- Association of Certified Biblical Counselors - https://biblicalcounseling.com -

Counseling During COVID

Dale Johnson: This week I am thrilled to invite to the podcast a very familiar voice, and maybe one that you haven’t heard in a while, but I’m really, really excited that Dr. Heath Lambert can be with us. He’s now the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Jacksonville. As many of you know, he started this Truth in Love podcast several years back. I’m so grateful for his ministry and even the work that he’s doing now as senior pastor at First Baptist Jacksonville and the work that he did here at ACBC. He left a wonderful foundation and footing for me that I’m so grateful for and that I benefit from consistently on a regular basis—the work that he labored to do and to accomplish, and the ways that he still supports the ministry. I’m so grateful for the work that certainly First Baptist Jacksonville does in counseling as well. Their Grace Center’s doing phenomenally well. You’ll remember his wife, Lauren, and their children.

Heath, I want to say, first of all, welcome to the podcast. I want you to give a quick update. I’ve had several folks ask about you and your family and how you guys are doing, and I try to be a good mailman and give them as much information as I can, but I’d love for you to just sort of give an update on how life is going now that you’re in the saddle there at First Baptist Jacksonville and things are going well, and your health, and things like that. 

Heath Lambert: Yeah, I appreciate that. It is great to be back on the podcast as your guest. I’m grateful for you and your leadership, and all the excellent work you’re doing. Since I left ACBC and left Truth in Love, I’ve been on a wild ride. I love my church in Jacksonville. I love First Baptist. These are the best people in the world, but we just needed to do a lot of things with regard to infrastructure. We had millions of square feet and property and blocks in downtown Jacksonville and we just had to live on a property that we could afford and update the property. That was a long multi-year process that was harder than I knew it was going to be, but in the kindness of God, we’re on the other side of that and that has leveled out. The personal piece with my health—While all that was going on, and struggling with all the turmoil and difficulty of ministry with that, I started having some neurological problems. I’m actually thankful you asked because I get these letters from people and they’re saying, “Oh, we’re sorry. How are your brain tumors or how is the brain cancer?” So, I don’t know how it got out, but it was a neurological problem. I had a compressed nerve in my brain. Some blood vessels dislocated and had worn away the coating on the nerve and so I was having uncontrolled movements on my right side. It was a pretty serious deal. It was impacting my ability to talk, which is a problem if you want to preach. It was impacting my ability to keep my eyes open, which Highway Patrol thinks is a problem when you’re driving. So there were some significant issues that we were facing and it took two brain surgeries. I’m still having some twitches, I’ll call them. I won’t call them full-blown spasms, but the neurosurgeons at Mayo Clinic, say that I am where they want me to be and the severe problems of impeded speech and eyes closing up, and that kind of thing, those things have been eliminated. So what I’m dealing with now are nuisances. I could live that way the rest of my life, but I’m advised that I won’t have to. It’s just nerves are slow to heal. So we’re finally—honestly, I’m not kidding you, the last three to four years, depending on when you start the clock, have been the absolute hardest years of my life, but the Lord has been kind. I’ve learned a lot about the Lord. I’ve learned a lot about God’s people. I’ve learned a lot about ministry. I’ve learned a lot about nerves in your brain. The Lord has been kind and I’m thankful, and I appreciate you asking. 

Dale Johnson: Well, I’m grateful for that brother. I know it was about this time last year, middle of September, we heard about you having your first surgery, and really since then on staff we’ve prayed for you nearly every week. I’m so grateful to hear the work that the Lord is doing there at First Baptist Jacksonville. I’m from that area. What a critical church, and a regional church, and the work that you guys have to do is absolutely important for the sake of the name of Christ and His kingdom. So, I want to say, press on. Now, I’m grateful for that update.

