world is not something we're in control of. I think some people think this is an anomaly. It is unique and we'll talk maybe about how unique this is in our point in modern history, but I think we need to understand that the microbial world is constantly changing and we're never in control of it. And so I think what we're experiencing today is something that we're going to be changed by and perhaps prepared better for in future cases, but this respiratory virus is definitely unique in the fact that it has entered into a human population that has very little immunity to it, if any, and the response is, therefore, a rapid spread.
In what ways, specifically, is it different from viruses like SARS or MERS or maybe people would even wonder about Ebola, which fairly recently was in the news because of its spread in Africa?
Again, the thing that we look at with the coronaviruses—whether it's SARS or MERS or the common cold or this one—is that this is a virus that is spread by respiratory droplets. So therefore, the air becomes a vector. Air is everywhere and we all breathe it and we all breathe into it. So that's a very unique and important way that viruses spread when they're spread by the respiratory droplet rate. Now, we know that this has a significant contagion. It's not as contagious as measles; it's not as contagious as diphtheria in the past before we had the vaccine; but it is a virus that is novel to us. We have no vaccine. We have no natural immunity. And so it's spreading rapidly. Now, the Ebola virus—when I wrote the book, that's what we were actually dealing with and I brought that up in my book about how we respond to viruses and contagion, but it was Ebola at that time—and that's a very different virus because it's spread through contact with your blood. And so the spread of it is not as fast because it's not through the air. However, it has a high mortality rate, upwards of 50 to 70 percent. So that has its own ramifications and we dealt with that in a different way. Ebola couldn't spread as rapidly as this one because it wasn't airborne.
A Christian Perspective on Widespread Disease
Every day it seems like, as you mentioned already, we're just bombarded with news about the latest stats on the number of infections in the US and around the world. We're recording this interview on Tuesday, March 17th, and just yesterday the White House released new guidelines for the next fifteen days that include a lot of specific recommendations for how to best slow the spread of this virus. My guess is that by the time this interview airs, there may be even more press conferences with more information and recommendations. I think for the average Christian at their home right now, this constant influx of information can breed a sense of uncertainty and maybe a fear that we're actually missing some critical bit of information, we're not totally up to date, and that we might need to stay safe or keep our family safe. What would you say to the person who's feeling that way right now?
Well, I wonder if it would be helpful if we try to put this in the context of how the church has responded historically to contagious disease because in a sense, if we are the people of God and we are trying to respond appropriately to the times we are living in, then I think we can gain from thinking about how the church has traditionally thought of contagiousness and contagious disease. I think what I would like to suggest for our conversation today is that for me and for others who are trying to follow the Lord in their life, traditionally Christians have thought of a contagious disease as a test. If we are to think of this as a test, it helps us to begin to put it in a different category. I think that certainly in the early centuries the early church responded to the plague in the second and third centuries and they saw it clearly as a test of their faith: how would they respond and whether they would respond in love and faithfulness or whether they would respond without trusting in God. Many of us who have looked at what they've done would say they passed the test really well. But I think that this story of contagious disease—which has been with us since the beginning of time and will always be with us—as the church we have to say, How am I responding to this test? One of the things that's unique about a contagious disease is that it changes how we look at the other person, and that's why I think it's so critical that we have the healings of Jesus in the Bible about leprosy. That was a really critical lesson that we can learn from because we see how Jesus was interacting with a contagious disease that many, many people were afraid of. I think that when we look at how Jesus responds to leprosy and the early church's response to contagious disease we say, How is it that we can respond? Because the test is, are we going to respond in love and faithfulness or are we going to respond in fear and isolation?
I think sometimes that's something we miss about the the Gospels and Jesus's interaction with people who had leprosy. Maybe we can miss the fact that leprosy was highly contagious and it wasn't purely for religious or ceremonial reasons to exclude lepers from the normal community, but actually there were safety concerns there.
In the Old Testament, there were certainly hygienic practices around that. But I think what we see in Jesus's actions towards the leper, he didn't have to heal by touching. And yet, because he did touch it argues that somehow when we deal with people who are potentially contagious, there's a risk we're going to take if we're going to be able to love. But you really can't love faithfully if you're not willing to take risks. How do we judge that risk? I think we could further that conversation, but if we don't at least acknowledge the fact that the only way to love faithfully is to take risks, then we're not going to be able to get the conversation started.
