Americans value success. Our cultural heroes are tied to stories of self-sufficiency and overcoming obstacles at any and all costs. We revere paintings of a president crossing an ice-filled river and elevate stories of poor kids becoming CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. We shut down cities to celebrate the victories of our local sports franchises. As one common phrase goes, “second place is just the first loser.” Success—and how we measure in relation to it—is the final arbiter by which we all are judged, and the impact of this is tangible. We have given our lives to success; we have bound ourselves to this fleeting metric.
Unfortunately, over the past several months, we’ve all come under a significant weight as society grapples with the pain and chaos of COVID-19. Millions are being forced to stay home, many have been laid off work, and nearly everyone is trying to figure out how to stretch our diminishing paychecks to cover the demands of a new month. On top of this, Americans of color continue to deal with a system that treats them unjustly—evicting them at greater rates, offering them subpar healthcare, arresting them at greater rates, and sentencing them more harshly.
It’s a unique point in time for our country. No matter our geographic location or economic status, we are all grappling with the presence of great pain, isolation, exhaustion, confusion, and fear. COVID-19, either as a disease or an economic scourge, has the real possibility of impacting any and all of us. Regardless of education, geographic location, and religious background, we are all asking similar questions: What will become of us? How will the pandemic end? When will it end? How will I pay my bills? Will I have to bury my parents? Will my at-risk child suffer if she contracts COVID? How will I pay for the medical bills?
The great spiritual leaders of our faith teach us that strength and/or success are not the primary ways that God shapes and forms us. Weakness and failure are much better for this purpose, and our new COVID culture is forcing us to reexamine what is true. Henri Nouwen says it beautifully: “Human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.”
COVID-19 and all its implications are forcing us to come to terms with the fragility that is present in all of our lives. It has forced us to confront the reality of our present condition, and some of us do not like what we see. These present moments find us examining our fullest humanity, which is painful, no doubt, but such exercises are not meaningless. After all, the realization that our own efforts will never be enough, the realization of our own self-limitation, is the inevitable doorway to life.
While our culture promises affirmation and success through merit and acceptance by way of status, the Holy Spirit is whispering a different reality into being—a reality that reminds us that we are not what we own.
There is an invitation in these moments—if we are willing to look. While our culture promises affirmation and success through merit and acceptance by way of status, the Holy Spirit is whispering a different reality into being—a reality that reminds us that we are not what we own. We are not valued by our employment. The Spirit invites us to be humbled, to recognize our own privilege, and to make amends for ways in which we’ve contributed to a society that has hurt others. We are being reminded that we are valuable, no matter how much or how little we contribute to society. In isolation, unemployment, fear, anxiety, and illness, God speaks over us, reminding us that we are seen, valued, and loved.
This is the invitation for us. In a world that is groaning under the weight of so much pain and brokenness, we are tempted to shift our pain, to externalize it, to numb it, or to separate ourselves from it. But in the midst of the loneliness, pain, and confusion we are being offered a beautiful opportunity—the chance to grow deeper in Christlike love and character. We are invited to acknowledge our pain, grief, and loss, and to realize that our fears tend to be rooted in things that are outside our control. We are invited to open our hands and release that which we cannot control. We are offered safety and rootedness in Christ. Our hearts are given peace about our shortcomings because it’s here that we are finally able to recognize what has always been: God’s power is made perfect in weakness.