I want us to get into this topic. This is a difficult topic. This issue of COVID and how we think about counseling in COVID right now. You know, I want to say this, I think it’s really important, especially for good churches right now. In the beginning, people were just wondering what was going on and not really knowing what to do, and a lot of your bad churches had some difficulty, but right now what I see happening is, a lot of your good churches are having difficulty. People are opinionated. They’ve chosen their sides and this sort of thing. So I love to talk to pastors about this. Heath, you’ve been in this situation as a pastor and you’re dealing with some of the same problems that the rest of everybody is relative to COVID and how we sort out these details and preferences, and this sort of thing.

So, as we think about a lot of congregations, there’s a presence, certainly, of a great deal of massive conflict that’s happening: How to think about issues relative to quarantine and what about vaccines? Should we mandate? Should we be in favor of that? Should we be pushing things like that? How do we think about masking in different parts of the country? It’s varying levels of pressure, I would say. But some Christians want to sort of describe this in some sort of biblical law of love and that biblical law of love requires vaccinations. In your mind, is this some sort of legitimate way to think about the New Testament law of love? 

Heath Lambert: Yeah, that’s a perfect question. You know, these issues of vaccines, quarantines, mask mandates—It is complicated. It is tricky and we’ve all been dealing with it together for, it’s getting close to two years here. Like you said, you know, in March of 2020, we did what everybody did. I mean, we shut her down and closed up. We went online and we did that for several weeks, a couple of months, whatever it was, before we finally realized, hey, I think we can do some different things here. But after the urgency of, we’re going to have millions of people dead in a matter of months—after the urgency of that was over, then we’ve just been trying to grapple with, okay, what is best here on these things? As we’ve talked about this at our church here in Jacksonville, I’ve actually isolated about 10 different realities that are on the table when you talk with people about vaccines, masks, and quarantines, but one of the most crucial ones is this one that you’re asking about and the law of love. What you’ll hear is, you’ve got this New Testament law of love. You’ve got Jesus—the new command that I give you that you love one another—and if we’re supposed to love one another, then that means you’ve got to wear a mask. That means you’ve got to go get vaccinated. That means, if your nose is drippy, you’ve got to quarantine. That means if you were around somebody who sneezed, you’ve got to quarantine. Law love requires it.

What I want to say is, the biblical law of love is not about what I demand that you do. The biblical law of Love is what I do for you. It’s a little more personal than, you know, I get behind my perch and I say to all of you, here is what love requires you to do for me. Actually, in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 13, that’s a violation of love. In 1 Corinthians 13, love does not insist on its own way. So as soon as I’m telling you what you must do for me, I’m actually not talking about the law of love anymore. I’m talking about being hateful. So I don’t mean to question the motivations of people. I don’t mean to question their sincerity. I actually don’t know what the motivations of people always are, but if the law of love and the Bible allows me to demand you to do anything I want, well, we won’t be able to live that way. There are just so many different ways to cut this pie.

There are wisdom issues that are case-specific. We’ve got people in our church who don’t want to get the vaccine, but they’re married to a wife who has asthma or is immune-compromised, and so for them, the law of love is, I get the vaccine. We’ve got people in our church who are not dealing with an immune compromised situation, but there’s a conscience issue. I strongly believe that this is government encroachment and elimination of rights, and somebody who’s sitting there with antibodies from a previous COVID diagnosis is going, my goodness, I’m going to have a problem in my house if I go get a vaccine. So this is just to say, law of love flattens out conscience. It flattens out wisdom issues. It flattens out preferences, and it actually dangerously misses the opportunity for me to be really, really humble and say, you know what? I don’t know what’s best for every person and every situation. I don’t know what the best data is on all of this. So actually the law of love is to be a little more patient, in this context, than just to demand there’s one right way for everybody based on a limited scope of information. 

