Faith and Fear
We live in a terrifying world, a world filled to the brim with rage and stress, disease and heartache. And we know too much. We get front row seats to every horrible thing that happens in the world with constant reviews in case we missed any tiny detail the last sixteen times we watched. There is plenty to keep newscasters and doomsday prophets busy. And if what scripture tells us is true, things are going to get worse before they get better. Ours is a terrifying and fearful age. So what I’d like to talk about here is the relationship between fear and faith.
I am a certified wimp. I’m a chicken. I don’t think I was always this way, but something happens when you have a really vivid imagination and then you have babies. Once you have a baby, it suddenly becomes easy to imagine every horrible thing in the world that could possibly happen. With a good imagination, I can visualize every conceivable accident. I can feel every horrible disease or calamity just lurking around the perimeters of my world, no matter how safe and careful I’ve been. When we invest our hearts in our neat and tidy little lives, it feels sometimes like the whole world is just waiting to mess things up. Because I’m such a ninny, I’ve done a lot of thinking about fear in the hopes of becoming braver. I’ve learned one really important thing about fear and this is what it is: fear and faith fill the same cup. The more room one takes up, the less room there is for the other.
Faith is the antidote for fear--not raw courage, not a rash and headlong run into what we fear most, but quiet, rooted faith. Faith that behind all the horror and uncertainty of this crazy world, there lies a benevolent universe--one that is full of love and makes perfect sense and operates in our best interest. Given the state of things, that is a lot to ask, but faith in the justice and power of heaven is the powerful antidote for the fear that permeates our dangerous and scary journey here on earth.
Faith and fear fill the same cup, the more you have of one, the less room there is for the other. Because it all boils down to this: Faith is the fuel of good and fear is the fuel of evil.
We live in a world overflowing with fear. There is fear of the big stuff--terrorism, disease, financial disaster, random catastrophes; and fear of the personal stuff--kids in trouble, infidelity, betrayal, fear of being alone. Then there is the campaign of fear waged by advertisers and politicians and the media convincing us to buy things so bad stuff won’t happen, vote for things so bad stuff won’t happen, or to stay tuned in so they can tell us when bad stuff is going to happen. We all swim in an ocean of fear. We breathe it in day after day. Then we wonder why it’s so hard to feel any kind of peace.
Fear is the most destructive element in the human mind. Fear creates aggressiveness, distrust, cynicism and hate. It causes us to retract, to build walls, and to exclude people. Fear is incapacitating. It paralyses us.
Fear is the god of this world and has a marker to its very DNA--control. The desire to control things is a product of fear. When we try to control others, we are attempting to override their agency because we basically have no faith in them. When we force our children to “succeed” (by our standards), their success becomes ours. We own it, they don’t. The glory is ours. Control is the enemy of faith. When we wrestle and manipulate our own lives into exactly what we think they should be, we leave precious little wriggle room for divine intervention. We have such wonderful set plans for ourselves, there’s no room for God’s surprises, for those delightful plot twists He’s so fond of. Control is the height of both arrogance and insecurity. Control is relying on the arm of the flesh.
And ultimately, control is really only an illusion. We have no real control. Life here on earth is about free agency and risk. Our lives are at the whim of a hundred thousand uncertainties. Our job here is not to control our situation--to guarantee that everything be perfect and happy and blissful all the time. Rather, we’re to do the best we can, prepare the best we can, and then use whatever befalls us to gain experience and wisdom and, most of all, to be useful to others.
The big lie that all this fear brings with it is that we, all by ourselves, can keep bad things at bay. That somehow--if we do all the right things in just the right way--we can guarantee our lives and insure them against pain. But alas, pain is part of the reason we’re here. It’s an essential part of our purpose. Life isn’t supposed to be easy and pain-free, it’s supposed to teach us joy. We can only feel real joy about things we’ve shed some tears over. As Kahlil Gibran says, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Faith is what the power of God looks like. Faith is anchored to everlasting things--true things, eternal things. At its core is free agency, a willingness to let go of the white knuckle grip we have on our lives and rely upon something larger than ourselves.
Faith is at the heart of true courage. The prophet Alma says, “Yea I know that I am nothing; as to my strength, I am weak...but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.” And here is the lovely paradox--that true humility begets true courage. To know we have the help of heaven makes all things possible no matter who we are and no matter how limited our abilities.
Faith is what gave David the chutzpah to confront Goliath and gave Moses the audacity to make demands of Pharaoh. On this continent, faith gave a motley band of patriots the courage to take on the whole British Empire. Faith is what sustains and empowers righteous actions everywhere--great and small.
