Before the pandemic began more than a year ago, loneliness had already become the number one cause of death in the United States. More people are living or working alone today than at any other time in American history. Much of our daily life can now be accomplished at home, away from other people with the aid of computers and other electronic devices. Do we even need friends and family anymore to accomplish our most important goals? Into this new modern world, the COVID-19 pandemic is like throwing gasoline on a combustible fire of loneliness in our American society today. Whatever underlying mental struggles any of us may have had before the pandemic have worsened significantly by the enormous amount of time we have spent alone these past 14 months. As a result, mental health has suddenly emerged in our lives as something more precious than gold, silver, or any other possession we may cherish. As gifts from above, sanity and good mental health greatly aid our ability to follow Jesus and keep our feet on the peaceful paths of God.
If we read our Gospels carefully, we will notice that Jesus had a deep compassion for people suffering from mental health issues. His most well-known encounter with someone terrorized by their own mind was with the demon-possessed man in the region of Gerasenes. No one at the time wanted to go near this deranged man. He frightened the entire region. Jesus, however, got into a boat, went across a lake and walked right up and talked with him directly. He knew how tortured this man was. “Day and night this demon-possessed man wandered among the burial caves and in the hills, howling and cutting himself with sharp stones,” Scripture tells us in Mark 5:5. Jesus confronted the evil spirits in the man, drove them out of his body, helping to restore his original sanity and peace. Jesus was the only person to dare his own safety to help this tortured soul. The man was profoundly grateful for the healing and relief Jesus gave him. The Apostle Mark continues his story, “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. But, Jesus said, ‘No, go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.’ So the man started off to visit the Ten Towns of that region and began to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed at what he told them.” (Mark 5;18-20)
Quite tragically, demonizing others, or demonization, has become a new way of life for many Americans today. An increasing number of people are taking to the streets, often cursing and screaming, some with guns and clubs in their hands, declaring that anyone opposing them is “evil” and “godless,” while promoting their own righteousness and moral superiority. It’s not uncommon to hear some people saying all Asians are criminals, or all police are cruel and brutal, all Blacks are dangerous, all Democrats are witchcraft worshippers, all Republicans are heartless money changers, and all immigrants or homeless people are losers and worthless. How have people become so frighteningly narrow-minded, incapable of listening respectfully to another person’s point of view? Our isolated lives caused by the pandemic may be fueling this type of judgmental thinking. Listening to news sources that reinforce only what I believe, or hanging out with people who only agree with every word I say, are dangerous elements for creating a more agitated soul and toxic fodder for developing more angry spirits. More and more it seems that growing anger is turning into violence, giving victory to the evil forces in our world. The Apostle Peter knew this phenomena all too well when he wrote, “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8,9a)
Jesus wants us to enjoy good health, physically, mentally, and certainly spiritually. He encourages us to seek the medical and psychological healing we need to serve his kingdom with joy in our lifetime. Jesus was constantly healing the sick, binding up the wounded, giving sight to the blind, restoring healthy legs to the lame and sanity to the mentally and spiritually afflicted. It is vitally important to be sensitive to what toll the pandemic has wrought on the mental health of many Americans. Four in 10 adults today say they are suffering from either anxiety or depressive disorders, compared to 1 in 10 two years ago. Last year witnessed a 25 percent increase in alcohol and substance abuse among young adults 18 to 24, and a 27 percent increase in drug overdoses among the general population. Forty-five percent of the 565,000 homeless people in America today are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. In other words, in our own towns and neighborhoods today we have a growing number of people who need our care, attention, and love, some of whom might be living under our same roof. Like Jesus, we need to seek ways to heal them with the help of the medical community, our presence and prayers, and steering clear of the temptation to avoid or ignore those who are suffering in pain, often unseen.
In the last two months, three young men between the ages of 18 and 24 found or purchased powerful semi-automatic weapons and killed innocent people going about their workdays in Atlanta, Boulder, and Indianapolis. Mental illness combined with senseless access to weapons designed for a battlefield will continue to kill innocent Americans unless greater sanity is brought to our way of handling physical and mental instabilities and short-sighted laws. Though our economy is poised now to rebound with renewed vigor to the benefit of our entire society, we must not forget those still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and loneliness in general.
Pray, too, for those many countries in the world lagging dangerously behind in vaccinating their populations. Less than 5 percent in India have been vaccinated with nearly 10,000 people dying every day because of a recent surge in COVID-19. Stricken families and hospitals are scrambling to find oxygen to keep their loved-ones alive. One of my good friends, Rev. Sameh Maurice, the senior pastor of the Kasr El Dobara Church in Cairo, Egypt, was hospitalized recently for 12 days because of COVID-19, and nearly lost his life. On a recent Zoom call he asked that the American Church continue to pray for the Middle Eastern countries which are still struggling mightily with the effects of COVID-19. He said that during his darkest hours when he was not sure he would live, the Lord gave him a message of gathering the Body of Christ worldwide in a spirit of peace, humility, love, and reconciliation. Recently, he and his church have been holding “love feasts”, inviting back former members and others they may have inadvertently offended for times of healing and prayer. He hopes that the Global Church does not fall prey to those strong voices in our world today that are promoting division, contention, and anger. He hopes that the followers of Christ worldwide, regardless of their denominational background, can care for one another in a renewed spirit of cooperation and compassion.
It takes strength and self-control to not strike back at those who are insulting or attacking you. The book of Proverbs reminds us, “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.” (Proverbs 21:23) And, “Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” (Proverbs 17:9) It is never good to demonize another person or group of people. A mature person pleasing to God is someone who can listen with understanding and empathy to others who hold views different from their own. The person talking loudly without listening to someone with a contrary position has strayed dangerously far from the path of God. More than ever, the world needs followers of Jesus who are dedicated to being instruments of peace, building bridges of understanding and constructive dialogue among people of vastly different backgrounds and points of view.
With every fiber in our being, we need to fight the temptation of preferring to be alone and being unnecessarily suspicious of others; there is too much danger and peril associated with isolation and loneliness in our world today. If you know someone struggling emotionally or mentally, especially after the effects of our months-long pandemic, reach out to them and begin a friendly conversation, much in the same way Jesus got into a boat, went across the lake, and befriended a violently angry and ill man.
As the Apostle Paul reminds us when he wrote to his friends in Rome, “Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all you can to live in peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
The Lord will be with you. He wants all people to be at peace with themselves and others.