Friends, I have my fears, and you have yours. That we have fears is one of the eternal facts of life, and having fears is no sin. On the other hand, our lives were not meant to be lived in bondage to fear, but to be lived well in spite of fear. Today’s scriptures suggest how to do that.
But first, we’ve got to be aware of what we’re up against.
Fears are complicated. Fears can be rational or irrational, positive or negative. At one moment they may protect your life; at another, they may diminish or destroy it. Some fears focus us, others misguide us. And in mentioning fear, I’m also speaking about its fraternal twin, Worry.
Worry is less dramatic, but sneakier in the way it trips us up. These dissimilar twins can serve us – but more often as “spiritual friction” that inhibits our progress toward God. Jesus frequently warned his friends about the spiritual hazard of fears and worries. So if you have lingering doubts about the reality of spiritual evil, just remember how every tyrannical movement in history has thrived on the manipulation of fear.
On a much lighter note, one terrifying memory from my early childhood was seeing those horrible flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. I’ve never been more scared! Yet surprisingly, some of my friends loved that movie! This taught me two things: that the exact makeup of our fears is as unique as our fingerprints, and that our fears live very close to our capacity for imagination.
Some of you know that my education and most of my work experience have been in fields related to art and design. Yet this aspect of my life has been very unstable -sometimes highly creative and productive, and at other times plagued by “dead zones”, periods of time (sometime years on end!) when I feel “blocked” – overcome with fears and worries about my own artistic competence and personal worth. What my struggles have shown me is that an aware acceptance of my own fears is not fun or easy, but that it is useful and spiritually healthy.
I’ve also found that fears tend to pile up in layers. For example: You may be afraid of losing your job; but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the underlying reason why is that you’re afraid of the uncertainty, humiliation or powerlessness that unemployment may bring. Keep digging down and you’ll finally arrive at the foundation of all fears; the two biggies mentioned in today’s Scripture: the fear of death and the fear of judgment. While it may sound weird to think of your fears in this way, I believe the Bible is really on to something here.
But notice the paradox between the two scriptures for today. One describes how to banish fear, while the other tells you to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” as a normal part of Christian living. How does that make sense?
Well, let’s begin at the beginning. The Bible’s first mention of fear is in the Garden of Eden – and you’ve heard the story before. But it’s the exact circumstances under which fear is mentioned that are so revealing. Soon after Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit, God calls to them, saying, “Where are you?”
Adam’s answer? “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
Notice that Adam judges himself before any judgment has been pronounced by God! Similarly, our fears are often less about God’s judgment than about the negative pre-judgments we make against ourselves.
As we read on in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find that “the fear of the Lord” is an idiom often used; and (to echo Martha Stewart…) “it’s a good thing”: …it’s portrayed as a correct attitude toward God. The idiom reflects the fact that the Hebrew word for fear also carries the meaning of reverence. And how true that is! Our fear and reverence are often co-mingled; and fearing something does pay a certain reverence to it. And confusing as this can sometimes be, the tribute paid by our fears turns out to be very real despite whether what we fear is God…or the Juarez drug cartel.
So often in the Bible an emissary of God appears to some poor terrified nobody like Isaiah or Esther or Moses who later goes on to do great things. But in the presence of Pure Goodness why are all these “good people” so scared? It’s because they, like we, have an instinctive grasp of the frightfully immense chasm between the Creator’s holiness and the unholy mess we have made of our own human existence. So one authentic response to Holiness is fear, but another is awe.
Not far from the college I was then attending, I once found myself in a rural field full of writhing snakes. The moment I realized what was moving all around my ankles, I startled and jumped. Heart pounding, I wanted to levitate – but I just kept retuning to earth! So I did the best I could – hopping across the field like a total idiot! But within moments (as I hopped) reason caught up with me, saying: “Eric, they’re creepy, but I don’t think they’re the venomous kind.” Nevertheless, in the midst of my panic, I wasn’t listening. I only wanted to escape. If they were venomous, we’d know soon enough! But I never was bitten, and probably never was in real danger.
What this illustrates is that knowing what to fear is sometimes very tricky business. Some things can trigger a visceral but mistaken fear …even in people who know better. In the same way, our fear of death or judgment can make us run away before we realize what we are running from! This kind of knee-jerk fear can overpower us easily. It’s the kind of fear that gun wielding thieves use to victimize others; it’s the kind of fear that compelled St. Peter – three times – to deny his dear friend Jesus.
Against the raw power of fear, what is the antidote? You may think this sounds far-fetched, but pay attention! According to today’s Scripture, “perfect love banishes fear”. In other words, the antidote to fear is love. And in using the words perfect love, the writer also describes that love as God dwelling within us.
