How To Be Afraid
“Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26).
We must learn how to be afraid. Fear plays an important role in life. Fear, in itself, is not a vice. We err when we let fear shake our faith rather than build it.
“Behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:23-34).
During the second world war, a governor once met with General George Patton. The governor praised Patton for his courage and fearlessness. Patton shot back an unexpected reply: “Sir, I am not a brave man…The truth is, I am an utter craven coward. I have never been within the sound of gunshot or in sight of battle in my whole life that I wasn’t so scared that I had sweat in the palms of my hands.” How could this renowned war hero be so acquainted with fear? Years later, he was noted for saying: “I learned very early in my life never to take counsel of my fears.”
There is another war hero who trembled with fear.
In his vision, St. John describes him this way: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like fire…He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood…Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Revelation 19:11-14).
What man can compare to this one, in strength and might? Yet, we see the same warrior in a very different position elsewhere.
“Sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), “He withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done’…In agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:42-44).
Hematohidrosis is a rare but clinical condition. There are tiny blood vessels in the skin. In times of extreme anguish, these vessels can rupture, causing blood to run through the ducts of sweat glands. The same lord riding on a gallant horse, brandishing a sword before the devil, trembled in the dust the night before his crucifixion.
We all know fear. St. John Chrysostom taught that humans suffer from three major fears: poverty, illness, and death. These are far from all-encompassing. We toss in bed at night worrying about our credit score. We listen to the news and wonder if a mass shooting will take place here, in my own town, at my children’s school. We ask unconsciously: Will he stop loving me? Will I be able to hold down my job? Will the doctor tell me I have cancer? Fear is as much a part of life as oxygen.
To be human is to know fear. Jesus Christ was no ghost. His body was real. When he took on this flesh, he took with it all the temptations and vulnerabilities that are part of this skin and bones. His flesh shrank before death. “For the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Jesus Christ relates with us fully in our humanity, in our struggles and even our fear.
He took on our weakness, with a purpose. He showed us the path of holy weakness. What St. Paul preaches, Jesus Christ embodies in Gethsemane, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Jesus Christ was most mighty at his lowest moment. God’s light shines the brightest in our darkness.
Jesus Christ taught us what to do with fear. He was afraid, but his fear did not stop him. He trembled, but did not flinch. In the depths of fear, he accepted fear, and turned to God.
“Not my will, but yours be done.”
General Patton’s words ring out loud and clear: “I learned very early in my life never to take counsel of my fears.” We cannot silent fear. We will never know a day without some amount of fear. However, we do not need to let fear control us. We can listen to it, and follow our savior’s example, by getting down on our knees and turning upwards.
“His disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:23-34).
There is something ironic in Jesus Christ’s rebuke. He knew why they were afraid. Their reaction was absolutely reasonable. They were sinking. If the spirit did not tremble, the flesh would. They could not help but fear when tossing in the darkness and fury of the storm. Where did they go wrong?
When Christ speaks to his disciples, he speaks personally and intimately. He knows the thoughts and struggles in our hearts. We cannot know what exactly was going in inside the disciples, the degree of their doubt or the kind of their fear. We cannot know how long a time it was between the first signs of danger and the moment the disciples thought to turn to Christ. Perhaps they felt they could manage it on their own at first. Perhaps they were angry because their rabbi took them out on a day like this. It could be, they had despaired and lost all sense of hope.
What we do know is how they responded to their fear. Something finally clicked in their heart. They got down on their knees. They reached out to Jesus Christ. “Lord, save us: we perish!” And he did.
God is with us in our fears. God sees us drowning in the storms of the world, the storms in our home, and the storms in the heart. We cannot help but be afraid. The task remains: how will we respond to the fear? Will we despair? Will we sink in our own pride? Will we get on our knees and cry out? “Lord, save me.”