Loving Others During a Pandemic
This current situation has, I think, in a uniquely powerful way raised to the forefront of our minds the social impact of our health. We see very clearly right now how our decisions related to our own health can have an impact on other people. How do we see that specifically at play with COVID-19? And what advice would you give specifically to Christians when it comes to thinking about how they can practically love other people in the midst of this pandemic?
Let me suggest that one of the things we can do first, before we decide what our path might be, is to look at the reactions that we're seeing around us and to ask if those are faithful reactions or are those fearful reactions or other kinds of reactions. It's interesting because I think that when you read about how different societies have responded to contagions in the past, there's almost a universal in the particular: in every situation there are common reactions and the majority of people are not reacting in a loving way. Let me try to simplify it in this sense: right now, if you watch how people are reacting to the virus, there's two main ways—now, I realize that there's a lot of subtleties that people jump back and forth between—but there are two main ways of reacting and what's interesting is how extreme they are. One of the ways that people are responding is to be, I would call it, nonchalant about the situation. They're saying something like, This is not very important. This is nothing but an inconvenience. This is something that's bothering my schedule. This is something that really should not get in the way. It's just an accident waiting to go away and I'm just going to try to wait it out. There's this wonderful passage in Albert Camus’s book The Plague and if anybody has time—and you'll have a lot more time in the next few weeks—to read people's reactions to the Plague, they should read his book. One of the reactions is the reaction of the townspeople when the city of Oran first gets evidence that there's a Plague and it's not even getting quarantined. And he said this about the townspeople: “Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others. They forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like Plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
If you think about that example, I see some people reacting and saying what an inconvenience this is and, I'm going to have to put up with this for how long until I can get back to my normal life? And so in a sense, people are almost caring too little and maybe not even respecting some of the duties and responsibilities they have as members of the community to try to protect others. So I think there is that reaction and we should see that because it's always there when there's a plague.
I think the counter reaction is the one that has excessive fear about the presence of this virus that is able to kill people. I think that you see a lot of that in people's responses. There's a great deal of fear and anxiety and that, I think, is something that the people of God can look at and say, Is that the response that I want to have? Do I have that response? And I think you have to look for yourself a little bit to ask, Do I have that response? because I think everybody's a little more prone to, as they pass someone, seeing that person not as a human being but as a potential source of contagion to them. So there's a fear factor that's playing out. Honestly, there's always fear when there's contagion in the environment. So the question is How do you deal with that fear? And is it realistic or is it free-floating and you've lost it? The thing that's unique about our modern society is the last time we had a virus like this was a 102 years ago in 1918 with the Spanish Flu. That was a much different society. It might be called the Early Modern society, but it was before the age of antibiotics and so that flu spread in an extremely rapid way and killed many, many people. One hundred and two years later, most of us don't have a personal experience of that, so this is a new one for us. But for us as an American society and for many in the modern West, this is a real disturbance to our well-being because we have lived for quite a while thinking that we are immune to this kind of stuff, that we have a sense of security and a sense of confidence about our lives so this doesn't make sense to us. In a sense, we want to push it away and we want to say, This is not the way our life is supposed to be. There's something wrong with this. And so we have an excess fear of it because we have never dealt with anything like this. We've been in the process of denying death for many years because we have been able to keep it hidden away through our capabilities in society to stay healthy and stay well. And yet this is a shock to our system. It's almost like we've been floating in a balloon and it's been popped and we've hit the ground. So I see a great deal of fear and I will name it and maybe explain it later, but it's really the fear of death that is before us and that's where I think the Christian can say, Do I have that same fear, or do I know something that others don't know that would change how I think about death and this situation?
Reliance on the Medical Advances of the West
Can you elaborate on what are some of the things about the medical system and technology and prosperity that we enjoy in the US, and maybe in the West broadly, that you think have contributed to this sense of shock that something like this could happen to us?
