What will I do with my toilet paper? Strange as it may seem, this has suddenly become the most pressing theological question of our day.
The coronavirus has turned our world upside down, and now, as Christians, we must determine how we will respond to this pandemic and the panic it has caused. How do we respond to medical professionals who tell us of risks and potential mass fatalities? How do we respond to government officials who order us to close our businesses, cancel worship gatherings, and practice social distancing? How do we respond to shortages in grocery stores and neighbors in need?
In bizarre times such as this, we need what Richard Lints calls theological vision where our theology becomes the lens we look through so we can see the world around us and how we ought to live within it. We develop our theological vision by capturing “the entire counsel of God as revealed in the Scriptures” and then using that counsel to shape how we think and how we live in our world today (Richard Lints, Fabric of Theology, 9). Our theological vision brings clarity to the confusing circumstances around us, and it guides us in how we ought to honor God in our response to these circumstances.
Our current situation of panic and pandemic requires us to have a clear theological vision with regard to questions. First, regarding our mortality, what do I fear? And second, regarding our neighbor, who do I love?
1. Regarding mortality: What do I fear?
Stanley Hauerwas (“The Cross”) observes that people in our world are “possessed by the desire to get out of life alive.” We live as if we will not die, and we often deceive ourselves into thinking we will never die. So when we experience something that threatens our lives, it can be a shock to us because it opens our eyes and forces us to realize that we are not going to get out of life alive.
Today’s coronavirus pandemic is creating panic because everyone in our society is simultaneously facing the shocking reality of our mortality. Our lives are so fragile and finite that an invisible, microscopic virus threatens to wipe out a significant portion of our population without discrimination. This virus ignores and transgresses the facades we have erected, thinking they will protect us from our mortality, including national boundaries, wealth, social privilege, science, medicine, and the like. The vulnerability of all humanity has been exposed. As the pandemic dominates every aspect of our lives, our fear of death is fanned into a raging inferno of panic.
The pandemic confronts our world with our mortality; the fear of death drives us to panic.
But what about Christians? What does our theological vision tell us about fear and death?
In Luke 12:4-5, Jesus says, I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!
We ought carefully to consider who or what we fear, and Jesus suggests we should direct our fear toward whatever has the greatest power to destroy us. There are many things, and many people, who can kill our physical bodies in this life, but there is only being – God alone – who can not only kill our physical bodies but also has the power to destroy our souls for all eternity. He is the one we should fear.
The clear message throughout Scripture is that as Christians, we must fear the Lord God of heaven, because He has power over all things, including life and death in both this world and in the world to come. If we fear the one who controls all things, then we don’t need to fear anything else because he has power and control over them, including even those things that threaten to kill us, such as natural disasters, accidents, diseases, and yes, even viruses. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).
When we fear the Lord, we need not fear even death itself, for though death is our greatest enemy, death is also a defeated enemy that has no power over us in Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus not only died for our sins on the cross, but he was also raised on the third day never to die again. Paul calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of all those who have died in Christ (1 Cor 15:20), meaning that by faith in Christ, we know that we will become like Christ not only in his death and burial, but also in his resurrection. One day Jesus will return, and he will raise us from the dead never to die again so that we will dwell with Him for all eternity.
If we belong to Christ by faith, we have this guaranteed hope that we will be resurrected with Christ. This is why Paul taunts death with a little song – Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? (1 Cor 15:54-55) – and then Paul gives thanks to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57). Death is defeated, and we have the victory in Christ.
None of us will indeed get out of life alive, but the question is, who or what do we fear? The coronavirus has confronted many people with their fear of death, but for Christians, the coronavirus ought to expose our hope that comes from our fear of the Lord and our victory through the resurrection of Christ.
We don’t fear death. We don’t panic. We fear the Lord, and we rest in our hope in Christ. And this hope, in turn, shines brightly when our world has become darkened by the fear of death.
