David Wang: Christ As Model and Guide for Life in a Pandemic [Biola University Chapel]

Hello, Biola community. It’s great to be here with you, even in these challenging and unprecedented times. Speaking as a pastor, I want to acknowledge how so many of us are facing unique challenges, not only financially, emotionally, relationally, but also spiritually I know many of us are struggling with finding the motivation to pursue God, struggling with doubts in our faith, wondering how to make sense and how to trust God during these unprecedented times. And also speaking as a clinical and research psychologist, I want to note that scientists are observing some very alarming trends concerning the mental health impact of our current season of COVID-19 For example, one recent study reported an 8000% increase in the suicide hotline usage Another study reported a 25% increase in domestic violence calls, a 30% increase in child custody cases and a 24% increase in family disputes And these are just looking at data back from March and April of 2020 Now that we’re much further into the pandemic, presumably the statistics and the prevalence rates are even much worse now And yet another study among college students in public research universities here in the United States found that prevalence rates for major depressive disorder increased two-fold and anxiety disorders are up 50% this past spring compared to the previous spring And I believe that to some extent, we’re all feeling the impact, the emotional impact of this season of pandemic on our well- being. Some of the common symptoms that I’ve been observing, not only in myself, but among the individuals that I work with and am in community with include the following: just feelings of disorientation, feeling unsettled, feeling perpetually out of sync feeling as if we’re not all there Like my physical body might be here in this room, but my mental of life, my mind is checked out, it’s anywhere but where my physical body is Feelings of tiredness, feeling lethargic, feeling unmotivated, feeling sad and depressed, feeling overwhelmed, feeling worried, maybe about a specific topic or maybe a more general sense of worry Feeling grumpy and irritable, even more than we are normally, and even feeling guilty because we might not be as productive or as happy or as thriving as we think we should be Or perhaps as our friends on Instagram look, which by the way, I think is probably mostly just an allusion. And again, speaking as a psychologist, the point I’d like to make here is that all these symptoms that I just mentioned, if you can relate to any of them, if you can even relate to all of them, they’re actually symptoms common in traumatic stress Did you know that the global pandemic that we’re currently in qualifies as a psychological trauma? And for many of us, COVID-19 isn’t even the first trauma we’ve ever experienced. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 70% of individuals worldwide, including the United States, have been or will experience some form of trauma in their lifetime with a lifetime average of 4.5 traumas So if you’re one of those individuals to whom COVID-19 is not your first brush with trauma, you’re not alone. In fact, there’s more people in the world that can relate to your experience, more people who can relate, than people who can not relate But I admit it might still feel as though you might be the only one who has had to experience what you had to experience, who has had to survive, what you’ve had to survive, and that you might even feel this way, even when you’re with your church community, even when you are with your spiritual community It is as if the language of trauma, it is as if even the concept of trauma has become so foreign and so distant from the language and mindset of many Christian communities today But what many of us don’t realize, what many of us have lost touch with is the reality that the Christian faith is actually built upon a trauma The very foundation of our faith is grounded upon the trauma of Christ’s death on the cross And even after Jesus resurrected from the dead,

the memory of the trauma persists, reminders of the trauma persist When the Lord appeared to doubting Thomas in John chapter 20, the marks from the nails and the marks from the piercings of spears, were still on Jesus’ hands and Jesus’ side So if you are feeling alone and isolated in your trauma, there is someone who can relate to you There’s someone who can out of the authority of their own experiences, accompany you in your trauma and in your recovery from trauma And that person is Jesus Christ. So lately, many people have asking me, as both a pastor and as both a psychologist, what can I learn from Jesus concerning how I am to live in such a time as this And there’s a lot to say here, too much for us to cover in our short time together, but a good place to start would be for us to observe the behaviors that Jesus modeled. For us to observe the posture of Jesus’ heart when He was in the very midst of His own trauma. So accordingly, if you have your Bibles with you, turn with me to Matthew chapter 26, verses 36 to 39, as we glean insights from Jesus while He was at the Garden of Gethsemane, confronting the reality that He will soon die on the cross. Verse 36 reads as follows. Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” And taking with them, Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to be sorrowful and troubled Then He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch with me.” And going a little farther, He fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” We unfortunately don’t have the time to do a full and proper exegesis of this passage. So instead, what I’d like to do is point out just a few observations about Jesus and then relate them and apply them onto life today First, what I love most about this passage is how it reminds us that Jesus was a genuine human being That any sound Christology going as far back as the Nicene Creed must affirm both the full divinity as well as the full humanity of Jesus But I admit in practice a lot of times Jesus’ divinity is the sole focus And as a result, we lose touch with Jesus’ humanity. What do I mean? We often think of Jesus as this hero of the faith, whose perfect trust in God the Father led Him into this perpetual state of being that refuse to even flinch, even when He was confronted with the prospect of severe torture, such as dying on the cross Or perhaps we see Jesus as this powerful mystic who can rise above pain, who can transcend all of His emotions, who numbs away all of His senses by His pure love of God But as New Testament scholar Douglas Hare suggests, instead, what we see here in the Garden of Gethsemane is the opposite Instead, Jesus appears here as a human being, who even in His perfect trust of the Father is nonetheless capable of feelings and emotions such as fear and anxiety In verse 37, Matthew writes that Jesus began to be sorrowful and troubled. In verse 38 Jesus states, my soul is very sorrowful, even unto death. In verse 39, Jesus is so sorrowful and so troubled that He falls on His face, which brings us to our first principle for today Jesus models to us that experiencing sorrow, having a troubled heart, feeling afraid, feeling anxious during a time of crisis, these things are not sin They are part of the human condition, especially when we’re in circumstances that are congruent with these emotions

And friends, we are in such circumstances today And not only so these feelings can coexist in a heart that genuinely trusts in God. They don’t have to be an indication that there’s something wrong with your faith. That there’s something wrong with your beliefs, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you as a Christian And how do we know this? Because Jesus modeled it He modeled what it looks like to be fully human in the midst of a crisis, thereby giving us permission to be human in the midst of crisis as well You can be a Christian who loves Jesus, who trusts Jesus with all of your heart, and you can feel anxiety and sorrow when you live in troubling circumstances outside of your control In fact, science teaches us that our brains are actually wired for paradox We process information, we process our emotions, not serially, but in parallel, which means that we naturally process multiple emotions all at the same time, simultaneously We can be sad and we can be happy both at the same time They don’t need to cancel each other out Think of the time when you lost a loved one, and perhaps that loved one was suffering during the last days of their life Perhaps when they passed away, a part of you felt sad because you lost someone that you loved And at the same time, a part of you might’ve also felt maybe happy, and content because you know that they’re not suffering anymore And that instead they’re at home with their Father. At home with the Lord. We can feel multiple emotions, both at the same time Be wary of people who tell you that if you just trust in Jesus, your sadness, all your sadness, all your anxiety, they will magically disappear. Or worse yet that your sadness and anxiety is a necessary indication that you may be in sin because the good Christian is to always live in a perpetual state of peace, positivity, and pleasant emotions What I’m talking about here is toxic positivity, or more precisely, toxic positivity with a Christian veneer This idea that in order for me to be a good Christian, I should think only positive thoughts, I should feel only positive emotions all the time, and that my theological beliefs, as long as they are correct, will allow me to bypass all my negative emotions, even if these negative emotions are valid, and skip straight to joy and contentment all the time And that any deviation from this, regardless of the circumstances, is deviation from the will of God Not only is this bad theology because God created and sanctified our negative emotions just as He did with the positive emotions, and negative emotions are modeled all throughout Scripture, not just here with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Not only is this bad theology, but this is all detrimental, all so detrimental to our mental health And the reason why toxic positivity, even with the Christian veneer, is detrimental to mental health is because it is fundamentally emotionally invalidating It tells people that you should not be feeling the emotions that you’re feeling, even when in fact they might be valid. So when I say to you, you know, don’t feel bad What is actually communicated is the idea that your sadness is not valid, that you should not be feeling sad. And when I say to you, God intended this for your own good, what is often received is this idea of maybe, well, anything other than perfect gratitude and contentment at all times is just further evidence that I am deeply flawed and that this is a cause for shame And the problem with this is that these statements prevent people from accepting the reality that is already in their heart They prevent people from accepting the reality from the emotions that they are already feeling And from a psychological perspective, I want to point out that we cannot cope with an emotion that we refuse to accept that we are having. If I’m sad, and I feel like I shouldn’t be sad, guess what? I’m not going to cope I’m not going to be able to cope with my sadness. And as a result, I am stuck even before I begin my journey towards recovery Which brings me to my last point for today, and it’s this