Basically for many of us, because we have lived in a modern society for so long, I would say since that epidemic of 1918, these last hundred years have seen the most incredible growth of our medical capabilities and the possibilities of delaying death, denying death, and conquering disease that has ever been before. But what that's produced is sort of a false ability that we can deny death, that somehow we can exclude from the fabric of our normal life any evidence of decay or death or helplessness. We've done that in a lot of different ways, and so in many ways death is something we don't even think about. We don't see it even as a necessity to be accepted, but more as an accident to be avoided. And so when something like this comes to play it's a shock to our system. It's even something that we get angry about and think, How dare someone disturb our sense of well-being!
I also want to add as I'm saying this that this is a unique perspective of only certain people in our society and in our world. There are many people in other parts of the world that this is not a shock to them at all. The presence of death is a part of their lives every day, and this is just another added danger. But for many people in the modern West who have enjoyed many of its fruits, they have somewhere along the line thought that maybe they don't have to deal with death and all of a sudden, it comes knocking on their door or jumps in through the window and they’re shocked by it. And I think for many they respond in excessive fear because they have never had an ability to even contemplate this possibility.
Can We Really Control Our Health?
This makes me think of a line that I found really, really provocative in your book. You write, “modern medicine looks increasingly more like the pursuit of happiness and control of the future than the cure of sickness and the care of health.” What do you mean by that?
Well, I think that's one of the themes that I explored a lot in the book and I think that's where I see this anxiety come from. People have often believed and somehow convinced themselves—and it's clearly a delusion—but we have convinced ourselves that we are in control of our lives. There are many things that make us think that we are in the driver's seat and that we have control of our lives because, for most of us, we have food and we have clothing. It's only when there's a threat to our health in societies like ours do we actually begin to wonder if we have control, and then for the most part we become very dependent on the medical system to deliver us from those uncertainties. We have great capacity, but the hardest thing for us to realize is that we are still limited people. We are still creaturely people who have to deal with suffering, still have to deal with disease, and still have to deal with death. And even though we have much less than in prior societies—we have so many more tools to respond to it in positive ways—the idea that we don't have to deal with death is a delusion that has caused us to be increasingly anxious whenever that sense of security is threatened. And when I wrote the book a few years ago, I could see it from all kinds of activities that I saw already in society, and so I guess when this happened it didn't surprise me that we became so anxious because the program was set for us to be anxious because it was just there underneath it—a very thin veneer, a sense that we are controlling everything.
In your book you highlight how with more control and information related to our health, we can ironically find ourselves more worried. You write, “How quickly the power to control an unpredictable future and the great possibilities to maximize health can transform our joy and hope into calculation and concern.” Can you elaborate on that?
I think that one of the things that we see is that when we feel more vulnerable, we tend to turn to those things that we feel have the most likelihood of success and security for us. While many of us will maybe haphazardly trust medicine and techniques in our day-to-day life, it’'s when we feel more vulnerable or insecure that we grab for something that says, This is certain. And so that's how, in a sense, we've begun to look at factual information almost with excess dependency. Yes, this information that we have does provide useful information. It does suggest associations that if you do this, this is more likely to happen than if you don't do that. But what we ultimately want to know is if I do this, will this for sure happen? And that's not what a lot of our evidence shows us. It shows us some of the good associations that take place that if you eat well and exercise, you're less likely to have a heart attack. But then don't be surprised if you do all that and you still get a heart attack because there's no guarantee. I think that's the thing that disturbs us and we want to have facts be a hundred percent. One of the philosophers I've read, Augusto Del Noce, talks about the coercive nature of fact, that somehow when we get into that state of fear, we look for facts and evidence and it forces us, it binds us. It makes it something that we then have to obey as if it's going to guarantee an outcome. And that's an interesting challenge because most objective scientific information is not that sure and so we need to know with what level of surety it exists and how to act reasonably with it, but not expect it to guarantee our safety.
Can Knowing the Facts Help Us Face Outward?
It's like we have this expectation that science and the medical field can deliver us certainty—if we just follow these prescriptions, then the outcome is for sure. But I think situations like this really confront us because we see that there is no guarantee in any of this, and there never was, but sometimes we can just feel that more painfully in times like these.