I was reading a book about the Amish awhile ago and was intrigued about their notion of insurance. In this little Amish village, they had no formal insurance. If anything really bad happened--like their barn burned down or their cow got sick and died--their neighbors just pitched in and tried to helped them out of their jam--built them a new barn or gave them a new cow. They all just took really good care of each other.
Unfortunately, our culture’s notion of insurance, our idea of taking really good care of each other, has evolved to a hard business transaction. And we demand guarantees for our money. We insist that everything be made right as rain. We want a hedge against pain of any kind--that’s what we’re paying for. Insurance is the way we control bad stuff and we’re willing to pay huge bucks for this control. We buy insurance for everything--even though it doesn’t come under that heading. We buy insurance for body odor, dandruff, flu, streaky windows, bad breath, cellulite, loneliness, a lack of calcium in our diets, the admiration of others, our children’s success. We try to insure that we’ll have the energy and agility and virility of a twenty-five year old when we’re pushing eighty. We spend an astronomical amount of money and time and worry insuring ourselves against every conceivable discomfort or pain or embarrassment--the biggest being death itself.
And yet here is the sad truth--we’re all going to feel pain. We’re all going to die. There are no guarantees in this life. None. The closest we can come, I believe, is to be useful to the being who does hold all the strings. To be useful God, i.e. useful to our fellow man. If we make ourselves channels for blessings--distributors of blessings rather than hoarders of blessings, perhaps God with entrust us with the abundance to share. Whether that abundance comes in the form of money or love or comfort or aid, if God can depend on us to spread it around, hopefully we’ll always have enough to spread.
If God can depend on us to use our days blessing everyone we can, He’ll give us as many of those days as possible and will lead us and direct us to places and people who are in need. If He knows we will abide by the truth we receive, He will give us truth. If He knows we’ll share our light with the world, he’ll help us shine. If He knows we’ll use our strength to steady others who are weak, he’ll make us strong. This is the insurance faith provides. Faith is the antidote for all that makes us fearful.
What are we really afraid of? What should we be afraid of?
Our lives are nothing more than ten trillion choices stretched over time. With each choice we define our values and priorities and shape ourselves. Faith teaches us to hold loosely all that is not eternal, all that is of this world only. This should make most of our ten trillion choices a little easier, but the fact that we’re swimming like crazy just to stay afloat in the here and now can make us lose sight of all those eternal priorities.
The here and now tells us we are only worth what we possess, that we are defined by what we own, our title, our degree, our opulent home, our giant car, our toned muscles, our brilliant white smiles, our impressive resumes--our flash. It teaches us to fear and crave the good opinion of others without compelling us to love them.
We fear death. We fear pain. We fear hardship. We fear loss. Strangely, the more we think we are able to “control” these or avoid them, the more pronounced is our fear. In truth, these things--death, pain, hardship and loss--are a big part of the reason we’re here on earth. They are life’s master classes. The really hard stuff is where we learn the really big, really important lessons. They are where we gain wisdom and develop character. Where we prove what we’re really made of and capable of.
All this is nice in the abstract--but how does faith to help us endure and give meaning and grow from hard stretches? How do we make our faith a sufficiently sturdy thing, something we can cling to when life gets really rough?
This is how our faith takes root: God asks us to do something we don’t want to do, that we know we’ll just hate doing, but we do it anyway just because He asked. And somewhere, right in the middle of this awful chore, we catch a glimpse of the reason we were asked to do this. We see how specific we were to this thing and feel honored that God knew us well enough to ask this thing of us. Awed that He knows us that specifically and that he had that kind of trust in us and our abilities. And this understanding makes the task itself an honor.
God asks us to do something impossible. We know it’s impossible, but we try it anyway just because He asked us to. And just as we suspected, our best efforts aren’t enough, so God sends little miracles--extra time, extra strength, extra help--to bridge the gap. We see His hand in our lives and that makes us confident.
God sends us a task or situation that’s really really hard. We’re sure we’re not strong enough--that it’s all just too much--but we try because we’ve got no other choice. We put on our game face and give it our best shot. And like Christ in Gethsemane, the Lord sends angels--seen and unseen--to attend us and support us and to help us bear our heavy burdens. Each little miracle that we recognize and acknowledge as God’s hand and not our own, roots our faith and anchors it securely to divine, rock solid, eternal things. We know God is watching over us.
There’s a reason we call really hard stretches in our lives “faith-building experiences.” When everything’s easy, when we can handle things on our own, we don’t need God. Even though we’re steadfast and earnest and prayerful, it’s really hard to see His hand in our lives because we’re doing pretty well on our own. It’s when we’re out there on the ledge, when we’ve left our comfort zone miles behind, when we can’t make it on our own, that miracles happen. And, more importantly, that we recognize them as miracles.
