(RNS) — In late March an Arizona man died because of his panicked response to the coronavirus pandemic. In an attempt to self-medicate for COVID-19, he took chloroquine — not the pharmaceutical version of the drug, but an additive commonly used to clean fish tanks. He had the substance because he once had koi fish. Within 30 minutes of ingestion he was sick, and within hours he was dead.
The coronavirus has created widespread fear. Uncertainty about the nature of the virus, fueled by huge doses of daily information, has created increasing alarm. Stay-at-home orders followed by reopenings, the economic shutdown and school closings all cause a loss of equilibrium. We have fears about the future, financial fears, fears of pain and suffering.
When we’re fearful we don't think properly. Our decisions can be damaging or even deadly. Panicking won’t solve our present situation; it just creates more distress. Fear is a feeling, but afraid is a choice. We can recognize this situation is challenging, but we need to focus on a faith-filled response.
Practicing gratitude refocuses our attention on what we can appreciate, rather than what we’re missing. Crime rates have plummeted. In Los Angeles, crime statistics have dropped 30% from last year. The drug trade has been severely curtailed. Synthetic drugs like meth and fentanyl can’t be produced because the precursor chemicals are not available from China.
In New York City, a landlord canceled April rent for hundreds of tenants. An anonymous donor gave every household in an Iowa town $150 in gift cards for food. A tornado in Arkansas hit a mall at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, but because most stores were closed, no one died.
The planet is benefiting as well. Venice's canals are crystal clear for the first time since the post-war period, air pollution has plunged by 50% in Rome, residents in Jalandhar, India, can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades.
Worst-case scenarios aren’t likely to happen, but epidemiologists and immunologists are going to talk about them. Leaders are going to plan for them. But two million people didn’t die from coronavirus, there hasn’t been a shortage of hospital beds, no one has gone without a ventilator.
In the Gospels, there are 125 imperative statements of Jesus. One might think “love others” or “follow me” would be his most common statement. Even though love is the central theme of Christianity, the most common imperative of Jesus was about fear: 21 times Jesus said some variation of “Don’t be afraid” or “Have courage.”
Fear breeds fear. The more we focus on it, the more exaggerated and distorted it becomes. Fear keeps us from loving deeply, giving freely and dreaming wildly. We must choose faith over fear. We can trust in God’s plan. He is in control, and our future is in his capable hands.
The New Testament's Second Letter to Timothy tells us, “God’s Spirit doesn’t make cowards out of us. The Spirit gives us power, love and self-control." Christ followers are to respond to fear with courage not cowardice. Fear corrodes our confidence in the innate character of God. Practicing faith reminds us we have chosen to believe in the goodness of God.
Fear creates spiritual amnesia where we don’t remember all the good things God has done. We seem to forget all the ways we have made it through various challenging situations in the past. Fear gets a grip on us, and we overlook all the good. We become negative, losing sight of so much in our world that is positive.
Fear turns us into control freaks. Cataclysm leaves us with such loss of control we end up wanting to control even more. Gripped by fear we try to hold on to anything. We try to do everything ourselves because we feel so many things are out of control.
Paralyzed by fear we place security above all. We seek out the safest person, the safest place, the most secure feeling. But there is more to life than just being safe. We cannot create absolute security and safety for ourselves and loved ones, as hard as we may try.
And while we focus on stability and safety, opportunities pass us by. Valuable things don’t even get noticed. If we give in to fear, we will miss out. We will lose out on the profitable; we won’t even be able to see it.
When we do this, we stop trying, we don’t create and we won’t risk. Before you know it, we can’t move forward — individually, as a family, community or country.
Fear is contagious. It is amazing how quickly it can spread. Fear is draining. We can’t let it deplete us of our courage. Fear is limiting. We cannot allow fear to limit our future, to restrain what we can do.
We have to fight the fear. It’s a choice. We must choose to not give in to fear. If we discipline our thinking and replace fearful thoughts with faith-filled ones, we will move in the right direction.
Fight the fear. We will win!
(Rick McDaniel is the founder and senior pastor of Richmond Community Church in Richmond, Virginia, and the author of "You Got Style: How Discovering Your Personal Style Impacts Your Faith, Family, Finances and Much More." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)