Right. Now, I'm going to make sure that I am honest to my profession and also reveal the great belief and confidence I have in that profession to do good. Right now with this context of having many people taking it too nonchalantly, as a distraction, disturbance, or something that just gets in their way, or allowing it to create excessive fear—somewhere in between those two reactions is something that should be the middle ground. For those of us who follow Christ, he is the one who can help us hold in tension a care for this world, but not too much care for this world—not to care too little and not to care too much. Somehow, through Christ, we can find a balance between the caring for this world, but also believing in the world to come. I think we have that unique ability to find that balance. One of the ways that we do that is to take advantage of facts. There are some good facts that we should take note of here for this current virus because it helps us to act faithfully and responsibly. So if I was to look at this virus, I would say again, think of what we know now compared to what we didn't know a hundred years ago—or even twenty years ago—about the microbial world. We know so much about it now, so we have so many good facts for us to make a decision on. So when I think of how I should be afraid of this virus, the questions that come to my mind are, If I get exposed, what's my risk of getting infected? Well, it seems like—and nobody knows with exact certainty yet—that there's a significant chance you're going to get infected if you get exposed. So that's something I need to note. Then the second question I have to ask as I deal with my fears is, What is my risk of getting sick if I get infected? Well, there's still a significant amount of that, I think, though that does depend on your age because it seems like the young ones get infected but don't get sick. And I do want to say, as we think about the scariness of this virus, I hope we don't forget to stop and give thanks that this virus is leaving children mostly alone. Can we not thank God for the fact that our children are mostly safe from this virus? That's a remarkable thing! So I know that if I get exposed there's a good chance I might get infected. If I get infected, there's some significant chance I'll get sick. But then the last question is, What is the risk of me dying if I get infected? That's where it gets down to the real nitty-gritty because ultimately, we're fearing death in all of this. The facts of this up to now are yes, it seems to be more lethal—higher mortality rate than the flu. Though, of course, that might change the more cases we find because if we're not case-finding enough, we don't know how many people necessarily were sick that got there. We always are recording the deaths. So right now we're looking at maybe somewhere between a 2 to 4% death rate, but that's so dependent on your age. So if you're less than 60, you have a less than 1% chance of dying if you get sick. If I look at those facts and I'm trying to deal with my fear, the first thing I say to myself is, If I get sick, somewhere between 98 to 99 times out of 100 I'm going to get better. Iff I think that then what I should think is that maybe this virus is much more likely to hurt or harm someone else rather than me. And if I have that thought, shouldn't that then make me start to think about how to be thinking about others rather than myself? And I think that the facts actually can help us to do that. If we look at those facts and we think of our age and we think of these risk factors we can say, Yes, there's risk. I can't possibly reduce my risk to zero. In fact, that's like living in a world that doesn't exist, even though many Americans have convinced themselves that they live in that world.
But I can think about others and the others that I should be thinking about are the elderly and the poor because the poor always take a greater burden of disease when there's contagiousness because of their living situations, their less nutritional status, and because of underlying conditions like respiratory and heart disease. But think if this virus gets into Africa with their reduced infrastructure for healthcare, the numbers of people that crowd together, their less ability to have personal protective equipment.
We should be thinking about others and I think that's something the facts help us to do. That doesn't overcome all the fear, that is something that is not rational. So even though the facts can make us think outward, I think we're going to have to do more work to actually be outward-looking people. We need to do some inward work, but I think that the facts support us thinking as people who are outward-looking and trying to serve others.
One of the things that I think many people have observed and many, many of our listeners have experienced personally is when we work to focus on other people other than just ourselves, when we intentionally set our minds on others and they're good and pray for other people, that can often go a long way to starting to alleviate our own worry and our own fears and anxiety. Have you seen that to be the case in your own life?
Well, when we think about serving others, it often helps us to deal with our own fears. This is one of the things we have to look at when we look at contagiousness—when one of the one of the treatments, programs, or therapies is isolation. Isolation is something we can only do for a little while because ultimately that's not healing to the person. I think whenever we're sick and lonely, if we have enough energy, and are not so sick that we can't get up and out safely without hurting anyone else, serving another person always seems to help us to overcome and deal with our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. That common vulnerability and sharing it with someone else is at the core of why coming together in suffering and helping others is so good for our souls.
