Sometimes we can be held back from the spiritual renewal offered through Lent by a primal emotion that keeps faith from flourishing: fear. Fear is a crucial response in human life to protect us from physical, emotional and even spiritual threats, but misplaced spiritual fear can keep us from living out the Gospel call to faith. Debilitating spiritual fear can emerge from two seemingly disparate sources.
On the one hand, fear can emerge from the anxiety that the hard work, the penance, the suffering, the choosing of God’s way over our own way is simply not worth it. Concerns might surface that faith is a smokescreen for meaninglessness, for suckers who cannot accept the hard reality of nothingness at the core of human existence. On the other hand, there can exist a fear that does not question the reality of God, but questions whether we are worthy to stand before God, whether we are acceptable to God as we are and whether, finally, we deserve God’s love.
The Second Letter to Timothy presents Paul speaking to “my beloved child,” Timothy, asking him to “rekindle the gift of God” that was given to him. Timothy is reminded that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God” (1:7-8). Paul’s challenge to Timothy gets to the heart of the first form of fear that can strike even the boldest of believers. Is it truly worth it to suffer? To be imprisoned, persecuted, or mocked for my faith and belief? Is it worth turning from the pleasures of wealth and success to serve those in need or challenge the engines of power? What if I am wrong about all this?
Whether Timothy had in fact lost the flame of his faith or adopted a “spirit of cowardice” or was “ashamed,” the context suggests that in light of human setbacks, loss and suffering, even established faith can be shaken by fear. The letter does not deny the possibility that such fears are at work in us but directs us to the experiences of power, love and self-discipline that emerge from faith in God. Fear is not countered with theological arguments, but by asking Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the Gospel.” It is in following the path of Jesus that faith dissipates fear through the experience of the reality of God’s grace.
Others, though, might not be stymied by down-to-earth human fears but by the power of God’s presence and glory. If it is the experience of God’s grace that casts out fear, would not an encounter with the living God allow us to grasp the promises of God without question and grow in faith? There is a proper fear or awe that emerges in an encounter with God, but it, too, can lead to a sense of spiritual unworthiness. When the glory of Jesus transfigured shone before the apostles and they heard the voice of God identify Jesus as “my son, the beloved,” this spiritual experience drove them to their knees because they “were overcome by fear.” Divine glory drives sinful human beings to their knees, makes clear our weaknesses and sometimes makes us wish God would just leave us alone. Jesus, though, reaches out to his apostles saying, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
Whether we fear that faith is meaningless or that we are meaningless, it is ultimately our experience of God that reveals God’s love for us and burns away the fog of fear. These experiences might come in the most humble of circumstances, by serving someone in need or listening to a friend in distress or in the most profound encounter with the living God. But if our fears tell us either that our faith has no substance or that we are not worthy of God’s love, it is time for us to reach out and grasp the hand of Jesus. Have no fear, for his hand outstretched to us allows us to stand in the presence of God, for God has come to save us, knowing fully our weakness and sin.