On Fear

Things are starting to return to some new form of normal. This is a good thing. At the same time, these stirrings of our world, as we leave our homes and apartments and, blinking, step into the sun to see that there is more to do than we could do for months, have become a great cause of fear for many people. All week long, it seems that the words between people have become sharper and more punctuated by emotion, specifically by fear. So, let’s talk about it. Ignore our problems and our struggles with one another will not make them go away, nor will the increasingly emotional and heated exchanges help matters. I mean, there are stories in the news about people threatening each other with guns over mask wearing.

Fear happens when we perceive a future evil that is difficult or impossible to overcome. Right now, the cause of this fear is fairly obvious. There is an unusual and new disease running amuck in our world. We do not really know what is going to happen as a result. (Thomas would call this type of fear “stupor”.)1The first fleeting moments of this emotion are not within our control. It is a function of our human nature; however, once we perceive this fear, we have to make a choice: what are we going to do with this fear? Are we going to allow it to control us, or are we going to allow it to inform us?

There are two ways we can allow our fear to control us. We can ignore it and push it deep down and put forth a “macho man” type bravado, or we can succumb to timidity and shrink continually from any possible encounter with the object of our fear. Neither of these responses to fear is appropriate. We are called to the virtues of prudence and of fortitude, which require us to use reason with our action. The “macho” response to disease ignore the counsel of fear which reminds us of our mortality, that our bodies are a gift from God. We are expected to care for our bodies and not to sacrifice or harm them needlessly. God is Lord over life and death, not us. We are not to needlessly endanger ourselves. The timid response is wrong because it allows an evil to be in control of our lives. Remember: fear is a result of an unperceived evil. We must not allow evil to control us.

The other response to fear is to acknowledge that fear and then submit it to our reason. When we submit our emotions to our reason, we can combine the information we have gathered from our emotions with the other information we have learned and formulate an appropriate response. We can look at whether this evil we perceive is a great threat to us, or if it is simply an unusual threat against us. We can look at the likelihood that this evil will have a greater or lesser effect on us. We can look at the potential damage that this evil might inflict upon us. After we probe this emotion and look at the evil that lies behind it, we can formulate the actions we will take to overcome this threat. Perhaps that action is to stay at home until the medical professionals have a better handle on treatments and prevention. Perhaps that action is to go to work so that we can put food on the table or so that we can help those in need. Perhaps I realize that I need to wear a mask when I go out on the chance that I might become an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. Perhaps I do not need to wear a mask, because I have already had the disease and am no longer capable of transmitting it. The action required of each of us is going to be different, because we all have different circumstances in our lives. The key here is that it is not unreasonable for there to be differing responses, and that it is OK for someone to come to a different conclusion than me for their safety during a pandemic.

There is one more component of this fear we have not yet looked at: the moral component. Can fear be a sin? Yes. Fear becomes a sin when we allow it to lead us away from God. Allowing ourselves to become a “macho” or timid slave to our fear, for example, is sinful. Not taking our fear and honestly submitting it to reason is sinful. Perhaps these aren’t mortal sins, but they are sinful.

How then can we resolve fear in our lives? Even if we submit our emotion to reason, that does not, necessarily, cause the fear to go away. This is where the Gospel comes into the picture. Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1) Why not? God has prepared a place for us in Heaven. If we remember our eternal destiny—eternal bliss with God—then the troubles of this world begin to fade. We still must be prudent and work toward our salvation in this world, but we can do so with confidence that God is waiting for us. If we do not know the way to do this, the answer is simple: go to Jesus. Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6)When we offer ourselves to him in prayer, he will show us exactly what we need to do. Jesus promises this to us. Jesus has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) When we remember that destiny, we can draw strength and courage from the Lord and place our trust in Him.

Fear is normal, but we must be attentive to our response to fear. Like everything in our life, we must always refer it to our God who loves us, and remember that “Christ is the way that leads us, the truth that strengthens us, and the life that restores us to life in him.”2Christ will lead us out of this crisis, if we let him.

This text was not given as a homily, but was prepared with the readings of the Sixth Sunday of Easter in mind. (Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12)