Practical Tips for Loving Others
So what practical advice would you offer to listeners right now in our current situation that we're facing when it comes to actually loving other people—reaching out to people and thinking about others first. What might that look like today?
Before I answer, I have to say this: I know many people who know the facts of this disease and are actually quite well-educated in Christian truth, and yet, they seem to still be overwhelmed by fear. I think that if we're going to be practically doing good, all of us are going to have to take this time to do a little bit of inward work. We really have to go inside and ask What are we really trusting with our lives? We have to take our fear and place it before the risen Lord—because our faith is in a Risen Lord who has conquered death. I guess what I'm arguing is—I think this is more than practical; it's essential. Unless we take our doctrines—what we say about trusting God—and actually put it into the way we think and act, we're not going to be able to do good. When Christ came, he came to deliver us from the fear of death. It's very clear that he didn't come to deliver us from death. So it's not so much that he delivered us from death. He delivered us from the fear of death. That fear is something that can enslave us. Hebrews 2 says that he came and took on our flesh, so that through his death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death—the devil—and deliver all those who through fear of death, were subject to lifelong slavery. So, it's really critical that we get that part of our theology straight. Christ came as a light into the darkness. The darkness is defined by fear and he came into that shadow of death and said, I'm a light and if I've come into the world as a light, whoever believes in me does not remain in darkness. And so we have to ask Do I trust God with my life so that I can go forward out into the world with calculated risk? Because again, you're not going to go out into the world and say I just learned all the facts so this couldn't possibly hurt me. Well, we don't know that. We have facts to give us a lot of confidence so that we can go out and help others, but we still have to deal with our fear that we are going out as agents of the risen Lord to share his love and that’s because we have been delivered from the fear of death. If we have that, I think we can go out in a lot of practical ways.
So assuming Christians listening are doing that heart work to really embrace confidence in our risen Savior, what might it look like for them to then practically love people in their church or their neighbors or elderly people in their community who can't leave their homes right now because it's too dangerous for them? What are some ideas that you would have for how they could actually live out that love towards others?
There's two levels at which we are being invited to show care and responsibly to our neighbor these days. This is something we can only do for a while because I don't think we can only isolate people for so long. One of the ways we love—and this is the one that's kind of hard because it's actually somewhat contrary to our feelings of what it means—is to stay out of people's way when we're sick. For a lot of people, that's going to be a challenge. They don't want to stay indoors when they're sick. In fact, I would argue that when you do stay inside because you're sick, self-isolating yourself so that you won't infect others, you are enduring a suffering that really is centering. You are the love of God because you are doing it for the love of others. I think that's one of the things we do is we do not go out and put other people at risk when we're sick. Now when we're not sick and we don't think we're contagious because we have no evidence to think that we are, then we should be looking out in our community and saying Who are those that are most likely to be harmed by this disease? Certainly as you already mentioned, that includes the elderly, so that means we’re not going to want to invade their space right now because we're trying to respect the civil authorities. But we do want to ask Do you have a need for food? Maybe we can go get it for you. We haven't even talked about the economic burdens that people are experiencing because of the commercial interests that have had to change because of all of these closures. Some people have children who are out of school. Maybe they don't have work. Can you share food with people who aren't able to buy things they normally would have enough to buy? Can you, when you're caring for your own children, add a couple of other children? Again, you have to keep this group small so that your neighbor can go to work—because their kid is no longer in school. So I think of those things. Then, I hope that all of us will always remember the poor because that's one of the cores of our biblical faith. God has chosen to care and side with the poor and the vulnerable. Right now, as I take care of my patients who are homeless, and think of the spread of the disease in parts of the world where they have much less infrastructure, we need to think about how to, perhaps, share resources. We're not going to hoard resources when we've gotten over that fear. And so we're going to say, Well, maybe I don't need as much. Maybe I can share this clothing, this food item. Let’s make sure that we're not using personal protective equipment that's becoming rare by using it when we don't need to use it. There are so many ways we can say I don't need these things. Someone needs it more.
