The global economy was blazing upwards, topping $80 trillion, considerably above the $18 trillion level of the early 1980s when the first millennials were born. Multiple millions of people were flying on some 102,000 flights per day, chalking up more than 52 billion miles annually. Millennials, now the largest generation in the United States—having surpassed the boomers this past year—had come to represent more than $600 billion of buying power in the United States alone.
Employment was up, particularly in the United States, with thousands of new jobs being created each month and record low unemployment. The stock market broke record after record.
There were a few concerns, but life was good.
And then suddenly, in the first quarter of 2020, the robust global economy shattered. Life for billions has suffered massive disruption.
A Wall Street Journal headline summed up the unprecedented pause in the economy as “A $3.6 Trillion Wake-Up Call.” By early April, half of the world’s population was on mandatory lockdown.
Billion, trillion—these are huge numbers that are personally hard to grasp. What it may mean on a personal level is that thousand of companies now totter on the brink of bankruptcy. Our favorite restaurants may be shuttered for good—the employees out of a job. We ourselves or friends and family may be unemployed. That’s on top of the worrying heath concerns. And some in other parts of the world may fare much worse.
How did we get here?
In the latter part of last year, something triggered a microscopic moment. A “novel,” or new, form of coronavirus came into existence and began to spread. It was labeled SARS-CoV-2, with the respiratory illness it causes named coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated as COVID-19. The tiny pathogen barely 100 nanometers wide (millions can fit on the head of a pin) jumped from an animal to a nameless human being and brought the world to its knees.
While the virus has proven mild for most, many showing little or no symptoms, it has been quite severe and even fatal among a smaller percentage that nevertheless represents a large number of people. Attempts to prevent fatalities and spread out infections to keep medical services from being overwhelmed, threatening even more lives, have had a major impact on virtually the whole of human civilization.
Given the virus’ unrelenting spread, you may well know people who were severely infected and even some who’ve died. Maybe you’ve had your own serious experience with the disease. You could be among those who’ve lain helpless in an ICU ward, barely aware of the hissing and clicking of a ventilator alongside you pumping essential air into ravaged lungs. As you read this, you likely count yourself among the fortunate.
The virus has left a grievous toll in the first four months of 2020. For most, nothing was left untouched. The corona-virus inserted itself throughout the sweeping arc of human experience—physical, economic, emotional, mental and, yes, even spiritual.
Where once we thought ourselves invincible, where once we thought science could solve any challenge, where once we thought we could rein in the power of nature to what English writer Joseph Conrad called “the shackled form of a conquered monster,” we found ourselves instead living in a world of newfound peril. In fact, we found this menacing peril in a form so tiny we could not even see where it lived or attacked.
We found ourselves, our economic livelihood—indeed our families and those most close to us—to be fragile, vulnerable, at risk in a world suddenly turned hostile, precarious and out of our control.
Whatever your experience of the past few months, the coronavirus crisis of 2020 is not something you or billions of other people who sat on lockdown and dodged a viral bullet will ever forget.
While the tale is certainly not yet fully told—as parts of the world continue to cope with the illness and a vicious resurgence is not ruled out, on top of ongoing economic fallout—many now look to rebuilding in a post-coronavirus world.
This period—however it arrives and whatever it truly looks like—is already being called a “new normal,” coming on the heels of a destabilized global imbalance with the rules completely rewritten. As part of this, there will be more focus on the emergence of future threats and the implementation of restrictive preventative measures to try to head off terrible scenarios.
This isn’t pleasant to think about. But there is a dependable way to powerfully shore up your life—one that receives more attention in difficult times, as we’ve been experiencing. It’s a way that brings real hope and confidence, even in the middle of a pandemic and concerns about other calamities to come.
A return to reality
Before we take a look at that welcome good news, let’s fully appreciate who and what we are as human beings. As several historians, scientists and epidemiologists have noted in the past few months, people have forgotten, perhaps even intellectually papered over, just how fragile we are.
We don’t think about the fact that up through the 18th century, many children died in childbirth, right along with their mothers. Many never lived to see their third birthday. For those who did, reaching 40 was a milestone. A great many never made it that far.
Advances in public health, food production, medicine and societal hygiene changed all that. But even with the now-mundane miracles of modern health care and sanitation, the fragile vulnerability of human life always lay covered by a thin veneer. People don’t like to think of the potentially harmful unseen microbes all around us and among us.
You’ve probably read or heard that numerous scientists and government planners warned for years of the dangers of our global society being throttled by a host of contagious diseases. And with good reason! An outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever savaged its way across West Africa for two years, finally sighing to a halt in 2016 after killing more than 11,000.
A concerted worldwide marshaling of medical resources, and the fact that the virus killed its hosts before they had time to spread it very far, barely prevented what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said could have been a global catastrophe.
Perhaps astonishingly in retrospect, in the pause that followed the Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that a number of identified contagions, including a variant of the coronavirus, could result in a pandemic like today!
The point? Human life is chancy.
Incredible leaps in medical discoveries, treatments and life-saving advances have elevated human life expectancy well past where it was before modern times. A century has passed since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, when a particularly virulent influenza virus infected 500 million people worldwide and wiped out 50 million of that number, more than twice the number of deaths from World War I.
That was then, we thought. That could never happen again, we assured ourselves. But with recent events we’re realizing that yes, it could happen again.
A moment to pause and reflect
The economic, emotional and intellectual devastation springing from the global onslaught of COVID-19 has led many to contemplate anew just how fragile human life is. Consider the title of a recent article in London’s Daily Telegraph: “At times like this, we realize just how powerless mankind really is” (Philip Johnston, March 17, 2020).
