The biblical encouragement to “fear not” is being misinterpreted in ways that negatively impact efforts to mitigate the global pandemic.

As a family physician, I have the opportunity to visit with a multitude of people each week. Of course, we discuss patient-specific health and medicine topics, but we also talk about beliefs, opinions and the state of, well, almost everything.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us a lot to discuss.

In my job, I am not used to being in a position of such uncertainty. I practice evidence-based medicine, which means I do my best to follow science and data in guiding my patients through sickness and health.

With a brand new virus causing a worldwide pandemic, there has been much uncertainty. We cannot allow the uncertainties to keep us from discussing what we do know.

I talk with my patients, staff, family and friends about the facts we know, the way science evolves, and, as always, about how these facts likely impact the person sitting in front of me.

Generally, I feel trusted as I give my professional opinion and guidance. However, the unknowns surrounding COVID-19 has led to a plethora of opinions from a wide range of sources, which I think causes more confusion and fear.

Over the last several months, I have been hearing a lot about not living in fear. This concept is presented as a reluctance to make concessions in lifestyle or traditions due to the COVID -19 pandemic, rooted in the idea that God tells us to “fear not.”

When I hear someone say they don’t wear a mask or heed warnings of gathering because God tells us to not live in fear, my heart sinks.

Indeed, we have many Scriptures that encourage us to fear not.

Perhaps one of the more quoted verses is Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Verses like this one are used to justify ignoring recommendations like wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding gatherings.

I would like us to instead consider living in discernment. I have learned about discernment as a spiritual gift and discipline.

Discernment does not mean blindly following anyone or anything. Discernment is rooted in wisdom, searching, learning and testing.

We can confront a difficult decision by praying for wisdom to understand the facts, relying on our discipline of discernment to guide us to understanding. Discernment must be practiced and honed.

As Hebrews 5:14 instructs, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

I truly believe if more Americans considered discerning truth in relation to this pandemic, we would not be fussing about masks, social distancing and family gatherings.

I believe we would follow the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). From this love, willingness to change our lifestyles and traditions during a pandemic would emerge.

For me, “fear not” means to trust the discernment from God. “Fear not, Misty, as you go through this hard thing. You can do hard things. I will help you make a hard decision and see it through. I have provided the information you need to figure out what to do. Use it.”

“Fear not” does not mean: “Fear not, Misty. Nothing bad will happen to you or those you love because you believe in God.”

Sadly, this second stance appears to be what I hear from patients and others who tell me they will not live in fear.

As far as COVID-19 is concerned, I live in fear. I am not afraid of separation from God; nothing can do that (Romans 8:38-39). I do fear I will watch many needlessly suffer. And I fear we will all mourn great loss.

2 Timothy 1:7 tells us, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” God turns my fear into power, love and self-control: the power to make hard decisions, love to care for my neighbor, and self-control to follow through.

Fear does not paralyze me. It moves me to action and hard choices. Discernment tells me this is the appropriate path.

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