So often I operate out of fear. In fact, I have a really good repertoire of fears, as you would expect from someone who has majored in this for far too long. I can experience any of them to order, sometimes even all of them at the same time.
Fear of the future. Fear of burdening others. Fear of what others will say. Fear of financial ramifications. Fear of relational costs. Fear of not being enough. Fear of being perceived as too much. Fear of being seen to be quitting. Fear that he will not bring resurrection out of a willingly-embraced death to self.
Recently, I heard someone whom I respect praying. In a very matter-of-fact way, the kind of way that tells you how they have long assumed the truth of what they are saying, they prayed that someone would operate out of faith, not fear. It hit me then – the simplicity of it, I mean. And it has continued to resonate some weeks later.
Fear, when it’s a motivating factor in our living, stands in direct opposition to faith. It’s one thing to experience fear as an emotion, as a thrill of tension in the face of something unknown or outside of our control. But to allow that fear to become a motivating factor, a foundation for decision-making, that makes no sense in the light of all that God has done in Christ. In fact, fear as a foundation for living is in contradiction to a life lived by faith.
Fear, you see, assumes that humans are in charge. That I am responsible for things being as they are in my life. That if I don’t protect myself, no one else will. That my allegiance to others is an absolute one, demanding that I conform to their demands and needs even above what seems increasingly to be the call of God, turning the order of Jesus’ restatement of the Law (Mark 12:29-31) on its head. Essentially, it works from the basis – at least, in my life – that there is no God or that there is but he can’t be relied upon.
This fear evidences just how far my theology has not changed my heart (yet!) and it holds me paralysed, afraid to go forward, to move outside of the present situation. It whispers the lie that this present – no matter how challenging or broken or unfulfilled – is infinitely better than the future into which faith calls me. It insinuates that when the only way to resurrection life is via a slow and painful dying to self and even the expectations of others, life as I know it is surely better.
Faith, on the other hand, is different.
Faith woos me step out of the boat, to dare to walk on water. Faith draws me to trust him, to trust that I can lay down what he asks knowing that not only will he carry me through the strangeness and challenges of that but even that the very dying itself will be a precursor to resurrection life and blessing. It invites me to the total reorientation of my life, a life where now loving others and loving self are important still (even fundamentally so) yet where loving him trumps it all. Faith summons me to conformity to the Son who, in his humanity, fulfilled the promise that the righteous would live by faith, walking out a perfect obedience to his Father even as radical as laying down his life in the sure confidence that his Father would raise him up again on the third day.
Faith is opposed to fear. Dramatically so. And I am finding that this conceptual opposition is helping me to cut through the confusions over some difficult decisions right now. In the past, I had always given huge weight to the love for neighbour thing. That sense that I needed to serve the other, to do all in my power to protect and love and care. And when that seemed to be at odds with what I was hearing the Spirit whisper in my heart to do, I was conflicted. Not so conflicted that I didn’t eventually obey God, but conflicted enough that I’d lose my peace over it all.
Yet the fear and faith dichotomy seems to have a different dynamic. It forces me to assess the motivation for all of the things which I feel I should do. It makes me realise that not wanting to make a life change for fear of the future, or for fear of the slow dying to self – that’s me trying to play God, protecting me, meeting my needs, whilst at the same time completely ignoring Love’s prior claim on me, the reversal of the priorities of what McKnight calls the Jesus Creed.
The fear of burdening others as a result of a step outside of the boat, this is the same: not really neighbour love, it’s rather me trying to play God for them, protecting them and meeting their needs in a way which sets that care outside of the only paradigm in which neighbour love is truly made possible. And so it is that whilst, at times, the summons of faith may appear to lead me in paths which don’t accord with my assumptions about neighbour love, which lead me perhaps to withdraw from some of those neighbours no longer to focus on serving their needs and expectations, yet I have hope. I trust that, because of the God he is, he will meet those neighbours’ needs anyway, through another or through a more direct encounter with him. And I trust also, for this same reason to do with his very identity, that the long and winding roads of grace through my life will bring me to the service of many others, to the loving of those whom I never even knew to call neighbour until I began this walk of faith-not-fear.
And so it is that I begin to wonder: perhaps this fear as a motivating factor, maybe it is always the sign of what would be a wrong choice, a choice diametrically opposed to a living which is by faith. Maybe it ties me to the protection of self and of the neighbour whom I already know, whereas faith bids me out to the dying to self and to the love of neighbours I have not yet known. Maybe the best I can do is to identify my fears and to note the decision to which they would lead me, and then to listen for the hushed tones of grace which show me where the life of faith is calling me.
Maybe – just maybe – it’s always about a simple choice between fear and faith?