One Insight That Will Help You Thrive In The COVID-19 Age

By: Akos Balogh

There’s a key insight that will help you thrive in the COVID-19 age. It’s an insight found all throughout the Bible. And it’s an insight confirmed by modern psychology.[1]

As you know, our world can be a challenging place. Adversity of all kinds (and now COVID-19) threatens to suffocate us. For me, adversity has come in many forms: stress at work, tension in relationships, and now, the challenge of COVID-19.

I’m not immune to adversity.

But during one such time of adversity, I stumbled across a book that opened my eyes. It contained an insight that gave me a light-bulb moment. It changed the way I saw adversity. It changed the way I viewed the world. [2]

And in this post, I’ll be sharing that insight with you.

Now, if you come to understand this insight – and apply it to your life – you’ll have a powerful mental and emotional lever that will help you lift the burden of COVID-19.

So, what is this insight?

How We Relate to Adversity

To explain the insight, imagine the following scenario.

You’re in a conversation with a friend, a spouse, a family member. You disagree with them. And the emotional temperature rises.

And before you know it, you’re at each other like Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in the court room scene from A Few Good Men.

As you walk away, you can’t help but think to yourself ‘they always bring out the worst in me – I can’t help but get angry and upset with them!’.

In other words, you believe it’s their actions that lead you to feel and act in a certain way. If I was to model this, it would go like this:

Adversity (e.g. a disagreement) –> Your Feelings –> Your Behaviour.

In sum, you think your feelings are held hostage to the events – especially challenges – around you.

And that rings true, doesn’t it?

A colleague acts abrasively, and you get upset. COVID-19 upends life as we know it, and you feel scared and anxious.

Adversity leads directly to your feeling upset (which then impacts your behaviour): what could be truer than that?

While we might hold to this way of looking at adversity, it turns out it’s not true.

Adversity per se doesn’t determine our response to it.

The Missing Step

There’s a crucial step that’s missing in the above Adversity –> Feelings –> Behaviour model.

The former head of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman explains what this is:

[Researchers] Albert Ellis, who along with Aaron Beck founded cognitive behaviour therapy, developed the ABC model. The A stands for adversity. An adversity can be any negative event: a failed vacation, a fight with a close friend, the death of a loved one. The C stands for consequences: how you feel and behave following adversity.’

He continues:

Often it seems that the adversity immediately and automatically produces the consequences. Ellis, however, argues that it is the B – the beliefs and interpretations about A – that cause the particular consequences.’ [3]

In other words, the more accurate model is this:

Adversity –> Your Beliefs about the adversity –> Consequences (your feelings and your resulting behaviour).

Here’s the point:

It’s not adversity per se that causes you to feel and act in a certain way. Rather, your beliefs about the adversity lead you to feel and act the way you do.

Don’t let the simplicity of this model fool you. It’s a game-changer for how we relate to suffering, including COVID-19.

The Lever that Helps Lift The Burden of COVID-19

lever is a simple device. It’s not complex or heavy, yet allows us to do what we could never do on our own: lifting enormously heavy weights. In other words, it’s a force multiplier, in the physical sense.

And knowing that it’s your beliefs about adversity that shape your response to adversity is a force multiplier in an emotional, mental and spiritual sense: It gives you the ability to do enormously difficult things.

How so?

It means you’re no longer a hostage to the events around you. You are response-able: you can choose how to respond to whatever circumstance comes your way.

Let’s dig a little deeper to see how this works.

Your Beliefs Are a Mental Map of Reality

Your beliefs are like a map of reality. We know that a map is not the territory: it’s a representation of the territory. And that is what our beliefs are: they’re our representation, our view of reality.

As author Stephen Covey points out:

Each of us has many maps in our head…we interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually unaware that we have them. We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they are. [2]

Thus having the right map of reality makes all the difference. And so, if you want to move your life in a God-ward direction, then start by upgrading your map so that it aligns with reality: namely God’s reality.

But so often we try and work on our behaviour, or even our feelings about the adversity we’re facing. For example, we try hard not to panic, as we see essential items flying off supermarket shelves. We tell ourselves to calm down, and not feel anxious.

But this rarely works for long.

Our feelings and behaviour are driven by our ‘maps’ of reality. They’re the source of our feelings, attitudes, and behaviour.

And so, working on our feelings and behaviour alone is ineffective in the long term. Why? Because eventually we’ll revert to feelings and behaviour that’s consistent with our map of reality.

But if you work on your map of reality – your underlying beliefs and assumptions – and ‘upgrade’ those to match God’s reality, your feelings and behaviour will follow.

So, what’s the first step if we wish to upgrade our map of reality?

If you want to upgrade your map, you first need to become aware of what your map is.

In the busyness of life, we’re rarely aware of what our underlying maps and beliefs are. We just assume that our maps are reality. And we rarely explore them, let alone ask if they’re matching reality.

But you can’t change what you’re not aware of.

And so, if you want to upgrade your map of reality, you first need to understand what your map is.

