Saturday, July 11, 2009

Faith over Fear

The renowned Catholic spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, was invited by a friend to spend time serving in the missions of Central America. His time there had a profound effect on his life and on his writing. Like many others who traveled there, Fr. Nouwen was moved by how those simple people continually chose faith over fear. Faced with being unable to feed their families and faced with oppressive regimes in which their rights were routinely violated, they conquered their fears through faith and were able to live their lives with joy. The brutal conditions they lived under could not rob them of the opportunity to enjoy all that God had given them. And so, their lives were not marked by what they lacked, but by an awareness that God would provide for them and protect them.

Before sending his disciples out to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, Jesus likewise urged his disciples to choose faith over fear. Though they could expect rejection and persecution for following in the footsteps of their master, they were to go forth with confidence because they were cared for by an Almighty God. The God who created the universe and all its wonders also created them. The God who provided food for the birds, would also sustain them. They were known intimately by God. He even knew the number of hairs on their heads. Jesus assured them that the Father would let no evil befall them. His love and friendship would sustain them and come to be all they desired. They would even come to prefer death rather than offend the most holy God.

How can we overcome our fears like the people of Central America or the disciples of Jesus? By knowing that we are loved by this Almighty God. When we come to realize that this world with all its shortcomings and all its dangers was formed by a God who is goodness itself, then we cease to wring our hands in anxiety. When we realize that our Creator knows us and has destined us to live with him forever in the joy of heaven, then we no longer fear the future. When we realize that his hand guides our every step and that every good thing we have is his gift, then we trust that no harm will come to us. And, if tragedy should visit us, we are confident that this all-powerful God will comfort us, strengthen us and make all things work for our good. In the light of the love of God and in the knowledge of his power at work in our world, fear shrinks away.

The Scriptures also point out another way that we can conquer fear in our lives. Besides a deep trust in the love of God for us, the other remedy for fear is a clear conscience. One example for us is the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 20: 10-13). He lived in a time when some people made a living acting as false prophets. They told those in authority what they wanted to hear rather than the truth. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was not afraid to point out the wickedness and injustices of the rulers of his day. Because of it, he suffered much persecution. But he was confident that God would vindicate him. He preferred to be true to God's word than to please others. So he did not fear because he knew that he had acted with a clear conscience and that he would triumph over his enemies when the truth eventually came out.

When we live in the truth and make good choices, we live with a feeling of confidence. If we have a good reputation and act fairly, we can be assured that we will always be treated fairly ourselves. Jesus promises that there is nothing hidden which will not become known and nothing concealed that will not be revealed (Mt 10: 26-33). And so even if someone were to accuse us of something we haven't done or to spread rumors about us, we can rest assured that before long the truth will be made clear because of the good choices we have made. Our clear conscience frees us from the fear of what others may think or say.

Much of the anxiety of our times comes from a gnawing sense of guilt many feel because of the compromises they've made. They fear being found out and discovered. They fear that if people really knew them and the things they'd done, they would be rejected. They fear that the light will be shone on them and that they'll be exposed for the hypocrites they feel they are. On the other hand, those who make good choices are relieved of this burden and empowered to live with confidence.

Of course, none of us is perfect. We often fail. If we have acted unjustly or injured our neighbor in some way, now is the time for us to make amends and unburden our conscience. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, is a great place to start. When we bring our sin and weakness into the light of God's love and truth, our shame and anxiety are transformed into the joy of knowing that we are loved even though we are imperfect and even though we fail. God's light is no longer something we need to fear and flee from. We no longer fear being found out or being exposed because we know the depth of God's mercy and his unfailing desire to forgive us. Our conscience becomes clear allowing us to live in the truth of God's love.

Saint John writes in his first letter that perfect love casts out fear. We could also say that perfect faith casts out fear. Faith is the assurance that we are loved and that we have been forgiven. Faith ultimately conquers fear because it finds its security in God himself who is forever faithful and can never fail us. Faith also strengthens us and inspires us to make good choices and live with a clear conscience. God's desire for us is not a life filled with fear, guilt or anxiety. Rather God desires for us an abundant life filled with blessings and joy. Even though our faith does not guarantee that our life will be free of hardship and even tragedy, we can live with confidence that God will provide for our every need. This is what gave confidence to the disciples of Jesus as they went forth to proclaim the good news. This is what gives joy to our brothers and sisters in Central America and throughout the rest of the world. This gift of grace abounds for us too who have believed in Jesus Christ and have committed ourselves to live in his truth.

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