Recently a student shared with me her struggle to concentrate on her school work due to the COVID-19 pandemic:
I know that suffering is always going on in the world, and if we let that get to us we’ll never live at all and we can’t help at all. However, for me to be expected to sit from the comfort of my own home and continue my education like normal when I know that there are people that do not share the same simple luxuries as I do seems almost blasphemous. I’ve always known that God has made me have my heart broken for the sake of others and right now it is shattered from all of the hurt in the world and I feel like we’re not addressing any of it. I feel completely helpless and like this is not how we should be responding. And I don’t know what to do. . . . How do I find motivation when all of this is going on?
Can you identify with this? This is a common struggle for people who are especially sensitive to suffering in this world. And it’s to be expected that the pandemic would heighten the difficulty for some folks. So what can one say in response?
If you share this struggle, the first thing I would do is affirm your sensitivity to the suffering of others. This sort of empathy is a gift, and God can use it mightily to motivate you to help and serve others. However, as with all gifts and special talents, it also presents certain challenges and temptations, and the temptation to anxiety and becoming overburdened by others’ sufferings is one of these. So you will need to address this head-on with some relevant biblical truths. One of these is Jesus’ command in John 14:1, “Do not let your heart be troubled.” The fact that he issues this directive as a command indicates that we bear some responsibility in keeping ourselves from indulging anxious thoughts. Because, as Kant says, “ought implies can,” this means we are capable of resisting the temptation to anxiety and a troubled heart.
So this raises the question, how does one do that? The answer is apparent in the following verses of John 14, where Jesus says, “You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” In short, we must exercise faith in Christ and specifically remember the eschatological promise that he will make all things well for his people in the next world. Jesus addresses anxiety also in Matthew 6:31-34 and Luke 12:22-31. In these passages, too, he reminds us that we should trust God, and know that he will take care of us. So worry and anxiety are basically a lack of faith. Now this applies to everyone, so when you are worrying about other people, some of whom perhaps you’ve never met, who are experiencing hardships that you have been spared, this is no less a lack of faith. You need to trust that God is taking care of them as well.
It might be helpful to consider how Jesus conducted himself during his time on earth. Note that he was not anxious about the millions of people around the world who were suffering in all sorts of ways, even though he could have brought all of that suffering to an end with just a snap of his fingers. Ponder that for a moment. In fact, he often enjoyed himself and lived in relative comfort. He even participated in a wedding banquet, and his first miracle was to create a luxurious item—wine out of water (John 2). So if we are to follow Jesus’ example, then we must recognize that it is appropriate to enjoy certain comforts and luxuries—in moderation of course. I would add that this, too, is one of our duties as God’s children—to thankfully enjoy the bounty that God may grant us at various times in our lives.
Furthermore, consider the Golden Rule in this context. When you are suffering in some way, is it your preference or desire that all sorts of other people whom you may or may not know become sorrowful and downtrodden because of your pain? Or would you rather just a few people close to you comfort you in your time of need? For me, it is definitely the latter. I certainly don’t want lots of people to be burdened by my pain. So the Golden Rule would seem to recommend that I be particularly concerned to help, assist, and comfort those whom I personally know to be in need and whom I am able to help or comfort in some way. To be extremely burdened by the suffering of countless people whom I have never met is a failure to abide by the Golden Rule. Moreover, it cannot help anyway and can be paralyzing, as my student seems to have experienced. So even though your anxiety might be prompted by a concern for other people, it actually makes you less helpful to others, so it is self-defeating.
So there are multiple biblical reasons (i.e., Jesus’ command, the example of Jesus, and the Golden Rule) not to be constantly troubled or anxious about the suffering of others out there whom you haven’t even met but to be productive and focus on blessing and serving others with whom you make contact in the course of your day. This is the best we can do as mortal, finite people. And we must trust God to take care of others all over the world. Remember that they are his children, and he loves them infinitely more than you do, and even if they suffer tragedies in this life (as the Kennedy family recently did, yet again) we must trust that God will comfort them, whether in this life or in the next world.
Again, the key is faith and trust in God. But now what can we do to build that faith and trust in God? The most effective step is prayer. See, for example, Ps. 34:4, Phil. 4:6-7, 1 Pet. 5:6-7, and Rom. 8:26-28. And if you struggle with this sort of anxiety, here is something you can do as a spiritual discipline. Whenever you feel that unease welling up within you, pray for one minute for the people about whom you are concerned. Or, if there is no one in particular who is the object of your anxiety, then pick some person, family, community, city, or nation and pray for them. And be sure to commit them into God’s good care and declare your trust in God regarding their welfare. If you make that a regular practice, I expect that will go a long way in resolving your struggles with anxiety. Give it a try. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). And that power and effectiveness pertains not just to the persons and situations about which one prays, but also one’s own soul.