Dale Johnson: That’s so helpful, Heath. As you’re talking, I’m thinking of places like Romans 14 where Paul is certainly talking about preferences and how we should handle these types of issues. I love the way that you just described that this oversimplification of the law of love is flattening it out and it’s actually doing damage in some way to people’s conscience, either overburdening or flattening it out as you’re describing here. Back to Romans 14, we think about preferences. Paul follows that up and Romans 15:1 by making this statement that you who are strong bear with the failings of the weak. We’re sort of hearing this language along with the law of love. Like, if you love other people, which Christ tells us to do, then you’re going to do, X, Y, and Z, but we’re also sort of hearing this in the language of, you who are stronger, you should love your weaker brother enough and respond this way. So what’s the relationship in your mind between the weaker and the stronger brother as it relates specifically to these issues with COVID, like vaccines and masking and quarantines? 

Heath Lambert: Yeah, so I think this one is at least as tricky as the law of love application, and maybe a little bit more, because in Romans 14, you’re dealing with a very, very specific situation there, where the debate is apparently between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, where the Jews are going, hey, to be a faithful Christian—It’s different than Galatia where it’s to be a Christian—they’re not doing that. They’re not compromising the gospel, apparently. Look, if you’re going to be a Christian at the head of the class here, you need to observe these days and you need to observe these dietary restrictions. Paul says to those people, actually, they’re the weaker brother and the stronger brother is the one who realizes their freedoms. So I think we just have to be very, very careful before we immediately, establish a one-for-one between masks in the twenty-first century and days and diets in the first century.

One of the ways you’ll hear it—one of the conversations I was just in in my church was—people who think you have to wear a mask, they’re the weaker brother and the stronger brother is the one who is free to not wear a mask. I would say that actually complicates it because even in this conversation, by the end of it, we had one guy who’s very anti-mask say actually, you know what, I realized from this conversation, I’m the weaker brother. I don’t want to wear a mask, but my conscience is disturbed by it in a way that is more true of a weaker brother than a stronger brother. So my rules of thumb on this—You can be a pro mask or an anti-mask. You can be pro-vax or anti-vax. You can be, quarantined for the sniffles, or hey, we were getting sick before COVID and I’m going to make sure you get sick during COVID. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can know if you’re a weaker or stronger brother from Romans 14 based on three tests, in my view.

One is, to you, this is not about freedom but is about requirements. So this is what we have to do. That’s the weaker brother’s problem. The Bible says we have to do this. There’s this requirement. You don’t realize that no, you’re actually, in Christ, more free than you’ve imagined. So actually, this would be a person who would say law of love requires it. If you’re a “law of love requires these things,” then you’re being very law-y. You’re being very rule-y, and to you, we’re not talking about an issue where good Christians can disagree. That puts you at risk of being a weaker brother.

A second test would be that your temptation is to judge as guilty of sin those who don’t do it your way. So this is the person who can’t say, if they want to wear a mask, let them wear the stupid mask. This is the person who can’t say, look, if they don’t want to wear a mask, I don’t care if they don’t wear a mask. I’m going to wear a mask if I want to and they don’t have to wear one if they don’t want to. No, this is there’s judgment. Look at that person violating the law of love, walking around with their beard hanging out. Nothing covering it up. This is a violation of the law love and I’m judging you as guilty of sin. This is placing you at risk of being the weaker brother. Then finally, the third thing, and this is the crucial test that is so often misunderstood, even on other issues like alcohol and other things, you’re tempted to follow others in spite of your conscience, which says it’s sin. So this would be, I think we should wear a mask, but I see you not wearing one, and it’s not just that I think you’re wrong, but I’m tempted to have your example lead me to violate my conscience. Those three things together are what place you in danger of being the weaker brother, but you could be on either side of the mask or the vax or the quarantine debate and be that person. So I would say the most important issue about Romans 14 is not, let’s identify in every which way who is the weaker and the stronger brother. That can be, from a contextual standpoint, pretty complicated, but I would say the driving force in Romans 14 is, hey, we can bear with one another. We can not judge the strong and we can not despise the weak. Those rules of thumb for how we respond to one another are always going to be relevant in almost any situation. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. That’s clear. That’s exactly, I think, the conclusion in Romans 15:1. We bear the failings of the weak. I think you’re right in clarifying that we sort of have our sides, who we think is weaker and who we think is stronger, but the Bible gives so much more dissecting clarity on these types of issues. Thanks for nuancing those.

