Fear is a very powerful emotion, isn’t it? The ravines behind the church that go down to the river are great to take walks in and explore during the day. But at night, it’s a whole other experience: the imagination can really run wild. It’s hard to walk through the woods without constantly looking over your shoulder to see if anyone’s following you. It’s kind of like the movie The Blair Witch Project, when the three young people hunting in the woods of Appalachia for the legendary Blair Witch slowly begin to realize it is they who are being hunted. And they slowly start to go nutty and do irrational things that only make their situation worse.
Fear makes us think irrational thoughts and it makes us do irrational things. And unfortunately, it is often a big part of our lives. Think about all the things that you are afraid of, or that cause you stress or anxiety. The news of course is a constant drumbeat of things to be afraid of – I don’t think I need to give you any examples of this. A steady diet of the news constantly keeps us on edge. However, there is another way to live, which I will come back to.
But first, I want to look at our first reading from Jeremiah, and a particular kind of fear that he experienced. Jeremiah was born about 650 B.C. and was sent by God as a prophet to the people of Jerusalem, to warn them of impending doom. The people of Jerusalem had turned away from God to follow false gods; they neglected the poor and the abandoned in their midst and were consumed with worldly things. Jeremiah prophesied to them of the disaster that would befall them from if they did not change their ways and return to the Lord: they would be invaded, the city destroyed, the people scattered and taken into exile, and so on. He was trying to rouse them from their stupor; in this case, he sought to spark the consciences of the people by making them afraid – because in this case they did have legitimate reason to fear. Not surprisingly, he was not very popular. In fact, he says that everyone wanted to take vengeance on him. And so, he was afraid for his own life, and cried out to the Lord. But in this reading, he acknowledges that he actually has no reason to fear his enemies, because he has the Lord on his side.
Like Jeremiah, sometimes it is not easy to live out our faith, or to proclaim this faith, especially in the midst of a society that rejects it and is hostile to it. Being Catholic and believing what the Church teaches, because we believe that the Church was founded by Christ and is guided by the Holy Spirit, is not going to make us popular. In fact, it might even earn us some enemies. Or, perhaps more often, people will have misunderstandings and prejudices about what we believe and might just keep away from us or subtly treat us differently. Of course, not everyone will do this, thankfully – there are a lot of people out there who are trying to live good lives. But there are going to be aspects of what we believe that sometimes will be rejected, and by extension, we will be rejected as well. This has happened throughout history. It is nothing new.
So what should our response be to this? Do we live in fear? No, like Jeremiah, we must remind ourselves that, if we are faithful to the Lord, if we cling to him and hold fast to what he teaches, we have no reason to fear. Jesus says, “Fear no one. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” Jesus is saying that the death of our physical bodies is not the worst thing that can happen to us. Nor is persecution or losing the respect of others, losing a job, and so on. Because God will always take care of us, He will ultimately bring good out of evil. We will ultimately be victorious if we remain faithful to Him. So hold fast to your faith and do not be afraid. Rather, pay attention to the state of your soul, because what matters are not the passing things of this world. All of this is going to pass away eventually, even these bodies we possess now. But our souls will remain; they will last through death and for all eternity. So what matters is our eternal salvation.
But even then, we do not have to be afraid. If we listen to the Lord and persevere in following him as best we can, and seek forgiveness for the times when we fail, then we can trust in his mercy. It’s only if we do not pay attention to the Lord, who speaks to us through the Church and through our own consciences, that we should be uncomfortable, or even afraid. We ought to listen to those modern-day Jeremiahs who call the world to a change of life and conversion of heart. Because that is what is necessary to lead us to conversion.
But it seems that we live in a culture of fear: what about all the bad news we constantly get from the media? It almost seems like just about anything can happen. And every year it seems that our society grows more and more antagonistic to what we believe. How are we supposed to not live in fear? A few suggestions: less time with the news and social media. More and more, their purpose seems to be to agitate rather than inform. Also, help someone who is suffering or might be worse off than you, and try to bring a little joy to their life. Find someone who is lonely and visit that person. It is amazing how focusing on the needs of others can take our mind off the things that trouble us or make us afraid. Also, doing this resists the tendency towards isolation, towards creating barriers, towards fear of the other. The devil wants us to be isolated. He wants us to be afraid. Then we are more vulnerable.
Finally, let us turn towards God, and renew our trust in Him, in his providence, his mercy, and his love for us. God knows every hair of our head: he knows us intimately; He’s not some distant, uncaring deity. He gave His only begotten Son up for us for our salvation. He’s not trying to trick us or trap us into making a mistake: He desires our salvation! Anytime you feel afraid, turn to your Father in heaven who loves you more than you can imagine.