The Scriptures call us to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), and we are told that this faith is being sure of something that we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). These verses take a special place in my heart as a biophysicist because in my research, I regularly deal with nanometer-sized particles and channels like those found in voltage gated potassium channels in our bodies. I am always trying to be sure of things I cannot see. Since the human eye can’t see anything smaller than 1,000 nanometers, how could I even know that I am researching anything real? It turns out that the answers are also relevant to the questions we ask about walking by faith through this COVID-19 pandemic.
Confidence in the Unseen
Why does Scripture tell people to walk by faith and not by sight? Why should we have confidence in something that we cannot see? Is the Bible telling us to just believe something despite all evidence to the contrary? Is it asking us to have a blind faith?
Scripture’s witness is clear—while from our perspective it might not look like God is active, he is still on His throne ruling the world. (Compare the scene described in Revelation 6, where earth is full of chaos, with the previous scene described in Revelation 4 & 5, where the worthy Lamb of God sits with all authority in the throneroom of heaven surrounded by worshipers.). Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:35). He works out all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). We can count it all joy when we experience trials or tribulations because we believe God is working through them to make us complete (James 1:2-4). As the song “Way Maker” goes, “even when I don’t see it, you’re working.” In other words, we can trust and know that God is working because of the assurance that we have in Scripture, even though we can’t see him.
This kind of faith in an unseen reality is similar to my approach to my biophysics research. I can have a lot of confidence in things that I can’t see with my unaided senses by collecting various pieces of evidence. I can test how large the nanometer-sized channel is by measuring the transport of chloride ions through the channel. I can measure the size of particles through the resistive pulse method. But at the end of the day, I still can’t see one of my nanopores nor any changes I try to make to its surface chemistry. All I can do is perform the various measurements that give me the confidence that I really am seeing the unseen.
The other day, as I was standing in a church service of about three dozen, I realized I was the only one wearing a face mask. One person came up to me and asked me if I was afraid, to which I promptly replied that I wasn’t. Upon further reflection, I realized that I don’t wear a face mask out of fear, but I wear it out of faith. Funny enough, a few days after attending that church service, I started having shortness of breath and upper respiratory pain (COVID-19 test ended up being negative). Still, I am glad that I wore a mask even when I had no symptoms for the sake of those around me.
1 Corinthians 2:14
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
If I were “walking by sight,” it would seem silly to wear a face mask. I can’t see viruses, and I didn’t see any symptoms. However, as 1 Corinthians 2:14 reminds me, there are things that our minds don’t naturally understand and we don’t always have correct intuitions about how certain things work. In the case of the “things of the Spirit of God,” figuring out reality requires spiritual discernment. In the case of invisible viruses, figuring out reality requires doing the hard work of high-level science. No matter one’s personal preference or political affiliation, we can have assurance about the unseen reality in light of the evidence scientists have put together for us.
Having “faith” in the unseen
There are certain things that scientists have learned about COVID-19, including:
- Infected people who never have symptoms (asymptomatic) and infected people who are not showing symptoms yet (presymptomatic) can spread the virus to others.
- Respiratory droplets containing the virus are exhaled from infected individuals when they cough, sneeze, sing, talk, and breathe, this is a major way the virus spreads to others.
- Face masks reduce the amount of respiratory droplets that circulate in the air and infect other people.
The fact that asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals can “unseeingly” spread the virus to others is, in itself, an excellent reason to wear a face mask “by faith.” One study found that 44% of secondary infections occurred before the onset of symptoms. In other words, 44% of people who caught the virus had already spread it to someone else by the time they figured out they were sick. This is a very different situation than was seen in during the SARS outbreak in 2003. SARS was a much deadlier disease, but people were most likely to spread the virus a full ten days after they got seriously ill. In that case, isolating sick people was an effective containment measure. There was no doubt about who was sick and what precautions needed to be taken to keep them from infecting others. When all was said and done, there were only about 8,000 SARS cases worldwide. COVID-19 on the other hand has been much more difficult to contain. There were over 6,000,000 cases globally as of June 1st, 2020. However, how do you stop the spread of a virus when the strategy of isolating sick people does not stop the spread because people are contagious before they are sick? And how do you expect sick people to know they are sick when many of the early symptoms of COVID-19 are mild and include such common complaints that they are easily explained away as allergies, or maybe not getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, these unremarkable symptoms could be occurring at a person’s peak infectiousness.
My approach to dealing with this unseen reality is simply to assume that I have the virus and that everyone else has the virus. This approach is similar to how, when I see a spill of clear liquid in our science lab and don’t know the source, I assume it is dangerous (even if it turns out just to be water). I am not fearful of the liquid spill, but I do take the situation seriously for the sake of my health and the health of others because I know that the realistic possibility of a danger is there. This is one reason why the CDC switched from recommending only health providers wear masks to recommending everyone wear masks.