Authentic Christian spirituality doesn’t lead me to avoid the reality of myself or the reality of my circumstances. Instead, authentic Christian spirituality, it gives me the courage to confront, to face the reality of myself, even those parts of myself that I’m uncomfortable with It gives me the courage to face the reality of my circumstances and not only so, but to bring these realities to bear under the authority of a God who loves us and knows what it’s like to experience and survive trauma and crisis And we see this so clearly in the prayer that Jesus prays in verse 39, when He prays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And this is the reality of Jesus’ humanity speaking here And yet He continues, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Father, here’s the true state of my heart. Here is the true state of my circumstances And even in this mess, not my will be done, but your will be done David, thank you so much for sharing what you shared. I found myself, and I’ve heard you say these things before, but I found myself being greatly relieved actually at my own response to everything that’s been going on. So I appreciate that One of the things that I’m deeply interested in is the fact that we are embodied beings, that our cognitive faith and the emotions of our faith are not distinct, but that they run together, that they’re holistic, that we, sometimes I think we might be tempted to think that if we believe the right thing, then we will have the right emotion, whatever that is And I think because we’re at a school that we’re learning about the Bible, our undergrads are taking 30 units of Bible classes, and I think our faculty do a great job of being holistic about it, but still with that education, we have a tendency to focus only on the cognitive of our faith So what happens if we only focus on the cognitive and discount our emotions? That’s a great question I think my first thought relates to something I spoke about during my talk about how our brains are actually wired for paradox, they process emotions and thoughts in parallel So it’s quite possible and it’s actually quite common for us to feel emotions that take us in very different directions, both at the same time And I think one of the pitfalls of us having too much of a focus on cognition, too much of a cognitive faith is that we lose touch with that We tend to think of our faith or our mind as following just one track, where I have the right beliefs and that leads to right feelings, and it’s kind of a world of just causes and effects or maybe just one line of causes and effects. When in reality, our brains are actually much more complicated, much more nuanced And that’s kind of one of the ways that it reflects the glory of God, where we’re actually processing multiple things all at the same time I think another pitfall from having too much of a cognitive faith is that it introduces this tension between the ideal and the real, because when we’re thinking of things, theoretically from a conceptual perspective, it all makes perfect sense It’s nice and clean, and if we just do this, then we will get this result. But in real life, it almost never ends up that way. So take, for example, the experience of grief, right? If I think of grief and a lot of us are going through grief because all of us are dealing with some form of loss during this season But with grief, if I look at grief from a theoretical perspective, from a purely cognitive perspective, I can kind of make sense of what’s going on, and it just feels a lot more clean However, when you’re actually in the experience of grief, it’s so much more messy And a lot of times we look at the messiness of our experience and we compare it with this kind of perfect, shiny new everything makes sense, kind of belief, and we always fall short And when we fall short, it’s almost inevitable for us to make sense or interpret that as evidence that we fall short, that there’s something wrong with us So a lot of times having too cognitive of a faith will actually lead us down the pathway of shame because we’re never going to live up to those ideal and perfectly kind of those perfect beliefs that all make sense just in theory That’s so good. It’s so good. So earlier this month,

actually right after Biola made the announcement that we had to go remote, started meeting with a new student team that we have on campus, the Peer Wellness Ambassadors, and I asked them, if you could identify just one thing that you think students need right now, what would it be? And they said, we need a place to have our emotions where we won’t be told that everything’s going to be okay. They were not feeling the permission to have grief and sadness about everything that going remote means For the senior who’s graduating in December to incoming students who won’t get to join us on campus. So we have this fear of that toxic positivity, or we have that, almost being fostered that toxic positivity with a Christian veneer. On the flip side of that, we have students who don’t want to be stuck in hard emotions because these very real emotions that Jesus felt in the garden that he modeled for us are really uncomfortable. And we can get stuck there So how would you, what wisdom would you have for us as we’re navigating between toxic positivity, the extreme one hand and being deeply stuck in negative emotions on the other How do we find a balance between those? Yeah, that sounds great. And I think this goes back to this idea that spiritual formation, it’s not a one size fits all kind of process that, I can say the same thing and it’ll apply equally to everybody It really is dependent on context and dependent on just the unique characteristics that God created us to live out, and also the unique circumstances that we happen to be in as well. And, one of the ways where this distinction is really important is just exactly what you said earlier that on one hand, some people are kind of veering more towards the positive, the toxic positivity. And in reality, there’s a lot of truth there as well, because in the last 20, 30 years, there’s been a ton of research on positive psychology and it’s found even empirically verified that practices such as gratitude and joy and connecting with other people Those really do make a big difference in terms of our overall wellbeing I think where the concern comes with when