2. Regarding neighbor: Whom do I love?
Jesus sums up the entire law in just two commands: first, to love the Lord your God with all your being, and second, to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-40).
Jesus illustrates what it means to love your neighbor with a story we often call the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). He tells of a man on a journey who is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Along comes a priest, and then a Levite, both Jews who should know God’s laws, but they ignore the man and walk on by.
But then comes a Samaritan, a man who was from a different country and nationality than the Jews, and who was lowly and despised by them. Yet, this Samaritan helps the beaten man, bandages his wounds, takes him to an inn, and he pays out of his own pocket all the expenses for this man to become well.
Jesus says this what it means to love your neighbor – it is to show this kind of mercy, where we act in kindness and generosity to anyone in need without regard to who they are or what they deserve and regardless of the personal cost to ourselves.
Our love for neighbor should reach outward all the way to our enemies (Matt 5:34-44), and our love should increase until we are willing even to lay down our very lives for others in the same way Jesus laid down his life for us. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16 ESV).
For the most part, however, love is not nearly so dramatic. Instead, love for neighbor manifests itself in the simple acts of generosity where we give from what we have to meet the needs of others. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:17-18 ESV).
Loving our neighbor does mean that we constantly search for ways to give from what we have to show mercy and kindness to others. This does not mean being careless or not taking precautions. We can love our neighbors and wash our hands too, or practice social distancing, or stay home to avoid spreading the disease. We love our neighbor when we honor stay-at-home orders and quarantines.
But other times, loving our neighbor requires actively sacrificing our comfort and health for the sake of those who are suffering. This has been precisely how generations of our Christian forefathers have loved their neighbors amid pandemics.
To cite just one example (taken from Gerald Sittser, Resilient Faith, 146-149), in about the year 250AD, a terrible plague struck the Roman Empire. It killed thousands of people every day until perhaps as much as 20 percent of the city’s population had died. A Christian bishop at that time, named Dionysius, describes how this plague came out of nowhere and was more terrifying than any terror. Bodies were piling up in the streets, and everybody feared this plague.
Dionysius says Christians responded by showing “unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
The Christians did not think about saving themselves, but they thought about helping others. They cared for the sick even if it meant exposing themselves to the disease and the risk of death. Many of them indeed became sick and died, but Dionysius says they died happy because they were doing their Christian duty. Dionysius compares their love to the love of Christ, for in the same way Christ took our sins and death upon himself so we could have life, so also these Christians took the illness from those who were sick and died so they could have life.
This kind of love for neighbor made the Christians, unlike everyone else in Rome at that time, for all other Romans “behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt.”
You could not have had a sharper contrast between two kinds of responses: those who save themselves at the expense of others, and those who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others.
We ought to continue this Christian tradition of loving our neighbors amid pandemic. Our theological vision as Christians requires that we set aside our desire for self-preservation, and we instead commit ourselves to help those in need, even at considerable risk to ourselves. We love our neighbors, not ourselves.
This now brings us full circle to our opening theological question: what will I do with my toilet paper? As Christians, we must look at our supply of toilet paper, no matter how big or small, through the lens of our theological vision.
What do I fear? I fear the Lord, and therefore I fear nothing else, not even the possibility of running out of toilet paper.
Whom do I love? I love my neighbor as myself, and this means I give generously of the toilet paper I have to help those in need.
Our theological vision allows us to see our toilet paper with clarity and to know what path we must walk. Rather than hoarding our toilet paper for ourselves, so that we have abundant comfort while our neighbors suffer, we should give from what we have to those who have none, even if it means I suffer while they have comfort.
When we do something so simple as giving a roll of toilet paper, we are enacting an extraordinary theological vision and demonstrating the peace, hope, and love that belong to us in Christ, even in panic and pandemic. Who knew that a roll of toilet paper could have such theological significance? – by Adam Copenhaver, pastor, Grace Brethren Church, Mabton, Wash.