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COVID-19 and Our Need for Humility

by Greg Ganssle

I saw a comic on Facebook in which a man was looking at the computer. He called to his wife, “It is amazing how many of my friends who recently were experts on constitutional law are now experts on infectious diseases.”

We are in unusual circumstances, to put it mildly. The country is nearly shut down. COVID-19 is a dramatic invasion into our lives. If you or someone whom you love has tested positive, you are facing much more than inconvenience. You may be fighting for your life. If you and your family are healthy, you are grateful. You are grateful, but the walls are closing in on you.

I know I am restless. I would love to go back to normal. I miss going to Cabo Taco Baja Grill on Rosecrans [Avenue]. I miss poking around the antique shops in the town of Orange. I am itching to get out. Of course, many people are more severely restricted than I am. If you have children home from school, you may be unravelling. You may find yourself rewatching films such as Escape from Alcatraz. Can I dig through the wall with a spoon and get out unnoticed? How did they do it again?

In the meantime, we try to figure out what is actually happening. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the most effective ways to deal with this crisis. Some argue that “stay-in-place” is the most effective strategy. Others argue that it has no effect. Some argue that the cost to our economy of continued isolation is too great. Others say that it is small compared to the alternative. On social media, there are long lines of “experts” arguing one side or the other of every nuance of our current situation.

What are we to do? I want to suggest one posture and two applications.

The posture is humility. The applications are, first, humility before God; second, humility before each other.

When we want to dig through the walls and escape, we may miss the fact that the walls can serve as a metaphor. Our situation involves strict walls. But our situation always involves strict walls. We do not usually notice them because they are part of normal life. This new situation imposes new walls. We notice these because we keep bumping into them.

Humility before God involves recognizing that God has allowed us to be placed in this new situation. We do not have to like it. Our new situation is difficult, and it takes concentration and work to keep our frustration from dominating us. The reality, as in all things, is that we must hold our lives with an open hand before him. Humility is to accept from God’s hand the parameters of this new situation. In the struggle to manage the complexities of our lives, do we allow ourselves to chafe against God’s hand? Do we become bitter? Or do we engage in the difficulties with confidence that the loving hand of God is upon us?

We also need humility before each other. First, we need a posture of humility as we encounter the guidelines given to us by the state or county. We are not given the authority to decide on the best course of action for our communities. Others have that responsibility and authority. Second, the vast majority of us have no knowledge of virology. We need a posture of humility before the people who have this knowledge. It is amazing how so many of our friends now seem to be “experts” on infectious diseases! In reality, most of us are not equipped to have an informed opinion about the science, economics or social policy on COVID-19.

We are equipped, however, to live as citizens in our communities. We can follow the guidelines and trust the wisdom of those who develop them. We can also disagree with these policies, and we can voice our disagreement. It is not that following guidelines is the humble path and protesting them is a failure of humility. How we follow or how we express disagreement is where humility is crucial.

It will help us engage these issues with humility if we keep in mind two temptations.

The first temptation is to fall into confirmation bias. The assessment of the situation that I agree with will always seem more credible to me than the ones with which I disagree. If you need evidence of this reality, note how many of your “conservative” friends take one side of an issue and how many “liberal” friends take the other. It does not matter if the issue is global warming, the credibility of accusations against a political figure, or whether we should keep the “stay-in-place” orders for a longer time. We tend to take the reports we agree with more seriously than the ones we don’t. We are all biased. Humility requires recognizing our own bias.

The second temptation is to assume that people who do not agree with us are not informed, not smart, or are motivated by a political agenda. It is amazing how brilliant the people are who agree with me! It is easy to doubt that those who disagree with us are well-meaning, honest people. If they were well-meaning and honest, they would agree, wouldn’t they? This posture is a failure of humility. To be humble, we must cultivate the recognition that good people disagree with us for reasons that seem good to them.

Humility is always one of the great needs. During this time of upheaval, it is especially important. Holding our lives with an open hand before God requires that we hold our convictions with an open hand before others.

Greg Ganssle is a professor of philosophy at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology and the author of Our Deepest Desires (IVP Academic, August 2017).