You know, one of the things, Heath, that I’ve seen sort of throughout this whole thing is just—And this is on both sides. It doesn’t matter what you think about vaccines, what you think about masks, what you think about quarantining— we are seeing an amazing spirit of fear. People are overwhelmed with fear and worry and anxiety. How do you think about this problem of fear, and how does it play a role for Christians in how they respond to this whole issue of COVID? 

Heath Lambert: Yeah, so, oh my goodness, this is the eye of the tornado. We forget that fear really is a sin. You’re not allowed to be afraid. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus says three times, don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4, says, be anxious for nothing. You’re not allowed to be afraid COVID’s going to kill you. You’re not allowed to be afraid the Biden administration is using this to take every vestige of liberty from America. You’re not allowed to be afraid of those things. So by my count, there are a number of fears going here. There are people who are afraid of sickness and death. There are people who are afraid of the cultural shifts and government intrusion and economic collapse, and all of those kinds of things. Then there are people who are afraid of the judgments of others. I don’t want to wear that stupid mask. They’re going to hassle me if I don’t start putting the thing on. It’s a fear-driven decision and not a love-driven decision, or a faith-driven decision.

So, fears are going in every direction. It’s not just that the maskless people are the ones who are bold and brave. You talk to those folks and a lot of times they’re like, I’m afraid of what’s happening to our country. They’re commanding what I can wear on my face and it’s scaring me half to death. So, we’ve got to find a way to deal with these things apart from fear. Not being afraid doesn’t mean a reckless approach to our health. Not being afraid doesn’t mean a reckless disregard for government intrusion and overreach and that kind of thing. But one of the things that’s so helpful to me about Jesus’ response to this is, again in the Sermon on the Mount, He says, who of you by worrying can add any bit to his span of life? What he’s saying is worry’s worthless. It doesn’t get you anything.

There’s a really practical lesson for the kind of people who want to listen to the Truth in Love podcast just that faith is practical and worry is fruitless. So I think the lesson is, hey, let’s do what we can. Do what you can. Think about this as best you can, and then you’ve got to trust the Lord. So you don’t need to wash your hands 150 times a day. You don’t need to stand by the door and wait for somebody else to walk by to open it so you don’t have to touch the handle. How’s that for the law of love? Give him the germs. You don’t take them. You can say, hey, you know what? I’m going to trust and obey. I’m going to be faithful and I’m going to trust the Lord, and when it gets to the point where I’m sitting there stewing, now I’m not being productive. Now. I’m actually being harmful. I’m not trusting the Lord. Another element of the Sermon on the Mount is, Jesus doesn’t just say, don’t worry. He preaches a sermon about two things: God is completely in control of the world and God is bound and determined to use all of that control to love you. Don’t you know you’re worth more than a bird? Don’t you know you’re worth more than grass? So we can have steady confidence that God’s caring for us in COVID. We can be faithful to do what we’re called to do, and then we just don’t have to sit up at night and watch reruns of cable, scared to death of what’s really going on out there. 

Dale Johnson: Amen, brother. Listen, it’s been really good, and thanks for the clarity as we talk about this issue. This is still a real thing. We wish we were on the other side of it, but we’re not. I have to say, it is great to hear your voice again. It’s so great to hear that you guys are doing well at First Baptist Jacksonville. So grateful to be partners with you. You guys are a training center of ACBC. So grateful to hear about Lauren and the children and that they’re doing well, and that your health is great.

Thank you, brother, so much for encouraging us once again and giving us clarity as we think about hopefully encouragement to pastors and their congregations on how to think through some of these really dicey, difficult, what have become quite volatile, issues. So, thank you, brother

Helpful Resources

High School Curriculum: [1] Foundations for Biblical Discipleship