Cataclysmic events arrest our attention. We have no choice. Going forward, people won’t reflect on 2020 without some thought of the COVID-19 crisis.
Ironically, the autobiography of the celebrated and controversial filmmaker Woody Allen appeared during the sweeping waves of the coronavirus. Titled Apropos of Nothing, Allen spoke of his work in the context of “the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe.”
The universe can certainly be dangerous, particularly when we don’t respect it. But purposeless?
It can be fearful, even exhausting, to consider the various threats facing the human race. But the good news is that the universe and all of us do in fact have a purpose—a purpose that brings hope!
Here’s the pivot point: Are we experiencing a moment, on a cosmic scale, in which we are essentially being given the opportunity to stop and think? To consider that perhaps the way we live life suddenly doesn’t work anymore?
What does this mean for us?
In times of inescapable widespread disruption, the relative importance of various aspects of our lives may quickly change, and we realize the need to reprioritize. In a post-coronavirus world, we have more impetus to take action.
In short, we’ve become more aware.
We see with greater clarity that material things, overly ambitious motivations and position in life may come with a price that is much too high to pay. We become aware of the need to change, the need to consider different options and solutions.
We may once have thought that science had all the answers. But now, as an invisible virus has threatened everything we once held dear, we may recognize that while science is certainly important, it can’t give us all the answers we seek.
Here’s an important consideration: As humanity has become more technologically proficient and economically prosperous, the idea of a supernatural God who directs and cares for His creation has faded.
Ironically, awareness of an all-powerful God who gives us a choice represents a critical state of mind—one that enables us to overcome fear of “the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe.”
Exercising free will
As human beings, particularly those living in societies with a strong democratic tradition, we hold the capacity to exercise free will. As we become aware of the need for change, we exercise our free will to take responsibility for our actions.
We have a choice.
We can choose a life that brings real hope, a life that can weather the toughest storm, a fulfilling life that offers happiness and real satisfaction. Or we can exercise our free will to go our own way, stumbling through by trial and error, subject to forces like the coronavirus that take away things we once thought had meaning.
Consider this: A loving God once set these two ways of life before an ancient people who would become profoundly influential. Speaking through His servant Moses, God presented them with this choice: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:19, English Standard Version, emphasis added throughout.)
What was the critical option? Continuing in the same verse: “. . . Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (ESV).
Through the bestowal of free will, God grants you the same choice. Now, given the influence of wayward society, many of us may not previously have been fully aware of God and what He represents. Indeed, much of society has veered away from the critical, life-saving knowledge preserved for us in the Bible—the very Word of God. Still, the choice is before us.
What will you decide?
An unusual and powerful word
As we become aware of the possibility of having a powerful relationship with a God who cares, a God who sent His own Son to bridge the gap between God and man, we may rightly ask, what do I need to do?
The answer lies in the meaning of a New Testament Greek word. Its basic verb form is metanoó. The noun form is metanoia. The sense of the word from its component parts is “to change one’s mind” or to “think differently.”
As awareness enters our lives, particularly in the wake of widespread disruption from the global infection of COVID-19, we find that we must begin—in a very profound way—to think differently.
The English word usually used to translate this Greek term is one you are likely familiar with, yet perhaps without realizing this broader sense. That English word is repent.
“Oh, no,” one may object. “I may need to do a lot of things, but I certainly don’t need to ‘repent’!” That reaction comes in part from resistant human nature but also likely from the accumulated—though inaccurate—historical definition of repentance being associated with toxic shame and guilt.
The Bible talks about a “godly sorrow” that is highly motivating and leads to life (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). It involves a profound awareness that one has been going the wrong way and misapplying free will. It includes spiritual zeal to reverse that misapplication, to change one’s mind, and embark on a new path of spiritual transformation.
A person can humanly be genuinely sorry for having embraced a flawed way of life that has brought harm. But godly sorrow goes beyond that, involving a recognition and repudiation of one’s wayward past and a passion to truly set things right, leading to really thinking differently.
When Jesus Christ began His ministry, He proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent [metanoó, think differently!] and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15, ESV).
Experiencing forgiveness, peace and joy
In response to greater awareness of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ and Their desire for a close relationship with us, we set out on the process of beginning to think differently—to repent. This typically leads to an understanding that we need forgiveness for past wrongs and release from guilt, blame and shame—and from sin’s consequences of misery and death. We begin to see the need for a personal Savior.
Being forgiven through turning from our former ways and accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior leads to a new level of peace. Becoming students of His way, making the personal decision to “choose life,” we begin—even in the face of worldwide upheaval resulting from a microscopic virus—to have a new peace and confidence that passes human understanding (Philippians 4:7).
Despite going through an uncertain time of dangerous infection and severe economic downturn, an outcome of acting on awareness, exercising free will to make the right choice and beginning to think differently leads to not only peace but a new feeling of real joy!
This new joy springs from new confidence, which comes from spiritual hope, a hope that defies mere human logic. The apostle Paul wrote to Christ’s followers in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13, ESV).
In gaining awareness, we further find that “thinking differently” also includes a new and critical capacity to believe. We find that “whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6, ESV). To succeed in this new way of thinking differently, we must believe both that God exists—a part of becoming aware—and that God rewards those who seek Him.
Again, what about you? The world is in denial. It is largely unaware of the real power and purpose that comes with an understanding of God.
Will you remain in denial, resistant to receiving the extraordinary power that brings, hope, forgiveness, peace and even joy?
Or will you embrace a new life of thinking differently, of real repentance that leads to life?
The choice is yours. Choose to change. Choose life!