One of the most difficult problems that we must deal with in our earthly life is fear. We are anxious about many things and spend a lot of time worrying, often about events over which we have no control. In his initial speech as Holy Father, Pope John Paul II repeated the phrase “Be Not Afraid” three times. St. Padre Pio is known for his motto, “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry”. Despite such positive advice from these and other holy individuals, many of us still struggle with fear and anxiety on a regular basis. It becomes especially apparent when we face uncertainty in our lives. Does God want us to worry during these difficult times? While most of you will quickly answer “no” to that question, let’s take a look what the Lord tells us in Sacred Scripture. While the answer seems rather obvious, there is a “twist” that may surprise you!
Fear and anxiety are addressed often in the Bible. In the Old Testament, one of the earliest references to this subject is in the Book of Genesis when the Lord tells Abram, “Fear not, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Gen 15:1). Another instance occurs when He tells Joshua, “Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). In the Book of Psalms, we read “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1) and “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (Ps 23:4). In each of these cases (and several more, including Dt 20:3-4, Prv 3:24-25, Is 35:4), either in His own words or speaking through various individuals, the Lord commands us to abandon our fear and trust in Him.
Jesus also spoke about anxiety many times during the course of His public ministry. In the Sermon on the Mount, He proclaims “Do not be anxious about your life” and reminds us that by being anxious, we cannot add “one cubit to our span of life”. In case we somehow still miss the point, Jesus repeats twice more, “Do not be anxious”, and specifically cautions against worrying about the future (Mt 6:25-34). Most of us are also familiar with the story of the storm at sea when the frightened Apostles panicked and woke the sleeping Savior, fearing for their lives (Mt 8:23-27, Mk 4:35-40, Lk 8:22-25). After calming the sea, Jesus asked why they were afraid and then questioned their faith. To the anxious Martha, the Lord said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:41-42). Throughout His years on earth, Jesus constantly urged His followers to trust Him and have no fear.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, there are more occasions where people are warned against fear. Sometimes the message comes from an angel, as when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah (Lk 1:13) and Mary (Lk 1:30), telling them both to “not be afraid”. An angel also brought the same message to the shepherds when he announced the birth of the Lord (Lk 2:10). St. Paul tells us that we should be “free from anxieties” (1 Cor 7:32) and St. John tells us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).
Based upon these and many other Biblical passages, it’s fairly safe to draw the conclusion that God does not want us to worry needlessly. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prepare for the future and tend to important daily matters. Rather, it means that we shouldn’t worry about things which are out of our control. For some of us, however, this is very difficult. How do we stop ourselves from worrying? A good starting point would be to pray for an increase of faith. For the most part, we worry because we don’t trust God’s plan for our lives. Sometimes it’s very difficult to trust, especially when we encounter painful and difficult situations. Illness, loneliness, death, unemployment and other difficulties can place us in the same position as the Apostles on the stormy sea. While we should continue to petition the Lord with our requests, we should be willing to accept His answers, knowing that He will provide us with what we need.
I mentioned earlier that we may uncover some surprising information when we look at the Bible’s advice on fear. There is actually something that God tells us we should fear. Jesus also stressed the same thing in the Gospels. Oddly enough, it is something that many in today’s society do not fear. The one useful type of fear we should have is the fear of the Lord. In Psalm 111:10, we read that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. Furthermore, Jesus tells us to “Fear him who has the power to cast into hell” (Lk 12:5). In fact, the fear of the Lord is so important that it is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This type of “fear” can motivate us to please God with our behavior. It helps us to remember that God is our creator and we are His creatures. Even though He is a loving Father, we should never lose a sense of respect and awe for His power. One day we will be judged for our behavior and this useful fear gives us an incentive to follow God’s commands, especially when our fallen human nature wants to do otherwise.
For those of us who are prone to anxiety, learning not to worry is a difficult task and must be taken one day at a time. Constant prayer, receiving the Eucharist often, and reading the Bible are all much more productive than worrying. These practices will also bring us peace, even in the midst of turmoil. As time progresses, we will begin to trust in the Lord’s plan for our lives, even when it doesn’t “make sense”. As various crises arise, continue to pray for an increased faith and cling to God’s words in Sacred Scripture. Before He raised a little girl from the dead, Jesus addressed her father with words that should give us comfort, even in situations that appear to be hopeless: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5:36).