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Friday, March 27, 2020

Be Not Afraid?

These are strange and hard times. As of Thursday, the United States leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases, topping even China and Italy. Nearly 12,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized. In New York City, where the outbreak has been especially severe, even temporary morgues have been erected for the overflow. The scenes across our country are frightful.

In one way or another this has impacted you. More than 200 million Americans have been asked to quarantine in their homes. Already just this has proven to be much more than a time to playfully avoid cabin fever. An anxious grip is unbearably tightening. In just one week, 3.3 million Americans lost their jobs. Domestic and child abuse claims have skyrocketed. And as we continue to panic-buy groceries and cling to the television, a collective sense of panic is being shot through it all. The world’s blood pressure, so to speak, is catastrophically high. 

These days, Christians are over and over being reminded of Jesus’ words: “be not afraid.” Indeed, Jesus says some derivative of this seven or eight times across his ministry. “Be not afraid.” But the truth is that, for some of us, no matter how many times we remind ourselves, or pray over it, or try to embed it into our bones, we just can’t help it. We are afraid.

For many of us, this has become a time of incessant interior questioning: What is going to happen to me? To my mom and dad? My friend who has an autoimmune disease? My grandma and grandpa? Am I going to lose my job, or what will I do for work? When will I be able to hug my friends again? How long is this going to last? We are so used to having control. Now we have none. A lot of Christians are truly afraid. 

In light of Jesus’ words, are we all just bad Christians? 

It’s a lot more complicated than that.

The first thing you need to know is that, if you are afraid or even just find yourself worrying a bit, then you’re in very good company. We must not forget that the very same Jesus who encouraged us not to be afraid also experienced intense fear himself. In Luke’s gospel, we read that, just before his arrest, Jesus was so terrified and distressed about his approaching death that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Lk 22:44). This is actually a natural medical phenomenon ― something doctors call “hematidrosis” ― which is brought on by extraordinary levels of panic and distress. We see this today among prisoners awaiting execution.

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews describes how, just by being human, we all naturally suffer from fear. And, in the same breath, it says that “[Jesus] himself partook of this same [human] nature… for he had to be made like us in every respect” (see Heb 2:14-18). Of course Jesus had fears! Jesus was human! And as this scene at the Mount of Olives demonstrates, on the cusp of his arrest, Jesus ― keeled over and sweating blood ― was particularly agonized by the thought of his death ― “Remove this cup from me!” (Lk 22:42)

What this should teach us, first and foremost, is that it’s perfectly fine to be frightened. In fact, part of the reason Jesus’s heart was holy was that he was willing to have corners of it that were frightened and anxious. Jesus wanted to have a human nature. He wanted to experience what you experience, even if that meant fright or anxiety. And so the fearful Christian should not see herself as someone outside the boundaries of faithful Christianity. Indeed, the fearful Christian finds herself uniquely held within the anxious and frightened heart of Jesus. 

So it’s alright to be a bit frightened. It’s human. Jesus was, at one point, more frightened than you ever will be. Indeed, it’s unlikely that you’ve been sweating blood.

But, like I said, it’s complicated. We cannot let the words of Jesus simply pass by: “be not afraid.” 

So what do we do with this?

We must see that Jesus does not finally come to rest in his human fear. Fear is not his last word, so to speak. On the Mount of Olives, sweating blood and panicking, he prays to God the Father: “remove this cup from me!” But, ultimately, he hands his fear over to the Father: “not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk 22:42). Ultimately, Jesus comes to rest not in fear and anxiety, but in the hands of the Father. 

We all know that this is what we want. Right now, to ease that fear, we’d all like to place ourselves in the hands of the Father in an enduring act of trust. But I promise, try as hard as you'd like, you're not going to be able to do that on your own. You're not Jesus. You're not going to be able to do what Jesus did. You can ram his words down your throat all day long ― "be not afraid! be not afraid!" It will not work. Indeed, you will only find yourself even more frustrated and anxious.
"Why am I still afraid?!"

There is really only one way to do this: Jesus must do it for you.

Think of it this way:

Jesus wanted to have a human nature. He was willing to experience the fear and anxiety you and I experience, even in an extraordinarily intense way. And when you and I experience fear today, we should see our fearful hearts as hearts that beat and live within his own heart. But Jesus did not let his heart come finally to rest within that place of extraordinary fear. And if our hearts are embedded within his heart, then neither will he let our hearts come finally to rest in a place of fear. Indeed, he will place our hearts where he placed his own, even amidst a bloodied sweat: into the hands of the Father. That is where we will find peace. That is how we can make an enduring act of trust. That is how we can “be not afraid.”


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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