“Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” –2 Corinthians 7:10
It was a most curious feeling. After I received my first vaccination shot, I did not want to shout it out as a milestone. I did not want to share the good news and relief quietly with friends. Actually, I did not want to mention it to anyone and hoped that no one would ask me directly whether I had had “my shot.”
What was that feeling? I likened it at first to a kind of survivor’s guilt, I think. Thousands of people in Scott County are at greater risk than I am both for getting COVID and for having it threaten their lives. How had I managed to get the vaccine before they did?
Let me be clear: I broke no rules. I did not jump any lines. But when the opportunity came to sign up, I had certain things going for me: my social network alerted me to the planned sign-up; I own a computer and can pay for Internet service; my education makes me reasonably adept at using online registration forms; my job let me get up that morning and devote my time to getting an appointment, not having to rush to work. None of these has any bearing on my risk level. It has no relationship to where I belong in the vaccination line. Yet, taken together, they put me near the front of the line. I was not guilty of anything, yet somehow, having done everything right, I felt like something was wrong.
Over the next weeks, the feeling was confirmed. People I know who were more at risk did not yet have their shots. Researchers documented measurable disparities in vaccine access that was unrelated to health factors or risk.
The St. Paul community, as so often, has acted to work against the inequities. Members who work in health systems and public health are working long hours and giving devoted service to get the vaccine out as widely and quickly as possible. Volunteers and staff from the congregation are signing up people who do not have easy access. Targeted notices that might get attention sooner than a government broadcast go out to eligible groups.
And yet, the truth remains that this did not turn out right for some people. Guilt is not the right category for the curious feeling, but what do I do with the truth that remains?
To his beloved community in Corinth, Paul the apostle had told some truth that was difficult – for him and for them. It had, he says, made them sorry; they were grieved. Yet he also says plainly that he had wronged no one, corrupted no one, taken advantage of no one (2 Cor. 7:2). He then goes on to distinguish between “godly grief” and “worldly grief” in a way that can be helpful with the truth that troubled me.
Worldly grief would dwell on the inequities of vaccination as though I were guilty or someone else needed to be punished. That kind of grief, says Paul, produces death. That kind of grief is unhealthy and counterproductive. But godly grief, he says, produces repentance – change – that leads to salvation. It faces the truth squarely, grieves the truth of our shortcomings and the pain they can cause, and resolves to do whatever is possible to make things better moving forward. It neither wallows nor blames nor denies; it takes up the challenge to do better.
Jesus said, “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32); it is truth to which Jesus came to bear witness (John 18:37). The truth may grieve us, but when it is taken as godly grief, that can awaken us and motivate us. Like a vaccine, it can free us from either sliding into perpetual guilt and despair or succumbing to a resigned disregard of what is not yet right. Godly grief can be a way forward to greater faithfulness and more effective service.