“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18)
This present world is full to the brim with fear, and this truth is presented to us in a million different ways every day. Whether it’s the doom-laden pronouncements of daily news, or the soaring rates of anxiety and stress-related illness plaguing us, the fact that we’re succumbing to an overwhelming tide of fear is no longer avoidable. And practicing Catholics are no exception to this. I’ve spent far too much time immersed in conversation about the rough, wild nature of the world we’re living in. I’ve spent far too much time worrying about how that wildness will affect me, those I love, and the plans I have for the future. This worry is not without reason either, as current events are teaching us. A virus can come out of nowhere and disrupt all of your best laid plans. The future can be thrown into deep uncertainty with little to no warning. If there’s one striking thing our faith has to offer a panic-ridden world at the moment, though, it’s the antidote to fear.
It’s commonly remarked upon that the most prevalent phrase in the Bible is “Do not be afraid.” But few, if any of us, actually take it to heart most of the time. The psalms speak of this truth, Jeremiah proclaims this truth, and most strikingly, God himself taught us as he walked among us that fear has no place in the hearts of those who walk alongside him. God’s teachings regarding fear and how we’re to deal with it have increasingly fallen on deaf ears. Strangely enough though, sometimes what we need in order to understand that there’s nothing to fear, is a little dose of fear itself.
Matthew 14:22-33 demonstrates this most clearly. Christ walks on water and encourages Peter to do the same. As he approaches, he tells them to “have no fear”, much as he tells us to have no fear. We, like Peter, think we’ve received the message and proceed to ask for his help in doing some great and marvellous thing, free of fear, which in Peter’s case is to set foot upon the water and go to his God. And he does just that, walking on water in the sight of God and men – until the wind comes. He becomes afraid again, and immediately begins to sink, crying out to God to save him. Jesus does, and restores all to order, rebuking Peter for his lack of faith. Like Peter, we think we’ve heard and understood God’s calming statements regarding fear. Like Peter, we breeze past the deep, transformative truth God is offering us in seconds, in favour of works and activities we feel more pressing. And, like Peter, when the wind comes and unsettles our plans and tasks, we cry out to God as though we’d never heard his voice in the first place.
If Peter and the other apostles stopped to really absorb what God was trying to tell them they’d have been transformed, but faith doesn’t come easily to us. God will tell us of the infinite things, the eternal things, the spiritual things, and we’ll continue to rush past them in favour of flashier pursuits, like walking on water, or like our own plans and desires. And that’s ok, so long as we understand that God is always there with us, to pull us up out of the watery chaos, out of the fear, just as he did with Peter. That is what this time has to teach us. As humans, we’ll make our plans and we’ll go about our busy lives, and we’ll stress, fret, and fear when they’re swept aside as they often will be. It is in those moments of helpless fright that we’re finally left alone with the one who doesn’t change: God. As St. Teresa of Avila famously wrote:
“Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things, Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”
It is natural that we should be afraid on our journey to Heaven, as long as we understand that ultimately, there’s no place for it. As we decrease and God increases, fear finds less and less of a home in us. As St. John said in his first letter, as we grow in love, fear is cast out. True love and fear cannot live side by side, and this truth becomes ever more apparent as we kneel each day to pray. We must sit with our Father and wait patiently as he draws us out of fear and into love.