Providential Proximity: Choosing Life in an Age of Social Distancing

Dr. Enoch Charles

The world is currently dealing with a deadly pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus with the number of new infections and mortalities increasing everyday all across the globe. Every nation and its leadership are taking stringent measures to “flatten the curve” of this exponential spread of the disease. Christian leaders worldwide are listening to medical professionals and supporting their local government policies on “social distancing” by radically readjusting mission-critical programs, events, and workplace practices in their churches, organizations, and educational institutions for the common good of the society and concern for the elderly and vulnerable.

Those who advocate social distancing would be quick to say that it merely means physical distancing and not the complete rupture of our social relationships and obligations. While one remains isolated or even quarantined, they can still connect with their loved ones and the larger world through social media and other forms of digital communication that exist today (thankfully so). Even physical interactions can happen in a limited fashion at appropriate settings after taking all the necessary precautions. But when fear reigns supreme and selfish motivations take over, social distancing could prove detrimental to the individual and the society. People can start isolating themselves and hoarding stuff much beyond their need, becoming insensitive to the needs of the weak and helpless around them. Such self-centered behavior driven by fear cripples the society and increases the sense of loneliness, plunging the individual into more hopelessness and despair.

A key biblical theme that guides the spiritual formation of the SUM community is “choosing life.” But how do we choose life and faith when so many people are overwhelmed with negative thoughts and feelings? How can we overcome fear and selfishness to speak life and encouragement to our seemingly distant neighbors? One helpful way for Christians to reengage this world paralyzed by fear could be through the “principle of providential proximity” proposed by John Hare, premier philosopher and theologian at Yale University. Hare explains this concept in his work, God’s Command, that God puts “us next to the people God wants us to help” (p. 52). Hare believes that God can put a person next to someone else “just because you are the sort of person you are, and the person you are with is the sort of person she is, you are able to help her or she is able to help you” (p. 53). Moreover, when God puts one person next to another, God not only expects the one to help the other but also provides the necessary moral and spiritual resources to do so. Scripture attests to this principle as it constantly testifies to God’s immeasurable goodness, almighty power, and sovereignty that builds strong and flourishing communities of faith and societies.

Therefore, even in this “socially distant” world with a dire, public health crisis, born-again and Spirit-filled believers can look at their neighbor that God puts next to them (physically, as well as digitally) with eyes of faith, compassion, and self-giving love. They carefully and prayerfully discern why the Lord has put this person next to them at this time and then mediate the grace, love, and power of God to their neighbor in an appropriate manner that benefits them. The resulting action could be a smile, kind and encouraging word, sharing valuable information, listening to the other, some form of physical assistance, or running an errand for an elderly or disabled person. It could also mean seeing hopeless and impossible situations of our neighbors through the eyes of faith (Acts 3:4; 14:9) and believing in our Lord Jesus Christ to bring life, forgiveness, healing, and hope.

In times such as these, we are called to bless our neighbors by choosing life over death, faith over fear, grace over condemnation, and hope over despair. May we continue to do that, filled with the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, who not only puts us next to one another—physically and digitally—but also graciously provides every spiritual and moral resource to help the other in the most meaningful way.