What should you do when you see other people ignoring COVID-19 guidelines?
The onslaught of COVID-19 has slowed, and like the munchkins in the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz, we are starting to creep out of our corners to see if the world is safe. Many regional governments, municipalities, and vulnerable, at risk people are feeling cautious, and we are all asking questions about how much we can return to normal. As we try to judge for ourselves, we see other people ignoring social distancing protocol and making other choices we wouldn’t make.
It’s easy to judge.
When you are trying so hard to obey the rules, it’s human nature to notice the people who aren’t as careful.
- They stand too close.
- Their fingers constantly tug at their mask.
- They may not have their mask in the right position or, gasp, not wear one at all.
Lots of critical comments have peppered my Facebook page about the number of people who aren’t wearing masks in public. Too many cars at a house. That church down the road that held a drive-in service.
Shouldn’t we do something?
The dilemma reminds me of the time I returned from an international trip.The flight attendant came on with the usual spiel about turning off our electronic devices. Two oblivious teenagers sat across the row playing on their smartphones. “They’re not obeying the rules,” I hissed to my aunt who was traveling with me. “Shouldn’t we let the flight attendant know?” She replied with wise words.
“Let it go. It’s not your concern.”
I chafed. Wasn’t it my concern? Wouldn’t their insubordination cause havoc with the airport’s control tower? If we crashed and I died, it would be those teenagers’ fault. Yes, I should be concerned. It’s my life we’re talking about.
I’ve heard the same arguments about adherence to the social distancing and mask wearing rules. Shouldn’t you be concerned about people who refuse to wear a mask, embrace in public, fail to wash their hands in the public restroom, or touch too many items in a grocery store? They’ll leave their germs and you might catch the virus. Or worse yet, others—that elderly grandma over there—might get it.
It’s not your concern.
Am I being harsh?
Actually, Jesus speaks to this matter of concern over the behavior of others. He gives three responses that I think fit this time of societal reopening.
Pay attention to your own actions.
During his walk of restoration, Jesus gave Peter his next marching orders and foretold the future Peter could anticipate. Peter saw John hanging nearby. “What about him?” he asked Jesus.
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me (John 21:22).” In other words, Peter, you focus on you.
Jesus’ words apply to all of us. Instead of stressing over the behavior of others, each person must look at their own actions. Are you social distancing? Are you wearing a mask? In his encounter with the critics of the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Jesus makes it plain that we cannot judge the behavior of others if we have also erred. Grace displays the humility to admit that we have also broken the rules at least once. Before I correct the actions of another, I need to correct my own carelessness.
Evaluate your motives.
During a teaching session, a man called out to Jesus, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me (see Luke 12:13-15). After Jesus refused to take the role of a judge, he used the man’s request as a teachable moment and nailed the man’s reason for asking for redress. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (v. 15). Why did the man want his brother to divide the inheritance? Maybe the surface reason was a sense of justice, but Jesus, knowing the inner heart, pointed to greed as the core issue. If the man trusted God for his needs, as Jesus so often taught, he would let the unfairness go.
When the failure of others to obey social distancing guidelines distresses you, work with God to discover why that bothers you.
- Are you jealous? Do you wish you could get away with that behavior too? I know. We’re all tired of this but hang in there. It will pass. You do the right thing no matter what others choose to do.
- Are you afraid you’ll catch the virus? The Bible tells us numerous times to not be afraid. But we’re supposed to be cautious, you say. Yes, we are. And you are, aren’t you? You do all you can do. Then trust God to take care of you.
- Are you wanting to correct the errant person because you are concerned about their wellbeing or about how their behavior will compromise your lifestyle? I know it’s hard to let go of concern over our own welfare. When you fear you will suffer harmful consequences from someone’s carelessness or outright defiance, you just have to do a lot of praying for God’s protection over you. Trust Him. He has promised He will protect and deliver us from evil (Psalm 91:15).
Life is filled with unintended consequences. A hard fact of life is that the poor choices of others will compromise our convenience, comfort, safety, and quality of life. It’s part of the human condition. No, it’s not fair or right. But that is the way it is. Moreover, God has the prerogative to convict and change the behavior of others, not us. All we can do is pray, teach with patience (2 Tim. 4:2), and gently correct if appropriate (Gal. 6:1).
Jesus goes one step further.
Mercy triumphs over judgement.
One Sabbath day, as Jesus and his disciples walked through a grain field, the disciples were hungry and helped themselves to some grain kernels. No, they weren’t stealing. The law allowed the poor to help themselves to the outside rows of grain. The Pharisees chided Jesus for letting his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. But that part was debatable. Was this in the law or the Pharisees’ picky addition to the law? (See Matt. 12:1-7.)
Instead of getting into an argument about legalities, Jesus pointed out Old Testament exceptions to the rules. And then He said this:
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Whipping out our mental yard stick when we see others closing the distance or lowering their mask is holding others accountable to the letter of the COVID-19 law. Jesus has a better idea. Extend mercy.
Come on, doesn’t that mask get hot? Haven’t you felt tired of it for even one second? Haven’t all our hands strayed without even thinking to touch and adjust? Have we, when rushed, forgotten to wash our hands?
Changing Criticism Into Compassion
The next time you see someone straying from the rules, play an imagination game with yourself. Think up five different reasons why that person may be doing what they are doing.
- They get a skin rash from wearing masks.
- In their lonely longing for human companionship, they give a long-time-no-see friend a hug.
- In their preoccupation with how to make their money stretch, they weren’t aware of how close they were standing to you in the grocery store line.
- The elderly gentleman with dementia doesn’t understand these crazy rules.
- They just plain old forgot. If you have ever been guilty of forgetting, even once, surely you can understand.
Jesus calls us to replace criticism with compassion. In His divine wisdom, He knew that compassion and connection accomplish far more than criticism.
Compassion and connection accomplish more than criticism.
As our world moves cautiously toward reopening, we’ll witness many people at different coping levels. Most people are trying to do the right thing and do have an attitude of respect, even though they might lapse. Instead of labeling them as defiant law breakers, let’s all distribute grace, realizing we’ve probably bent the rules a time or two ourselves, and we are all wanting this era of social distancing to be over.
After all, mercy triumphs and grace works.