How do you do this?

A simply way is to do the ‘ABC’ exercise. In other words, examining your ‘Adversity’ –> ‘Beliefs’ –> ‘Consequences’: [5]

1) When you face adversity, first ask what the consequences are – namely your feelings, and behaviour.

For example, how do feel when you see empty shelves at supermarkets?

Chances are you’ll feel anxious.

2) Next, ask why you’re feeling anxious: what story are you telling yourself about the empty supermarket shelves?

You might believe that empty supermarket shelves mean you’ll be worse off, and being worse off is a bad thing for you.

And thus, in this (not so) hypothetical scenario, you have your map, your underlying belief that is driving your feelings and behaviour: being worse off – suffering – is bad for you.

Let’s now examine how today’s secular maps of reality are faring in COVID-19.

What COVID-19 has shown about our modern secular maps of reality

They’re ineffective in dealing with a crisis.

COVID-19 has seen the rise of many bad behaviours among Australians. Panic buying. Hoarding. Acting selfishly.

As we’ve seen above, beneath these behaviours are maps of reality, driving the behaviours. And one common map believed by many secular (and some Christian) Australians is that suffering is all bad. And so, we should do everything we can do avoid suffering. Even if it means hoarding to the point of depriving vulnerable members of our community of basic necessities.

Suffering is all bad, and comfort is a necessity – is a common map our culture holds to.

Not only is it leading to selfish behaviour, but it’s also leading to negative feelings and emotions: namely anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Thus, our modern secular map of reality is morally and psychologically bankrupt.

And so, is there a better map of reality? One that helps us deal with this crisis?

As it turns, out, there is.

A Better Map of COVID-19

The Bible’s Map.

The Bible gives us an objective view of reality: reality as it is. A reality in which God is King, and the crucified and risen Jesus is ruling at His right hand. Indeed, the Bible gives us many such mental maps of reality, helping us understand the world as it really is.

In fact, when you read the Bible, you’re (partly) in the process of upgrading your mental map of reality. When you go to church, the preaching of God’s word also helps you upgrade your map of reality. [6]

And what’s the Bible’s map when it comes to suffering in general, including around COVID-19?

Suffering is often painful, but it is for our ultimate good:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. – James 1:2-4

According to God’s word, all things – including suffering – are ordained by God for our good (Rom 8:28). Suffering is a form of discipline, sent by a loving Heavenly Father to make us holy (Heb 12:4-11).

And when we take these words to heart, and align our view of reality to God’s, we’re able to thrive in the most awful of circumstances. Including in the midst of disease and death:

Let me share with you one telling example I’ve come across recently, from the life of Henry Venn. Venn was vicar of Huddersfield when his wife died in 1767. He raised his five children, and one day promised to show them ‘one of the most interesting sights in the world’.

He took them, by arrangement, to a miserable hovel, in which young Abraham Midwood was soon to die in great pain. He took his children into the hovel, and said:

Abraham Midwood, I have brought my children here, to shew them that it is possible to be happy in a state of disease and poverty and want; and now, tell them if it is not so.

Abraham replied,

Oh yes, Sir: I would not change my state with that of the richest person upon earth, who was destitute of those views which I possess … This is nothing to bear, whilst the presence of God cheers my soul, and whilst I can have access to Him, by constant prayer, through faith in Jesus. Indeed, Sir, I am truly happy: and I trust to be happy and blessed through eternity; and I every hour thank God, who has brought me from a state of darkness into His marvellous light, and has given me to enjoy the unsearchable riches of His grace. [7]

Why did Abraham Midwood respond this way to his sickness, and impending death? It was (in large part) because he had a radically different map of reality to the average secular Aussie of 2020: Midwood had taken on board the Bible’s map of reality.

Responding well to COVID-19

We don’t know when or how COVID-19 will end. Perhaps things will return to some semblance of normality within a few months. Or perhaps we’re about to enter a major economic depression. And this state of social distancing will be the new norm for 6-12 months until a vaccine appears. Only God knows.

But what we can do in the meantime is replace our bankrupt secular maps of reality – the ones that demand comfort and happiness now – with the Bible’s map of reality. If we do that, we’ll respond to COVID-19 in a way that brings joy to our lives, glory to God, and good to our neighbour.

[1] While Christians should be cautious approaching any secular field of knowledge, including psychology, we can use many insights if we filter them through the Bible’s lens.

[2] That book was the book ‘Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High‘.

[3] Martin Seligman, The Optimistic Child – A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 139.

[4] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Melboure: The Business Library, 1989), 24.

[5] Sometimes our mental maps are deeply entrenched, and we need the help of a psychologist or other professional to bring them to light, so we can examine and change them.

[6] Many of the apostle Paul’s letters start by giving us a God’s eye view of reality, and only then move to giving us commands that flow from this view.

[7] I’ve taken this example of Abraham Midwood from Peter Adam’s article at The Gospel Coalition Australia website: Trusting God in suffering, sacrifice, disease and death: a lost art?

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.