Can I have both fear and faith?
— Amber in Springfield
Three hundred and sixty-five times the simple phrase “be not afraid” appears throughout the Bible — one for every day of the year. The redundancy of this injunction from God tells us that it is more than just a reminder to seek the confident security to be found in the Lord. It is that, of course, but it also tells us that God knows we are going to face fears.
There a sense today that to be afraid of anything is to be weak, worthless, or wimpy. Basically, our society seems to have equated having fears to not having dignity. If you are afraid of something, you are a failure, a wimp, or a loser. And so, we look for ways to prove to the world that we don’t have fear. Skydivers jump without parachutes into nets to show that they are not afraid. High schoolers run across highways, risking their life to prove that they “have what it takes.” Yoda tells Luke Skywalker, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, we should not be dictated and enslaved to our fears, but they are not the only characteristic that we should evaluate our, or another’s, value by. When God says, “be not afraid,” it is not because he won’t love us until we get over our fears. Rather, he says “be not afraid” because he loves us and knows that we were not created to be stuck in fear.
We know the story well, but perhaps a look back at the Annunciation will help us here:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
Mary, the most perfect of all God’s creatures, the most completely surrendered to God’s grace as any human person has been, the most trusting, humble, confident, and graced woman to walk our world had fear in the face of the angel’s greeting. That fear, however, took nothing away from her holiness.
Fear is not a sin, it is an emotion. What we choose to do with that emotion within us is the decisive moment when we choose for God or away from him. If we choose to “fearlessly” (foolhardily) do something crazy, ignoring our fears, then we have turned from God by not taking care of the life he has entrusted to us. At the same time, if we succumb to fear when someone pushes back against our faith and we succumb to peer pressure or fail to defend our creed, we have failed just the same, this time in cowardice, and in not asking God for courage.
Perhaps Jesus’ words as he walked to his Apostles across the stormy sea should remain with all of us: “Take courage, it is I, be not afraid.” From whom do we take our courage? From the pressures and expectations of the world? From our own gumption and sheer willpower? Or from the Lord, who always comes to us in the storm?
Can I have fear and faith? Short answer: Yes! Long answer: Yes; in fact, fear is the opportunity to have faith. Our faith is not alive and well if we aren’t facing something beyond our control, and then willing to give it over to God.
Father Dominic Rankin is associate vocation director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, priest secretary and master of ceremonies to the diocesan bishop, and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.