Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous,
be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
-I Corinthians 16:13
There are certain scripture passages that make me squirm. You probably know the ones:
- Love your enemy
- Pray for those who persecute you
- Turn the other cheek
- Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none
- Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me
Fortunately, there are also passages that give many of us comfort, encouragement and nurture our souls. Since March and the beginning of the pandemic, I have had an unexpected reaction to one such passage. Whenever I would hear those familiar words bubbling up from within my own heart or from the mouths of others, I would not feel the comfort and resolve that I had come to expect. Instead, both my hackles and defenses would go straight up. The passage? It is that frequently repeated admonition and promise found in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, “Be not afraid. I am with you.”
I know! I know! Whether spoken by an angel, through a burning bush or straight from the mouth of God, these words are meant to reassure, embolden, encourage, strengthen our resolve and give us what we need in time of hardship, suffering and not-knowing. They are time-tested and true. There is no way of knowing the countless numbers of people who have been comforted and fortified by these words and their trust that God is always with them.
What is my problem, then? Well, there are actually two. First, I am working hard to overcome the cultural and societal training that has indoctrinated many of us not to feel our feelings, especially those that are difficult, even painful. In ways both subtle and in-our-faces, we are taught to ignore, deny, keep a lid on and numb feelings that run the gamut from unpleasant to heartbreaking. “Feel bad, anxious, hurt, angry or sad? No problem. Go shopping. Have a drink. Take a pill. Binge on tv or Facebook. Just don’t feel what you’re feeling?”
So, when I hear someone, even God, tell me not to feel what I am feeling, my reaction is to put my foot down and say, “No! I am not going back there! My emotions are vital to my well-being and survival.”
Secondly, it is my lived experience that fear is indispensable for survival. Fear is a normal, natural and necessary response to danger. Without fear, both personal and species survival are just not going to happen. Fear stops us from stepping out in front of a bus, walking alone down a dark alley at midnight and, with a deadly virus sweeping through the country, fear will prompt us to do what is necessary to keep ourselves and others safe. We need a healthy fear to stay alive and out of the way of danger as much as possible and mostly intact physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Yet, fear can be unhealthy when we allow it to paralyze us, make us aggressive or cause us to run for the hills. Fear, like anger, is one of the most powerful of all the emotions and can take control, numbing our awareness, switching us to automatic pilot and causing us to react rather than to respond. Fear can become the guiding force or energy in our lives, taking away our ability to live intentionally, authentically, to love fully and to live peacefully, with joy and purpose.
These are the fruits of an unhealthy fear that is ignored, denied and allowed to run rampant through our hearts. I know this is not how I want to live, and I imagine you do not want to live this way either.
One of the tools I often use as a spiritual director is to reframe something the person sitting across from me has just said, to shift the way of perceiving a situation, to see an experience from a slightly different angle. As I pondered and prayed with my mixed feelings around this most common and reassuring of all scripture passages, I experienced God’s grace helping me shift my perspective: If fear is necessary for my existence then what I need is courage. I began to read “Be not afraid…” as “Have courage, I am with you.”
Have courage to turn around and face your fears. I am with you.
Have courage to embrace and listen to your fears. I am with you.
Have courage to do what is necessary to keep others and yourself safe. I am with you.
Have courage to confront the evil of racial and economic inequality. I am with you.
Have courage to see the climate emergency rapidly unfolding. I am with you.
Have courage to act with love, mercy and compassion even when everybody around you is running in the opposite direction. I am with you.
Instead of running away from our fears, anxieties and worries our task is to turn towards them with kindness, accept them as they are without judgement or criticism and even engage them.
Trust me, I know this is easier said than done; and the good news is we do not have to do this by ourselves. A wise friend, spiritual director or therapist can walk with us as we face our fears and learn from them; and, of course, there is God who promises time and again, “…I am with you.”
There is one scripture passage that has given me comfort because it instructs me what I can do with my fears and anxiety, how I can be with them:
Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises
shape your worries (fears and anxieties) into prayers,
letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a
sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together
for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful
what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center
of your life. —Philippians 4: 6-7
I hope you find the wisdom in these words as a way forward as we continue to face the global, communal and personal crises that is part and parcel of being “…a human being fully alive.”
Borrowed from a quote by St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and to be alive consists in