But here’s something we should be afraid of--something that’s justifiably terrifying--regret.
Biscuit, my cat, taught me a great lesson about regret. She was hit by a car and as she lay dying in my arms, she was still purring. As I sat there sobbing, her peace settled in on me. I realized I had no regrets. I had loved this little cat as truly and as totally as I could and she had loved me truly and totally as well. We were square with the universe. We had been blessings to each other to the full extent we were able. Though I cried and cried--they were good tears. There were absolutely no regrets. Unfortunately, for me, loving in that total way--in a way that leaves no regret--is so much easier with cats than with people.
It’s a terrible thing, I think, to be stingy with love--to hold back the peace and joy we have to offer each other. I don’t think we’re stingy with love because we’re hoarding it for ourselves. Rather, I think it’s a very scary thing, at least it is for me, to overcome the vulnerability and risk I feel when I’m required to offer my heart to another person. And the only antidote for that is faith. Faith that love is always the right answer, even when it’s misunderstood or not returned. I’m convinced that the biggest regret we can ever feel is to have not loved enough.
Our culture teaches us to regret, to be perennially dissatisfied and disappointed. We’re taught that we’re not enough, that we don’t have enough, aren’t thin enough, fit enough, rich enough, pretty enough. Our regret sells tons of stuff and keeps all of us striving for more and more and more.
Faith teaches us to quench our thirst at the well we happen to be at before moving on. To trust that there is specific work for us to do in each phase of life and specific lessons to be learned. Faith teaches us to love the phase we’re in, to learn all we can from it, to do all the good we can possibly do, and then, when it’s time to move on to a new phase, to do so with grace, enthusiasm, courage and trust. With no regrets.
Faith helps us see our lives, our purpose, and our potential clearly and truly. It helps us understand what’s important and what’s not--what’s of eternal value and what’s not. It helps us see what is in our power to do and what we must leave in God’s hands.
Faith asks us to place on the alter the only thing that is truly ours to give--our agency, our will. It asks us to place our fragile and clouded understanding of ourselves and our own abilities in divine hands. It asks us to trust our safety and security to things we can’t see. It begs us to let go of the white knuckle grip we have on our own lives and trust in something bigger than ourselves. And the very act of letting go of the grip and control we have on our lives allows God and angels to act on our behalf. And so faith always precedes the miracle.
These days, in these most faithless and fearful of times, faith must be a deliberate and calculated choice. All the technology, all the medical advances, all the insurance and doomsday prepping in the world can’t immunize us from pain and sorrow and hard times. But faith grounds us. It anchors us to things that are bigger than the here and now. Faith instructs us through our experiences, especially the really hard ones. It makes sense of them and makes them useful to us. Faith links us to the divine and grants access to the powers of heaven. Faith carries us beyond ourselves.
In closing, I’d like to tell you my all time favorite story about faith. It’s a scripture story and, incidentally, a wonderful metaphor for our journey here on earth because it’s the story of an epic journey. The story takes place long ago when people still thought the world was flat and the sea was filled with monsters. It takes place when people who ventured out onto the sea always kept land in sight and navigated by the shorelines so they wouldn’t fall off the edge of the earth.
At this time, there was a tiny band of friends, maybe two dozen, who looked around and saw that their society was falling apart. They loved each other and wanted to protect their families. And so they prayed. God told them to go to the water’s edge and instructed them to build boats like none they’d ever seen. They were tiny enclosed capsules the size of a sailboat. They had no rudder, no sail, no compass--absolutely no way for men to control them. They had no windows--just a watertight hatch in the roof to let in air and another one in the floor for when they tipped over and needed air. And they built eight of these little boats with exactness.
And this is the really sweet part. Their leader was worried about his little band--worried that they would be frightened sitting in the dark for days or weeks or months as they were tossed upon the terrifying seas. And so he came up with a plan.
He climbed a high mountain and melted rocks to make sixteen beautiful, transparent stones. Then he took these and prayed and asked God to make them shine. God was so impressed with his pragmatic and absolute faith, that he touched the stones and caused them to shine.
The little group put two shining stones in each boat, loaded up their stuff, shut the hatches and put everything--their own lives, the lives of their children and all their posterity--everything, completely in the hands of God. They floated away from everything they knew, everything that made them feel safe and secure, everything they understood. They floated out into the terrifying unknown. They tossed and tumbled in stormy seas with their little lights for months before they came to rest at last on the shores of their Promised Land. I can think of no better story about faith and fear.
Pure faith is so hard, for almost all of us, it will always be a percentage game at best. But as little by little we exchange our fear for faith, we can measure our progress-- because faith and fear fill the same cup. The more faith we have, the less room there is in our lives for fear.