we start veering into toxic positivity is when we find ourself in a space where we affirm these positive practices, but they become all that we can do, right? So much so that even when we’re in a situation where it might actually be more congruent for us to feel a little bit more of the negative emotions, it’s almost as if we don’t have permission to do that. And when we’re in that kind of situation, I would say all the benefits of the positive interventions, not only do we lose them, and lose their meaning and their richness, but we might actually be doing more harm than good. So that brings me to a question, because for our Mental Health Awareness Week, the group that came together to plan this decided to help us as a community with tools, many of which come from positive psychology So gratitude, releasing something, giving yourself permission to not do something, specifically in this time Making sure that you’re connecting with people. Rest is one of the tools and also play How do you recommend that we engage these tools without veering into toxic positivity. Also acknowledging honestly, that we’re doing these things because things are hard right now I think one approach to follow would be to take the approach that, my mind and my experience again, is paradoxical, right? So when I introduce interventions such as gratitude, it’s not with the intention that this gratitude is going to take over 100% and occupy 100% of my mind I think as long as we acknowledge something to the extent of, you know, given what you’re experiencing, it makes a lot of sense to me that you might be feeling this, this, this, and this. In addition to that, let’s introduce this gratitude, exercise. So that can be included into this mix That, I admit, is complicated and ever so messy And yet all of these things that we’re thinking and feeling might actually be true Yeah. I have another question for you, that has to do with getting stuck in those negative emotions, the emotion that, I mean, I’m calling them negative, but they’re really just uncomfortable What do we do with that rumination that can come up? How do we respond to that? That’s a great question because, and that’s an important point of balance to our conversation thus far today as well, because in our negative emotions, it’s quite possible for us to get stuck in them,

in a ruminative fashion where if I’m sorrowful for me to just get stuck in this negative spiral where one negative thought leads to another, and I just kind of stay in that mode for a long time And that’s not a healthy thing either There’s a couple of things I would say. I think in those cases, having a lot of these positive interventions certainly can be very life giving So long as we can acknowledge the paradox of them coexisting And the other thing I would say is that, say for example, the emotion of anger, that’s an emotion that a lot of us are uncomfortable with. What a lot of us don’t realize is that the one sure-fire way to make someone even more angry is to tell them to not be angry Even though that’s kind of what conventionally, what we do, even when, legitimately a lot of times our anger will lead us into destructive behavior and to speak destructive words And yet again, paradoxically, I find that at least not only in my pastoral work, but in my clinical work as well, that if you go into the anger and you dig deep enough, there’s almost always a nugget of truth in that anger that just needs to be seen, that needs to be witnessed by someone And if we can find that nugget of truth and validate it and see it, then paradoxically, that actually often times is the most effective way to quench someone’s anger Anger is this emotion that increases when we feel that the people around us aren’t receiving what we’re trying to communicate So when we actually hear them and take them seriously, a lot of times that’s enough for the anger to kind of fulfill its purpose and function You’ve introduced something that I think is incredibly important that as we’re talking about our biblical response to the pandemic, and as we’re processing our own emotions and responses, that we actually cannot and should not be doing it alone, that we need each other for it to mirror and acknowledge reality And to give permission sometimes even speaking something out of our brain, something that’s been ruminating or something that maybe is a little bit too much toxic positivity, speaking it out can help normalize it So I don’t want us to forget that as we’re thinking about our own emotional and mental wellbeing Any thoughts about needing each other in this process? Absolutely. When I am in my dark points in life, sometimes I find myself unable to get out of it And what I need is sometimes someone who’s alive in real flesh and blood to model the kind of patience and grace and long suffering and long-term accompaniment that I need. And as a pastor and as a Christian, I see that as effective not only in its own right, but effective insofar as it reminds us that this is actually the posture that God has towards us as well When He accompanies us, He is also long suffering And when you contrast that with how we tend to speak to ourselves, like if we were to put a microphone into our internal dialogue and write down or listen or record how we speak to ourselves, it’s usually quite cruel We would never dare to say those things to anyone else And if we put this in light of scripture, as we should do for all things, these are not things that the Lord would speak to us And yet we internalize them not only as What other people might be thinking about us, but also what God might be thinking of us as well Absolutely. David, thank you so much for this time We deeply appreciate your time here for our community to help us to think about this well, and to be real, to acknowledge the reality and the truth of God’s victory, but also the reality of the brokenness right now, and that we can hold these things together So thank you so much for that