Since respiratory droplets are a significant way the virus spreads, scientists have consolidated a lot of practical advice on minimizing exposure to respiratory droplets. They have analyzed outbreaks at family gatherings, at choir practice, at churches, on buses, at gyms, at restaurants, and more to better understand the conditions that contributed to the spread of infections. They noted some similarities in how the respiratory droplets were produced, how much time people spent together, and what the airflow was like.
In light of what we know so far, some practical advice from a recent Science article is:
“Given how little is known about the production and airborne behavior of infectious respiratory droplets, it is difficult to define a safe distance for social distancing. Assuming SARS-CoV-2 virions are contained in submicron aerosols, as is the case for influenza virus, a good comparison is exhaled cigarette smoke, which also contains submicron particles and will likely follow comparable flows and dilution patterns. The distance from a smoker at which one smells cigarette smoke indicates the distance in those surroundings at which one could inhale infectious aerosols. In an enclosed room with asymptomatic individuals, infectious aerosol concentrations can increase over time.”
So what can possibly be done? In addition to physical distancing, a simple cloth mask can help reduce the amount of respiratory droplets that circulate in the air. A cloth face mask doesn’t filter the virus out of the air you breathe in, but it does stop your respiratory droplets from being added to what is circulating around. In other words, it protects others in the event that you are infected but don’t know it. Since it is likely that many contagious people will not be aware they are contagious, widespread face mask usage is important and is one crucial way that you can love your neighbor during this season even if you don’t feel sick.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. -2 Corinthians 4:17-18a
Part of a Christian walk by faith includes times of “light momentary affliction.” Yet, we are encouraged not to look at the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. In a similar manner, how should we proceed when wearing a face mask becomes uncomfortable? We can overlook the discomfort of a face mask, and choose to trust in the evidence of things that are unseen.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. -Philippians 2:4
While I am not personally in an at-risk category, I don’t wear the face mask for me. I wear it for the 13 million Americans over 65 that live in multigenerational households who can’t just “cocoon away” while the rest of the population gets herd immunity, or for those that have or live with those asthma, chronic heart disease, diabetes, cancer diagnosed in the last year, hematological malignancies like leukemia and lymphoma, or had an organ transplant and more. What if my wearing a mask could have saved the life of a single mother of six who beat breast cancer? Scripture testifies to God’s special compassion for those that are the most vulnerable, for the poor or widows, or the foreigner in the land, and this is a small way that we look out for them, or metaphorically “leave our grain for the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner” (Deuteronomy 24:19).
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will guard you. Wisdom is supreme—so acquire wisdom, and whatever you acquire, acquire understanding! -Proverbs 4:6-7
With any novel virus, there is often lots of uncertainty. It sometimes feels especially challenging if there are conflicting narratives that people hear from governments or other sources they trust. There is also a growing list of retracted COVID-19 papers. One retracted paper, which suggested that cloth face masks were ineffective, was referenced by 95 news outlets, 15 blogs, and tweeted 10,000 times! On top of scientific research, some men don’t wear face masks because they are shameful, not cool, or a sign of weakness! Some people are confused that public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci or the CDC seemed to change their mind on face mask usage for the general public. Wading through uncertainty and conflicting narratives draws a final parallel to a walk of faith.
This is not a time to be afraid, but a time to confidently put our trust in what science has learned about God’s creation.
One of the components of a Christian walk of faith is growing in wisdom, understanding, and maturity. Jesus himself grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52), 2 Peter exhorts us to grow knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), and Ephesians encourages us to grow such that we are no longer tossed to and fro by every wind of teaching (Ephesians 4:13-16). The notion of growing in wisdom and knowledge implies that at any given moment in time, our knowledge on a topic may be incomplete or subject to grow. In our limited understanding, we might become confused by many conflicting messages. Over time, walking by faith leads to updating our perspectives as they align more closely with the truth of Christ.
The process of Christian growth is similar to the process of gaining knowledge about the natural world. At any given moment, our understanding is limited, and with a novel virus, it can feel like we are looking through the glass darkly. However, it is important to update our perspective with better information and to listen to expert voices like Dr. Fauci, even if they must sometimes correct and clarify their guidance as more is known and understood. Throughout this process, the best we can do is to continue seeking truth and be willing to be wrong or corrected with better evidence. Over time, we become less tossed to and fro as our perspectives align more closely with the truth of God’s creation.
For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control. -2 Timothy 1:7
This is not a time to be afraid, but a time to confidently put our trust in what science has learned about God’s creation. It is a time to be examples and blessings to our community, as one West Virginia church spent Easter making masks and other personal protective equipment for healthcare providers. And even when it is uncomfortable, I ask myself at the end of the day, would I be okay if I accidentally got a third of my church sick with several people dying due to my “comfort” and my “allergies?” Wearing a face mask is a great way to love your neighbor as yourself and to set an example for others to follow, even if you have to use a little faith.
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