Nelson Mandela once said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” This is so true. I’ve found too many people think that because they feel fear, they are not courageous. This isn’t true. Feelings come and go, but it’s what you do in reaction to feelings that betray you or support you. In fact, let me add this to your perspective on feelings. Feelings are “messengers” sent to tell you something about yourself. But they are destructive when they are allowed to move outside their created purpose to run your life. Feelings have to be disciplined to “stay in their lane!” And that is the purpose of the spiritual disciplines, to train your feelings that they are created to serve you rather than drive you!
Every life faces scary times when it seems that everything and everyone is against you, especially if you are daring to do something that makes others uncomfortable, like live a life of faithfulness in a faithless world. So, being afraid isn’t a failure. Giving in to fear is a failure. But, how do you train your feelings of fear?
Look at our lesson today in Isaiah 41:4-14:
Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am He. The coastlands have seen and are afraid, the ends of the earth tremble; they have drawn near and come. Every one helps his neighbor, and says to his brother, “Take courage!” The craftsman encourages the goldsmith, and he who smoothes with the hammer him who strikes the anvil, saying of the soldering, “It is good”; and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved.
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all. For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you.” Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you, says the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
In Isaiah’s day, the people of God were surrounded by enemies bent on their destruction. A mighty and powerful Empire to the North of Judah was bearing down on them and threatening to destroy the last vestiges of the presence of Abraham’s offspring from the land where God had saved His people. Things looked very bleak indeed. The Northern Kingdom of the 10 tribes of Abraham had already been destroyed and subsumed by the pagan kingdoms around them and now the remnant of Israel in the Southern Kingdom of Judah was threatened with extinction.
But God had another message for His people.
And it had everything to do with God’s faithfulness and not the temporal strength of Judah’s army! Notice how God encourages His people. First God calls His people by their name: Israel. And that means in Hebrews “May God Prevail.” But more than the meaning of the name, it’s the relationship that is meant to give people courage in the face of fear. God also reminds His people that they are His servant that God has chosen. And that God’s people are the offspring of God’s “friend” Abraham. It’s all about relationships! And it’s always about God’s strength, not yours!
It’s when I am neglecting my relationship with God that I am most vulnerable to fear and doubt. When I am attentive to my relationship with God, I am constantly reinforced with the strength and wisdom of God’s love and care for me. All the more reason to make sure each day includes a moment where I reorient my thinking, and my life, to prioritize my relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. The prayers, fasting, and almsgiving of a faithful Orthodox life are all meant to overcome the power of fear, to blind me to just Who it is I am with! But the whole world seems geared to draw my attention away from this central reality. So, when I get distracted, that’s when I stumble. When I get confused as to priorities, that’s when my life gets out of balance. When I let lesser loves take the place of my First Love, that’s when doubt and fear start sickening my soul.
Sts. Jonas and Barachesius were Christians in the pagan Persian kingdom of King Safor II who reigned from 325 AD to 379 AD. It was illegal to be a Christian in the Persian kingdom and these two saints found 9 Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. These two heroes of the Faith encouraged these m9 Christians not to give in to their fear, but to discipline their feelings and remain faithful to Christ. All 9 did and all 9 died as martyrs for the Faith. When the king heard that Jonas and Barachesius had strengthened these 9 martyrs for Christ, he had them tortured with horrible pain and suffering. But the two saints followed the eternal wisdom of the Faith and did not allow their temporary feelings of suffering to overwhelm them. They both died faithful to Christ to the bitter end.
So, Today, God says to you “Fear not.” But you aren’t going to hear these words of comfort if you are allowing the noise of life to drown out this true source of courage in your life. It’s only when we are living a Normal Orthodox life that the swirling chaos of life blinded by fear is calmed and peace is restored and we are free from the tyranny of our feelings.
P.S. Since they had slain through their abstinence and struggles the fiery ragings and fierce motions of the passions, the staunch Martyrs of Christ God laid hold on the graces to drive off the pains and illnesses of the sick and work wonders both while living and after death. Strange indeed is the miracle! That these bare bones should pour forth such overflowing streams of cures. Glory be to our only God.
Thanks so much for this encouraging word. It is my experience that my enemies are rarely, if ever, who or what I think they are! Your prayers, in Christ, Father Mark