Often the most difficult application of faith is applying it to one’s own life. Recognizing the opportunity in job loss is not hard, until it’s your own job. The high school senior easily recognizes that his friends will be just fine if they cannot attend a favorite university, yet receiving his own rejection letter is unbearable. The stressed-out mama readily concedes that other peoples’ children will live to tell if they don’t eat two vegetables a day, but her own picky eater sends her running to the allergist and buying Flintstone multi-vitamins in bulk. Seeing the forest for the trees is easy, until it’s your forest, and they’re Redwoods.
Then there are the more daunting giants: Death. Disease. Abandonment. Loss. These are hard, hard realities to grapple with. Especially when they are personal; even through the lens of faith. Our physical, physiological, and emotional reactions do not always turn first to our reason for their cues. They can be powerful, persistent, and persuasive. How do we cope with this? Where is the promised peace, the unfettered joy, and the inalienable hope? Is it possible to believe in something or someone totally, but not enough?
Fear That Faith Isn’t Enough
You can believe fully in the redemption of man yet be broken by the horror of death.
This question has come to the forefront of my own life through the recent death of both my father and father-in-law. Losing them led to a paralyzing fear of death and nothingness, even though I believe in God and his eternity. Somehow, paradoxically, imagining my own death cannot incorporate the truths of my faith. This is a fearsome fear, yet the answer is clear.
It is absolutely possible to believe totally, but not enough. You can believe fully in the redemption of man through Christ yet be broken by the horror of death and separation as you lay your loved one in the ground. You can believe with your whole being and trust with your whole heart that God is good and has a plan “to prosper you… to give you hope and a future” (Jer 29:11) and still be devastated by an empty womb and angry with a good God. You can trust completely that God “works all things together for good” (Rom 8:28) and not credit this good at all times.
Sin, decay, and evil are a part of our current reality. They affect our lives and burden our hearts precisely because they stand in jarring contrast to the eternal truths of beauty, goodness, timelessness, and harmony. We are promised life and experience death. We seek peace and live through war. Love brings pain. Stale words, until it is our death, our war, our pain. Then these words drip with grief. Time may calm the storm, at least enough to regain our footing, but in the meantime, when what we believe does not pacify us, can our faith endure our fear?
Will Your Fear Send You Closer to God, or Further Away?
To witness saints cling to Christ in the midst of fear and uncertainty is a more powerful proof.
For the Christian, there are two fundamentally different types of fear. There is fear that sends you into the arms of God and there is fear that alienates you from God. The latter is disconcerting and devastating. When used to turning to prayer for strength and suddenly you turn to find a desert, or worse yet, doubt, what then? When our fear is that our faith is in vain? That light does not conquer darkness, that God is deaf? Standing firmly by our faith now, is it madness? I can hear my desperate, mocking voice in the words of the thief, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39) How then can I answer as the other thief, “Do you not fear God… Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom” (Luke 23:40, 42)
Rather than espouse my own wobbly response, let us turn to the communion of saints. There is a phenomenon for the spiritually advanced commonly termed the dark night of the soul, and while I have no personal experience of this, it is clear that fear is engaged as it is essentially a relationship with God devoid of consolation. He grows silent. For the saints that have progressed in their relationship with Christ so far as to have encountered this dark night, to no longer hear him I can only assume would be a living hell.
For the purposes of this examination of fear and faith–and precisely that fear that does not find itself within the jurisdiction of faith but seems to stand outside of it–I propose we take immense comfort in this experience of spiritually wiser men and women. Saint Teresa of Calcutta is a recent and poignant example. She lost all sense of God for most of her adult life, yet the certainty she had known was enough to carry her through. To cling to Christ in the midst of fear and uncertainty myself, I can question. To witness saints do so is a more powerful proof. There is comfort to be had in this solidarity. In times of fear and uncertainty, turn to the Body of Christ. Companionship and perspective are truly vital in the struggle against fear and anxiety.
Fear is a Natural Response to the Unnatural
We should not hope to de-naturalize our fear but rather super-naturalize it.
In the meantime, when trials befall us, it is all too easy to under- or over-spiritualize fear. We are mind and body, not either/or but both, and intricately so. Just as we bear the effects of physical vice in the entirely of our lives and emotional abuse finds physical outlets, so too is our anxiety more than a physical reaction and our fear more than a mental one. We can strive not to take ourselves and our anxieties too seriously. Fear is a natural response to what is unnatural to the image of Christ in us. We should not hope to de-naturalize our response but rather super-naturalize it, that is, strengthen within us the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love to overcome our natural fear. We can believe courageously–where courage is not the absence of fear but action in spite of it–not because our faith expels our fear always and immediately, but because we cling to the truth that we have known and will know again, carried in love until is befits our soul that we should emerge.