Coping with Circuit Breaker & Our Faith
By Shelwyn Tay
On 7 April 2020, the Singapore government flipped the switch that would bring almost all group gatherings and communal activities in the country to a halt. Offices were shut down, students were sent home, eateries were closed, and even family visits were discouraged. These measures were taken in response to the threat of Covid-19 spreading unchecked in the community, and few would argue that they were frivolous or unnecessary. Nevertheless, the weeks and eventually, months that followed were challenging for many.
As a Christian care professional and a cell group leader, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with many of those who were struggling. These interactions led me to reflect on what it was that allowed some people to cope better than others, and in particular, what this circuit breaker revealed about our faith and our foundations.
Expectations and reality
It was interesting to observe how similar the conversations were between believers and non-believers. People talked about what they were doing to safeguard their health, how their routines had to change, and their opinion on how the government was handling the situation. In more sober moments, they expressed their worries about jobs and livelihoods, described the stress of juggling work and family demands, and admitted how hard it was being apart from loved ones and friends. For many, there was relief in sharing and comfort in knowing that others understood. Some conversations led to offers of practical help. Among believers, there was additionally the opportunity to affirm one other in faith, and to come before God together in prayer.
However, some individuals struggled to accept what was happening. Conversations with others brought little comfort but exacerbated their sense of fear and anxiety. When they thought about the changes that the circuit breaker would bring, the risk of a life-threatening disease, and the reality of an uncertain future, they simply did not know how they would cope. Christian believers were not exempt. Among those who seemed to hit a crisis point are clients, whose faith was important enough to them to deliberately chose to see a Christian psychologist; and cell group members, who had known and testified of God’s goodness in their lives. They were overwhelmed by the circumstances around them, and filled with questions and doubts.
Psychologists have found that people tend to expect the future to be positive (the optimism bias). They also tend to believe that if they do the right things, things will turn out right (a belief in a “just world”). These expectations guide their actions, and provide a basis for making sense of the world. Yet, they are not necessarily true! There are times when reality fits nicely into the frame that we have created for it. At other times, it clearly reveals the fallacies in our thinking. Distress arises when reality does not meet our expectations, and if the discrepancy is large enough, we become completely disoriented and lost. Covid-19 and the resulting circuit breaker challenged our expectations about what life should be like in a very real way. With rising rates of local infections, the unprecedented closure of schools and businesses, and enforced social and physical distancing, we were confronted with the fact that the future is not always rosy, and the world is not always just.
In contrast, Jesus said to His disciples: “In this world, you will have trouble.” (John 16:33a NIV) He would go on to assure them of His victory but first, they needed to know what to expect. He spoke to them plainly because He saw how their mistaken beliefs and false expectations would lead them into confusion and distress. He did not want them to be caught off guard when troubles came.
However, more than simply managing expectations, Jesus’ words are a reminder of truth, of what is, and what is not. The troubles we face, Covid-19 included, are part of the reality of living in a fallen world. They are not a sign that God has abandoned us, or somehow lost control of the situation. Acknowledging our difficulties does not reflect a lack of faith, nor does the desire for relief suggests a lack of piety. Jesus did not discount the distress His disciples would experience. He went on to encourage them and to pray for them. He told them to “Take heart!” (John 16:33b) precisely because He knew that the troubles they would face were real, and that they (and we) would be tempted to lose heart.
What helps when reality bites
The circuit breaker brought hardships at many different levels. The disease that prompted it raised fears about health and mortality. The closure of offices and businesses strained the economy and put livelihoods at risk. The distance necessary to limit the risk of infection intensified feelings of loneliness and isolation. Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17 points us to what helps us cope during such difficult times. “Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your name, the name You gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one …” (John 17:11b)
Firstly, Jesus prayed that His disciples would be “one”, as He and the Father are one. We know that God the Father answered His prayer because in Acts 4:32, we are told that “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Imagine the difference it would make if in the face of hospitalisation, unemployment, financial hardship or loneliness, you knew that there was someone thinking about you, reaching out to you, taking care of your needs, and making sure that you were not forgotten.
What was it that allowed the early church to respond as they did? Our instinct during times of uncertainty and insecurity is to circle the wagons and batten down the hatches. We rush to the supermarkets, and we hoard toilet paper. We rarely think of others first.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, explains it. He writes: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:2-3) When we recall who Christ is, what He has done for us, and who we are in Him, we are comforted and encouraged. Our own anxieties and fear of lack are quietened. We are then able to be like Jesus, to look beyond ourselves and to care for one another.
“My prayer is not that You take them out of the world but that You protect them from the evil one… Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth.” (John 17:15,17) Jesus knew that His disciples were vulnerable to another source of threat. Even with the assurance of help from others, there are times when we struggle with our fears and feelings. When Jesus prayed that the disciples would be protected from the evil one, I believe He was praying for their mental health and well-being. Satan is called the father of lies (John 8:44) and the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10). He works to destroy men through deception and condemnation. We are particularly vulnerable to his attacks when we are stressed and distressed.
The family man who has lost his job, starts to feel depressed because he believes that he has let his wife and children down. The working mother trying to juggle work and home-based learning fights guilt constantly, and judges herself to be a failure. The swinging single, now home alone, is tormented by the thought of not ever being able to find love or family. The examples could go on.
We recognise and repel the attacks of the evil one by knowledge of truth. God’s word, as revealed in the Bible and the person of Jesus, is truth. When we hear about the number of new infections each day, when we find ourselves at home with no work to do, when we feel ready to scream either because of the noise or the silence around us, we are tempted to listen to our fears and feelings. But to do so would only be to lead us further into despair. Jesus’ prayer for His disciples reminds us instead to turn our ears to what God has to say. As we immerse ourselves in God’s word, it becomes the sword by which we are able to cut through fears and falsehoods, and emerge not just safe but set apart for his service.
Looking back now
Looking back on the past months, were you able to find unity, love and support in your community despite physical isolation and social distancing? Did you find yourself vulnerable to the attacks and lies of the evil one when faced with the pressures of the circuit breaker and uncertainty over the future? Have you taken the time and effort to know the truth? Ultimately, the circuit breaker led me to realise once again the importance of building our lives on the right foundations, of being not just hearers but doers of the word, and of living by faith and not by sight.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)
(Shelwyn Tay is a psychologist and former head of the Fellowship of Christian Care Professionals, a GCF sectional group)