So, OK – let’s look at Perfect Indwelling Love in action.
In his life and particularly in its last hours, this man Jesus shows great courage. He does everything right; yet somehow; all the most dreaded things befall him anyway. Physically, he suffers cruelty, weakness, pain, and ultimately, death. Emotionally, he is betrayed, rejected, abandoned – and likely faced the frightening prospect that all his efforts had amounted to nothing but meaningless failure.
In other words, Jesus runs up against (and suffers) everything that we most fear!
When the Church teaches that Jesus “descended into hell” what I think it means is that Jesus experienced, really, uniquely and painfully, everything fearful that we fear; everything fearful that life or death has to offer. But the Good News that flows from the life of Jesus Christ is that he suffered all these fearful things simply because of his unflinching, steadfast love for humankind! And that includes every one of us; right here, right now.
So here we are. We live our lives, we read the headlines – and we read the obituaries. These tell us that we are mortal, limited, that we are not God, that unknowns and dangers exist. And so we do fear. Yet we are also preoccupied with that Eden-drama hidden within every human heart; preoccupied with our longing for a better world, a longing for the bridge back to Paradise.
The chasm between God and us is bridged by Love when Christ stretches out his hands and lets them be nailed to the cross. And again, at his resurrection, he stretches out his hands in love: to cowardly friends, to those who abandoned him, to those with doubts; showing himself and proving that even death has no power over him; proving that God’s judgment is kinder than we can ever imagine!
And even though we can’t see him in the present, His love still stretches out those hands – to you and to me, through the power of the Holy Spirit, his living, present, and active Helper.
The very moment we are blessed to receive a glimmer of faith in Jesus, we can begin to see his life and resurrection for what it is: a confirmation that God loves us, an example that God exceeds our expectations surprisingly; and a sign that our fundamental fears (the fears of death and judgment) are fundamentally unnecessary.
But as wonderful as this may be and as much as we may want to believe it …why do we still fear? Why, even as Christians, do our fears still so hamper us as individuals ,and for that matter, as the Church, an outfit that is supposed to go fearlessly and bless the world?
Here’s why. Because like it or not, we are all participants in an unfinished cosmic epic of good and evil; and interestingly, fear may well be the best evidence that such an invisible conflict actually exists. Fear does not go away by itself or ever quit without a messy fight. The cosmic conflict is unfinished and so is the working out of our own individual salvation; the working out of our transformation into people who are progressively more willing to surrender to God the trust that even we find frightening to yield.
Yes, the conflict does go on. But the cross: look at it there! It’s our reminder that the ultimate victory already belongs to God! It’s our reminder that – through Jesus Christ- the victory is ours as well.
So work the muscle of courage – and trust your fears to God!
Some of you also know me as a Spiritual Director; as a person trained to counsel individual Christians; to help them recognize God and work out their salvation through prayer, discernment and action. In connection with that work, I have found that people’s feelings and questions about fear often yield unexpected treasure.
So, first of all, ask for help in prayer! God wants you to you be free from harmful fear or worry. God is listening and wants to help you despite, and even through your fears. Prayer can be a great place to separate the fears that serve us from the fears that mislead us.
Next, take charge of your heart. Only God’s perfect love can drive out fear, but for it to dwell in our hearts we have to clean house and make room. That means trusting God before all else; opening our heart – the best that we can – to God’s will for our lives. And doesn’t that make sense? After all, the word courage comes from “Coeur”; the French word for the heart. It’s helped me a lot to remember that courage is taking heart. Courage isn’t an absence of fear, but taking heart and moving ahead despite fear.
Similarly, let’s remember that worry is a misuse of the imagination that can clutter God’s room. To the contrary, it is up to each of us to re-claim our own imagination – for faith, hope and creativity – its healthy and intended uses.
What strikes me about today’s readings is how communal they are; how plural. Employing love to cast out fear is far more than a self-help technique. It is something we are meant to do together.
With the en-courage-ment of others, I’m now preparing to paint portraits of my daughters. (…And I hope I do them justice!)
Likewise, whenever we relate to others, we should notice the presence of fear and conscientiously expose it to the light of day – even when we find it in our home, our wallet, or our church. Speaking this truth in love helps most when it happens in relationship to others, but it can change the world.
Remember St. Peter? Like Isaiah or Mary or Moses (or perhaps you and me…) he went on to do great things; but only as his love was being perfected; only as Jesus gave him three new chances to express his love; only as God’s love so filled and transformed him that it displaced his worst fears.
So don’t worry if you sometimes fear Jesus; that doesn’t mean you don’t love him, too.
What the life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows us is just how trustworthy and loving God is.
So what are you afraid of?