When Your Heart is Troubled and Afraid

“Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

I love this gentle, comforting Gospel verse, but for a long time, its message mystified me. However hard I tried not to let my heart be troubled or afraid, I couldn’t do it. Fear and worry would take over, and I would lose the battle.

It got even worse after I experienced a long and difficult episode of intense suffering. At last, in His mercy, God lifted the burden and brought healing. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet, now I had a new cross to bear. The suffering was over, but I was terrified.

I was terrified that suffering like that was possible in the world, that it could exist, that others were still enduring similar agonies, and that it could possibly happen again. How could I find joy in such a world?

No matter how much I pushed myself to just “get over it,” I was stuck. It felt like quicksand. The memory of that suffering kept returning, and then fear would take hold of my heart and mind, pulling me in. I knew I needed to find a way out, but I couldn’t see it. It was too dark in that hole.

Offer the Fear as a Sacrifice

As I was trying to emerge from this darkness, author Suzie Andres introduced me to the beautiful story of Servant of God Marcel Van, a religious brother who had mystical conversations with Jesus, Mary, and St. Thérèse, and was a “little spiritual brother” of St. Thérèse.

Suzie said that, in one vision (as recorded in the book Conversations), Mary told Marcel, “When you worry, even for the space of a breath, say to Jesus, ‘Little Jesus, I offer this worry as a sacrifice to You,’ and then be at peace.” (Van saw the Child Jesus in his visions.)

I fell in love with this small, sweet prayer. It held so much in so few words. Instead of just telling myself not to fear, I could take the fear that I couldn’t help feeling and put it to good use. I could offer it as a sacrifice.

So, I began to say (when I remembered), “Little Jesus, I offer this worry as a sacrifice to You.” And I began to feel more peace.

Be Patient with Yourself

Another thing that helped me gain perspective was this quote from St. Francis de Sales:

“As we must have patience with others, so we must with ourselves. Those who aspire to the pure love of God have not so much need of patience with others as with themselves. We must suffer our imperfection in order to have perfection. I say suffer, not love or pet; humility feeds on this suffering.”

If I fell into fear and worry, I shouldn’t beat myself up over it, feeling like a failure. That would only make things worse. The Lord knew I was trying, and I needed to be patient with myself.

It’s God’s Work

One evening, I went to confession to a holy priest who knew that I have a tendency to blame myself when I cannot obtain the virtues that I seek. He opened his Bible to a highlighted passage, and asked me to read it aloud:

“May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” (2 Thess 5:23-24)

When I finished reading it aloud, the priest asked me, “So, who will accomplish it?”

I looked back at the passage. “God will.”

“It’s God’s work,” he said, nodding.

Only God can do it, not I. If I want to be freed from fear, I must hand it over to the One who will set me free. I had been trying to stop being afraid through my own will power. No wonder it wasn’t working.

If I look in the Gospels, I see that I am not the only one who thought that I could live the Gospel on my own steam. In Luke 22, Peter tells Jesus that he is ready to go with Him to prison and to death. Jesus replies that, on that very night, Peter would deny Him three times. But before this exchange happens, Jesus tells Peter something foundational first:

“Behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Peter was trusting in himself, in his own power to stay strong, when he made his bold promises to Jesus. Jesus, meanwhile, knew that Peter, in his human weakness, would fall—and that only divine grace would give Peter the strength of unfailing faith.

Like Peter, I had been trusting in myself, in my own power to overcome fear. I learned that this is a power that I do not have. Only God’s grace can make my trust in Him strong again.

If I look back on that Gospel verse from John, the one that mystified me, I see that the truth was there all along. Because, before Jesus tells the Apostles not to be troubled or afraid, He tells them something foundational first, just like he did with Peter:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

The only reason it is possible to not let our hearts be troubled or afraid is that Jesus makes it possible. He makes it possible by giving us His peace in a way the world never can.

In other words, as the priest who heard my confession said, “It’s God’s work.”

I am still inclined to fear more than I should, but understanding what to do with the fear—offering it to God instead of trying to overcome it alone—has made it much easier to bear when it comes. When I give Him my weakness, He gives me His strength.

And there is much joy to be found in such a world.

image: Michael Gaida via Pixabay

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Maura Roan McKeegan is an award-winning author of twelve Catholic children’s books. Her most recent titles include Julia Greeley, Secret Angel to the Poor (Magnificat-Ignatius Press), In This Catholic Church (OSV), Peter and Jesus by a Charcoal Fire (Emmaus Road), and Seven Clues: A Catholic Treasure Hunt (Loyola Press), co-authored with Scott Hahn. She is also a contributor for various magazines. She has a special interest in Servant of God Don Dolindo Ruotolo and writes about him at her new Substack site, Stories of Don Dolindo (https://mauraroanmckeegan.substack.com/).You can contact her at Maura.Roan.McKeegan(at)gmail(dot)com.

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