A few weeks ago, a co-worker began complaining about having chills and nausea. Others in the office responded to her “I don’t feel so good” with encouragement. I may have tried to say something positive, too. I don’t really remember. But I did instinctively pull out my bottle of hand sanitizer and squirt a large glob in my hands to the amusement of my other co-workers.
The sanitizer wasn’t necessary. I hadn’t been near that particular coworker at all that day, so the risk of catching whatever she had was slim to none. But wiping my hands with a squirt from my pocket-sized bottle of Purell was as comforting as pulling out a warm blanket.
I have an unhealthy fear of germs.
I can’t tell you when exactly the fear started. Some of my earliest memories involve me being sick, but I don’t remember my concerns about illness being crippling. That all changed in middle school. Most nights as I tried to drift off to sleep, my mind would wander to sickness. I’d worry that I would get sick that night and those anxious thoughts would make my stomach feel the very sensations I was afraid of.
Each night, I’d crawl out of bed, walk to the living room, and tell my parents I felt sick. Each night, they’d roll their eyes and reply, “You’re fine. Go back to bed.”
I had no logical reason to be so afraid. All in all, I lived a healthy childhood with two loving parents who would take care of me even if I did. And, mercifully, my fears have grown more subdued with age. But they never went away and to this day I remain hyper-vigilant about keeping my hands clean.
Behind My Fears
I see nothing wrong with a healthy awareness of germs. We should regularly wash our hands, sterilize surfaces, stay at home when sick, and otherwise take necessary precautions. The impending coronavirus health crisis reveals why we should all take common sense steps to prevent the spread of germs.
And, in fact, my heightened awareness about malicious microbes has occasionally been beneficial. I am a really thorough cleaner—a fact my college roommates and fast-food managers never seemed to mind.
But my fears go beyond simple preventative measures and efficient cleaning. When I am exposed to germs (and sometimes when I’m not), my mind considers all the possible outcomes and instantly races to the worst possible scenario. I then think through all the possible ramifications—to my family, my work, my ministry—and my mind begins to spiral. It’s a stifling, sometimes debilitating fear.
I’m also keenly aware of the spiritual dimensions at play. As Ed Welch says, “Worry and fear are more about us than about the things outside us.” At its core, my anxiousness reveals a lack of trust in God. My fear reveals that I assume I must be in control, that God will not sustain me. I can’t see past the possible sickness to what lies beyond, nor can I see the possible ways God could work through the illness for my good and his glory.
Of course, rarely (if ever) do the worst-case scenarios happen. But that’s how fear works. Fear doubles our suffering, making us suffer not only in the actual event but also in the anticipation of that event.
Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
Nothing has forced me to confront my fears like parenting. In case you don’t know, kids tend to get sick—a lot. Our family is no exception. In the past twelve months, our three kids under the age of seven have navigated numerous colds, a bout with the stomach virus, strep throat, pink eye, ear infections, and more. It’s a never-ending buffet of bacteria.
Given what I’ve told you about my fear of germs, you probably think I run to a far corner of the house while my wife does the (literal) dirty work. But, oddly enough, the opposite tends to happen. My fears feel less crippling when my kids are the ones suffering. I wipe snot and change soiled diapers. I clean up vomit. I take toddlers to the doctor. Instead of pushing my kids away, I hold them closer.
None of it is particularly easy, but I willingly do it. Why? I’m not sure. My best guess is that I do it because I love my kids—more than I fear their germs. So, in the moments of crisis, I take seemingly dramatic steps which go against my better instincts. I don’t run from germs, but run to them.
Perhaps that’s close to what the Apostle John had in mind when he wrote, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Understanding my savior’s love for me should help me overcome my fears, and practicing love for my children does the same.
After all, isn’t that what our savior did? Jesus did not run from our suffering, sin, and sickness. He ran to them. He humbled himself to become a human, to walk in our footsteps, and to offer us ultimate healing through the cross and empty tomb. If Jesus showed such perfect love to us, we too can love others in their suffering despite our fears. And yes, even if germs are involved.
I struggle with a fear of sickness. Maybe you fear something different—such as snakes, spiders, or public speaking. Our fears tend to isolate us, cause us to turn inward, and focus exclusively on our own problems. I don’t pretend to have all the solutions, but perhaps part of the solution begins when we take our eyes off our own problems and direct them to someone we care about. As we love them, our own fears take a back seat. But I’ll keep my Purell handy—just in case.
Cover image by Kelly Sikkema.
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