“Without me, you can do nothing.”John 15:5
This simple line of scripture has felt relevant over, and over, and over again since March 16th.
Lacking Control – COVID-19 Edition
Like most of you, my life has been put on hold, turned sideways, and restarted again on a much slower setting in the three weeks since COVID-19 became a growing reality across the world. My quarantine began a bit sooner than most, as out-of-state travel over spring break led me to make the decision to self-isolate before the shelter-in-place orders were widespread across my city, county, and state.
During the first week of this self-isolation, my mind was whirring with fear for myself, my family who I’d travelled with, my roommates who had also travelled over spring break, and our country at large. Every cough at the dinner table was met with widened eyes, multiple yawns in a row equated shortness of breath, and I even had the pleasure of giving myself a stress fever of 99.1 on my second day of quarantine. A fever, I might add, that came down to 97.7 after 45 minutes of watching the Sound of Music.
In addition to the paranoia of “self-monitoring,” I was bothered by the presence of my fear. Why is the idea of getting sick or someone I love getting sick, so terrifying to me? Am I too attached to this world and my relationships? Do I lack confidence in the hope of heaven? How is my courage so small? How can I ever say yes to taking up my cross and following Jesus when this slight burden of the unknown feels so heavy? How can I say yes to the will of God in my life when I am so weak?
Lacking Control – Everyday Life Edition
Days passed, and with time my mind eased. My family, roommates, and I were not showing symptoms. Working from home offered a welcome distraction. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for plenty of food, a job I could do without leaving my house, and roommates who are a consistent source of community in the midst of isolation.
As my circumstances shifted and comfort became more accessible, different uncontrollables emerged. First, it came in the form of a non-COVID health issue that might have taken me to the doctor had it not resolved itself in a couple of days – a couple of days that were again filled with fear and feelings of helplessness. Then came the morning our shower stopped draining, and Jeff the plumber spent 6+ hours removing tree roots from the lines and working in our bathrooms, making our quarantining efforts seem mildly futile. This was followed three days later when our kitchen sink backed-up, bringing Jeff the plumber back to our house. (PSA – we are grateful for you Jeff!!!!)
While the last two instances seemed humorous in hindsight, at the time it was another knock at my desire to control. In the face of these issues, I felt powerless. I could not fix them or resolve them in an optimal way. We had to have someone come into our house in the midst of a pandemic that was growing in our community. My perfectly crafted plan for removing any doubt we’d done our part to protect ourselves had a crack. Over and over again, I could not control these circumstances.
Amidst all of this, my students’ semesters and summer plans were turned on their heads, news stories abounded of suffering from around the world, and awareness of the economic strife grew all around.
From pandemics to plumbing, I realized I couldn’t face it or fix it by myself. And I was afraid.
My interior reality revealed
This strange season has brought increased capacity for self-reflection. On one of my many walks at the park in front of my house, I spent time thinking about my desire for control and my belief in my own ability to do “it,” whatever “it” may be: fixing the problem at work, mending a relationship, growing in holiness, or saying yes to the will of God in my life.
In the same moment, I was recognizing this false belief about myself, I was reminded of the verse mentioned at the beginning of this blog: “Without me, you can do nothing.”
Long before the onset of COVID-19, 2020 has proven to be a year marked by anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear that I will miss the will of God in my life. Anxiety and fear that I won’t have the courage to say yes to whatever He asks of me when it’s revealed. Anxiety and fear that saying yes to God will leave my desires unfulfilled.
I recently began a book called “Searching for and Maintaining Peace” by Father Jacques Phillipe. The first chapter struck me. It says:
The first thing of which we must be convinced is that all the good that we can do comes from God and from Him alone: Apart from Me, you can do nothing, Jesus said. He did not say, “you can’t do much,” but, you can do nothing. . . We often have to experience failures, trials, and humiliations, permitted by God, before this truth imposes itself on us, not only on an intellectual level, but as an experience of our entire being.
I have realized the root of all this fear and anxiety is the belief I have to do it myself. How sweet and reassuring it is to hear God say, “Without me, you can do nothing.” It has given me the freedom to stop trying.
I am beginning to come to terms with the idea I cannot, without the grace of God, muster up the courage or virtue needed to live a life of complete surrender to the Lord. I never have and never could. Satan’s greatest scheme was to convince me of my ability to do it on my own and then fan the flame of my discouragement and despair when confronted with the littleness of my own soul.
During Holy Week and Lent, I was reminded of a character from Scripture, who like me, found himself lacking in courage and virtue. In Ch. 26 and 27 of Matthew’s Gospel, we are told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Woven into this narrative is the story of Jesus’ followers, his best friends, people who walked with Him and loved Him. People just like me.
As I listened to the reading of this narrative, I was particularly struck by Peter. Peter, who falls asleep in the garden when his Savior asks him to watch and pray. Peter, who denies ever knowing Jesus, in a speech filled with swearing and curses. Peter, who followed Jesus after His arrest out of love, only to fall into disgrace and despair.
I was struck by the story of Peter, but in particular I was struck by Jesus’ foretelling of Peter’s denial in Matthew 26:31-35. Historically, I have read this and thought: “Peter, you bonehead. He told you this would happen, and you still did it.”
Today, I read it differently. I read it as a loving Jesus reminding His friends and children that He is not surprised by our lack of courage, anxieties, and major displays of fear. He knows our humanity. He entered into it Himself.
Jesus is not surprised by our weakness. After His resurrection, John 21 tells us of Peter jumping into the sea as soon as he recognizes the resurrected Lord. The discourses between the two can be summarized by Jesus asking Peter to reaffirm his love for Him three times. The same number of times Peter denied knowing him. This exchange ends with Peter saying “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus knows our weakness, and He knows our love for Him. He needs us to be aware of both of these things: the depth of our weakness as well as the depth of our love.
The full verse of John 15:5 says, “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” Above all, I want this time to be marked as the season I came to understand the littleness of my soul on its own, and the magnanimity of God in pouring His grace into my life.
As each of our lives are filled with uncertainty and uncontrollables, I trust that our fears and weakness have no power so long as we run back to Jesus with the humble confidence of Peter saying, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Join me in seeking this peace.
Read more of our COVID-19 series here:
- Managing Fear in the Midst of a Pandemic
- Read Scripture Before COVID-19 Headlines
- Let’s Make Space for Lament During Coronavirus, Too