Herold Weiss: Why are you afraid?

by Dr. Herold Weiss, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN and author of Meditations on According to JohnMeditations on the Letters of Paul, Creation in Scripture, and Finding my Way in Christianity: Recollections of a Journey

weiss101513-1As spectators of the current campaigns for the presidency of the United States, we have been regaled with abundant evidence of the power of fear. Whether the fear politicians appeal to is that provoked by news of uncalled for violence, that of immigrants who are considered dangerous by some, that of judges who will not decide the way some think they should, that of economic conditions that will take away the wealth of some or prevent others from creating wealth for themselves, or that of the possibility that this or that unqualified candidate will become president, it is clear that the contenders in this race understand that fear is quite capable of stifling reason.

Both candidates to the presidency of this country are also emphasizing that their opponent cannot be trusted, while contending that they, of course, are most worthy of the trust of all voters. Thus, the presidential election is in a very real sense an election to be decided on the basis of whom do you trust to take away your fears. This question needs to be answered not just at the time of voting for a president but frequently in the lives of those confronted by the call of Christ.

According to the apostle Paul, Christians are those who live their lives in terms of the faith Jesus had when facing death. Jesus did not face crucifixion thinking that it was just a performance that would provide justification for pardoning sinners. He faced death as a human being who trusted, had faith in God. On that basis Paul invites all human beings to be crucified with Christ and then live in the faith of Jesus. That is, Christians are those who participate in the faith Jesus displayed when facing death and are then faithful to what God has promised to do for the faithful because they live in Christ.

It is a common misunderstanding to think that the enemy of faith is doubt, but that is not at all the case when faith is understood correctly. Doubt may be considered the enemy of faith only when faith is reduced to a mental exercise. As activities in the mind, faith and doubt are always in dialogue. Mental agreement to a proposition without the consideration of arguments for or against is not worth much. It may turn out to be a prejudice, an illusion, or just a misconception. In the mind, all propositions must be able to stand against doubt. All propositions must be examined critically; otherwise, they are just naive personal opinions or intuitions. Doubt is the essential companion of faith in the mind.

Faith, however, is not just something that happens in the mind, even if it also involves the mind. Faith is something that is validated by a way of being. Faith is the demonstration of one’s certainty of God’s promise by a way of living. Paul certainly addresses the mind and argues extensively for his understanding of the Gospel and for the authenticity of his apostleship. His strongest admonitions, however, are directed at what his converts are doing or consider doing. Their error is to judge or despise others, to settle internal disputes by taking fellow Christians to court, to wish to be circumcised, to make of the Lord’s Supper a personal meal, to visit prostitutes, to practice “abnormal” sex, etc. He tells his converts that “their manner of life must be worthy of the Gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

For Paul the Gospel is power, power to live faithful to the promise of God. All the faithful join the father of the young man with a dumb spirit who asked Jesus, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” To his request, Jesus answered, “All things are possible to him who believes.” The father then cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24). That is the human condition of all believers. In the mind, faith and doubt are in dialectical tension.

The faith that justifies, as Paul insists, is lodged in the heart, the core of being, and produces obedience (Romans 6:17; 10:9-10; 1 Corinthians 7:37; 2 Corinthians 9:7). The enemy of that kind of faith is fear. Fear is what prevents the power of the Gospel to determine conduct. Fear prevents reason from functioning and empowers the emotions to rule over the heart. Fear makes one think that the manner of life empowered by the Gospel is going to bring about dire consequences on one’s security in the world. Faith is the power that can put away fear from the heart.

In the New Testament, when an angel intervenes in someone’s life, he greets the human addressee with the words, “Fear not” (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30, 50; 2:10; Acts 27:24). When Jesus came to the disciples walking on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm, and the disciples thought a ghost was approaching, Jesus greeted then saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (Mark 6:50; Matthew 14: 27; John 6:20). The admonition not to succumb to fear is preceded by the affirmation “It is I,” a most telling reason for the dispelling of fear. The three gospels that tell this story describe the disciples seeing a ghost in the middle of the storm as paralyzed by fear, terrified. That is the human condition. It is most revealing that the gospels make clear that the disciples were not afraid when they were engaged in surviving in the middle of a stormy sea. They became afraid when they saw Jesus walking in the sea but had not recognized him. Being approached by an unidentified stranger with evident divine power caused them to be afraid as their minds struggled with doubts. The three sentences in Jesus’ greeting are lined up perfectly: 1) “Take heart,” become whole again; 2) “it is I,” God is here, and 3) “have no fear,” have faith instead.

The enemy of faith is fear. That truth is especially made clear by the gospel of Mark. In this gospel there are two stories of Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a storm. In the first one, Jesus has been sleeping in the boat while the storm is raging. When the disciples wake him up, Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40). Here the opposition of faith and fear is explicit. Faith is a manner of life, and fear is what paralyzes the mind and the heart, thus allowing for life in the ways of the world to take over.

In several of the healings related in Mark fear is a prominent feature. When the Gadarenes came out of the city to find out what had happened to their swine, they saw the man possessed by a demon now healed and “they were afraid” (Mark 5:15). When on his way to the house of Jairus a woman touched Jesus’ garment and Jesus looked around to find the culprit, the woman came forward “in fear and trembling.” Then Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34). When messengers came saying that there was no longer need for Jesus to go on because Jairus’ daughter had died, Jesus said to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36). Again, the opposition of faith and fear is explicit.

One of the characteristics of Mark is its negative portrayal of the disciples. Repeatedly the narrator highlights the disciples’ lack of understanding of what Jesus says or does. After the feeding of the multitude and the calming of the storm in the sea, we read that ‘they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, and their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51-52). When on the road to Jerusalem Jesus explains to the disciples the need to fulfill his vocation in Jerusalem, we read that the disciples “did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). My favorite verbal picture in Mark says, “They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mark 10:32). They had premonitions of what would happen in Jerusalem and could not understand how Jesus could be determined to go there. They doubted the wisdom of his actions. They feared the consequences of appearing in Jerusalem with Jesus. These few words set the stage for the events in Jerusalem. As Jesus accomplishes his vocation, the lack of faith of the disciples caused them not just to walk dragging behind but to abandon him in fear.

Finally, the ultimate expression of this leitmotive, is found in the last words of this gospel according to the most ancient manuscripts available to us. They end the gospel in verse 8 of chapter 16. This ending is a bit abrupt, but totally Markan. Mark’s style is succinct. The chapter begins telling of a group of women who intend to anoint Jesus’ body and very early on Sunday morning go to the sepulcher with aromatic spices. At the tomb rather than Jesus’ body they find a young man dressed in a white robe sitting, and they get scared. The young man tells them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where Jesus will meet them. The evangelist then closes his book writing, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

By means of this ending, the evangelist’s picture of the disciples as paralyzed by fear reaches its climax. Of course, he wrote the gospel as a definitive expression of his faith. In the process of writing, however, he took care to insist that the followers of Jesus should not be following him to Jerusalem dragging behind in fear. Neither should they become so afraid of the consequences that they fail to tell others that Jesus is alive. Fear is what prevents Christians from living up to the demands of the Gospel. Faith is a way of being in the world that triumphs over the fear that is endemic to life in the midst of the chaotic situations faced in this mortal life. The fear that blocks reason, paralyzes the heart and allows the world to guide one’s life cannot be found in a Christian’s life.