Fear Is Contagious. But Is Hope?

I was standing in the tomato sauce aisle at Target when the CDC sent out their recommendation for everyone over the age of 65 to stay home. Originally, I had gone to Target to grab shampoo, and the gray rainy day got me craving a big pot of minestrone soup, so I ended up in the food section. I didn’t plan to buy food. I didn’t go there to stock my pantries for quarantine. But here’s what happened: 

People in the aisles suddenly started talking to each other loudly – “Did you hear the new recommendation?”

“I sure did! My mom is 70. She lives alone. I’ve got to stock her up for the week!”

“I’m not over 65, but food’s gonna be gone – I better grab what my family needs too!” 

“Can you guys believe this? Told to stay home! That must mean things are bad. I’m staying home too. I can’t afford to get sick.” 

“My husband and I are both over 65. We better get out of here – fast!” 

Sleepy Sunday morning Target transformed slowly into Jeff Foxworthy’s “Pandelirium.” The store started filling with anxious shoppers. People grabbed cans of beans and boxes of pasta off the shelves until there were no more to grab. Shopping carts filled with cold cereal and instant oatmeal and boxed macaroni. Everyone checked the toilet paper aisle, and came back with nothing. Paper towels were purchased in their place. Rice, bags of potatoes, cans of soup clanked into carts.

Before I knew what was happening, I had grabbed 4 jars of tomato sauce instead of the one I needed for the soup, because there were only 7 left. I also managed to grab the last two loaves of bread, figuring hey – I have 11 people in my house right now, and we need sandwiches. “Oh, great!” someone murmured behind me, “she just took the last loaves of bread – left nothing for the rest of us!” 

Chocolate chip bags were disappearing, and that‘s definitely an emergency, so I popped a few into my cart along with a bag of flour, and a package of frozen fruit for smoothies – one of only 3 left. Fresh things didn’t seem to be in high demand, so I helped myself to carrots, celery, strawberries and bananas while more and more carts pulled into the aisles around me. Voices rose and tension rose as everyone grabbed for the same items. I started making mental lists in my head: what ingredients would I need to feed all of us for the next 2 weeks? What was I missing in my pantry that would soon be unavailable here? Soy sauce, butter, yeast, oil – by the time I went for these commodities, they were gone. 

I checked out amid a swarm of shoppers and headed home through the rain with my prizes. On the way, I passed 2 or 3 other grocery stores where the parking lots were full, and people pushed cartloads of goods like frantic animals. From my car, I called a friend – “It’s crazy out here! Get what you need now!” 

Once I got home and unloaded my spoils of war, it took me awhile to realize what had happened. As I was placing the bag of flour next to the other bag of flour I already have, it hit me: I caught the fear. I got wrapped up in the hype and hysteria of a mob of people, and I totally reacted in kind. Swept along on a sea of panic, I became that person – buying flour and frozen fruit just because everyone else was doing it too. I felt like a fool. I didn’t go to the store afraid. I didn’t go to the store for much food. What had come over me?

Fear is contagious.

When you’re around fear, it’s so easy to suddenly adopt it as your own. Fearful people pass fear like a sickness, creating more fearful people who then create more fearful people. Fear multiplies itself, divides and reproduces at a rate more alarming than disease transfer. Everyone’s following the spread of coronavirus, but not everyone is tracking the spread of fear into our hearts, homes, neighborhoods and cities. But we should be. Because it matters. 

On the one hand, feeling afraid in times like these is not altogether crazy – fear is an appropriate response to a pandemic, to a worldwide health crisis such as none of us have ever lived through before. It’s okay to be afraid. It makes sense to be afraid. There is a time and place for caution, concern, and fear. But when fear becomes insidious, when fear takes over reason, something serious is out of balance. How can we combat this when times are truly worrisome? What can we do to guard our hearts from being overcome by fear? 

In grad school I took classes from one of our church’s top Biblical archaeologists in the field, Dr. Randy Younker, who had studied in Tucson under a man who didn’t believe in the Bible or in God. Day after day, young Dr. Younker’s professor would fill his head with doubts, inconsistencies, and shortcomings he saw in the scriptures.

“How did you keep your faith in the midst of all that?” someone asked Dr. Younker. He paused. He sighed slowly.

“It wasn’t easy,” he admitted. “But I made a deliberate choice to fill my head with as much faith as they were trying to take out of it.”

We waited for him to explain. “It was like inoculating yourself against a virus. If I had 2 hours of classes that dashed my faith against the rocks, I came home that night and read The Desire of Ages for 2 hours. Or the Psalms. Or the gospel of Luke. It’s not like I could afford using my study hours on this. But I also realized very quickly, that I couldn’t afford not to. If I wanted to keep my faith alive, I had to feed it MORE than they were feeding my doubts.”

Two years ago, I stood with a large group of Northern California pastors near some temple ruins outside Jerusalem, and listened as Dr. Younker explained the Biblical, archaeological significance behind what we were seeing. And as I listen to him speak, it hit me: He fought for this. This faith, this trust, this belief he still has in the Bible after all the attacks he endured against it – he fought for this. And he won.

If we want to have more faith than fear at a time like this, if we want to hang onto peace and hope and joy in the midst of change and terror and chaos, this is the way to do it: we must endeavor to deliberately feed our minds just as much faith as fear. Faith, peace, and hope are things we really might have to fight for right now – but we can fight for them. And we can win.

But how can we do that right now? How does that make sense? For so many of us, our workload just doubled and tripled – learning how to do our jobs virtually from home, managing our children who are suddenly out of classes and homeschooling in our living rooms, balancing our regular duties in a time of heightened need and adjusted schedules and limited resources – these days are HARD. Stress is high. Patience is thin. Am I suggesting adding even MORE? Adding several more hours of reading, work, responsibilities? Not exactly.

What I am suggesting is that you keep a close finger on the pulse of your faith. It doesn’t have to look like hours of reading. But it DOES need to look like an intentional turning to Jesus every time we notice the fear tide rising. 

Yes, fear is contagious. Wouldn’t it be great if hope and peace were contagious too – if we could catch peace the way we catch fear and frenzy? Well, I think we can. The Bible says in Gal. 5:22 that peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit – along with a grocery list of a whole bunch of other items we really need right now too: love, joy, PATIENCE (can I get an Amen?), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (I’m looking at you, toilet paper hoarders). What this means, is that these fruits are by-products of time spent with Jesus. We can order these items! We can ask for what’s missing. The Holy Spirit can nurture and grow these qualities inside of us when we make ourselves available to Him, spend time with Him, and ask Him to do so. By protecting time in God’s presence, we can catch Hope – Hope becomes contagious when we hang around with the source of Hope Himself. 

So what do you need today? What are you shopping for, what are you craving or lacking, what is your heart in a hustle for? There’s a lot of things you can catch out there, friends. And we’re doing what we can to make sure we don’t catch or spread the bad stuff. Let’s also do what we can, as a faith community, to make sure we catch AND spread the good stuff. Love, Joy, Peace, Hope. And faith, in the midst of fear.