Treating Our Health as Gift
That's so helpful and makes me think of something you say in your book. You make a distinction between viewing health as a possession versus viewing it as a gift. And that changes how we think about our health and how we think about even risks to our health when it comes to loving others. So what do you mean by that distinction and why is it important for us to remember, especially right now in the midst of this COVID-19 virus?
Well, I think that again it goes back to that issue of control. I think that for most of us, in a world where we seem to have a lot of power over our lives, we do tend—without even necessarily consciously thinking of it—to assume that we control our health and that it's something that we deserve to have and if we do all the right things we will have. That's why it’s so shocking to us when we lose it. It's something that you can manipulate and control. If you think of your hands, it’s like you’re holding it tight and squeezing it. But that's the problem with things that are alive; you can't hold them tight. You have to open your hands. And so that's why I try to play out the theme throughout the book that we have to think of health as a gift because it's something that's given, it's not something we deserve. We don't all have the same amounts of it, but the amount that we have is something that we receive as a gift and therefore we nurture it. But why do we nurture it? Because we know that we nurture in order to love God who has given it to us to nurture so that we can love our neighbors more effectively. And that's why we nurture our health. It's not something that we nurture for our own possession so that we will look better or live longer or be stronger. It's for the good of others. So it takes basically the gospel message of Christ and saying how do you use your health as a gift and not as a possession.
I love that you refer to health as a “precious endowment.” I love that word choice, “endowment,” because it does get at the idea that we've been given our health—as much as we have and as long as we have to live—so that we can then use it to love God and love others. To glorify God, ultimately. I think that's a helpful way of thinking about our lives and I think often it’s easy for us to forget and not think that way.
I also want to say that when we speak about health, we're not just speaking of physical health because we know that health is a word that's meant to describe something much larger—something that includes our whole embodied selves, our soul and body united. And that’s what we're looking for: the health of our embodied souls. And so in that sense sometimes what we do may be a risk for our bodily health for the sake of our spiritual health, and people have been doing that throughout the ages through acts of love. I've described the facts of the virus in this interview, but let's not sugarcoat and say something like "peace, peace" where there is no peace. We are going to be dealing with a serious change in our world over the course of the next few months. There will be much suffering and sickness and death, and we have to understand that as part of the reality we’re facing. But we're always thinking about how we can live our lives for the full health of ourselves and others and that includes our spiritual health.
A Time to Listen to What God Has to Say
As we come to a close, what final word of encouragement would you offer to the person listening right now who is still struggling in his or her heart with an intense fear—the person maybe feels overwhelmed with anxiety about the future, whether that's related to his or her own health or maybe the health of a loved one? What would you leave that person with today?
Well, I think that I would say two things and I would hope that this is for both the person you mentioned—the one who still dealing with high anxiety—but also for everyone who's entering into a phase of life they've never experienced before. Because this is a unique moment in the history of our world as a modern society. And I don't know if you're feeling this, Matt, but this virus is potent for a lot of reasons. It’s potent biologically, though it's not the most potent virus we've ever dealt. But it's probably more potent psychologically and socially. You alluded to that earlier when you talked about the social effects of this virus; it's probably more potent psychologically and socially then any virus we've ever known. I don't mean to be flippant but it’s March 17 and the bars are closed. March Madness is March Sadness. The NCAA tournaments got canceled. Whether you love hockey or golf or basketball or going to movies—all of a sudden the world has been put on pause. This is such a unique moment. Soren Kierkegaard was noted for saying, “If God spoke into the world, would anyone hear him?” And he said, “No, they wouldn't because there's too much noise.” And he said that what the world needs more than anything is silence. And isn't it interesting that it's almost like the world—the global community—has pushed the pause button and all of a sudden we have this forced silence upon us. I just wonder if this is the time in which people—whether you know the Lord but are anxious, or don't know the Lord but are wondering, “Maybe my way of interpreting the world and what I've been trusting in is not working anymore”—that this is a time maybe that God is speaking. And you’re hearing and realizing that there's something way more trustworthy in life than science or medicine or facts or anything else you're depending on. That in that void, where you don't place any other idol, there's a God who's loving-kindness reaches to the skies and his faithfulness extends to us and who is a promise keeper who never gives up his promises.
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