I was a fearful child. All through those days, I carried an internal list of scary things, things that could hurt me—fires, burglars, snakes, spiders, hippies who might kidnap me—and at night my terrors unspooled into a long litany of prayers to a God who was something like a Grandpa with special powers.
What that little girl needed—and couldn’t get—was the gentle refrain in our Gospels: do not be afraid. It’s everywhere. We hear it from Jesus, and from the mouths of angels reassuring the lonely, the lost, the bewildered. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
The human heart is a muscle like any other. Overworked by high blood pressure, the muscle thickens. Enlarged and stiffened, it can’t move blood like it’s supposed to. It no longer fulfills the very purpose for which it was designed.
Not so different from our selves, how our essence changes as we toughen ourselves to abandonment, confusion, tragedy, judgment—all those things that make us afraid. It’s a small step from becoming strong to being hard and brittle. In our efforts to be invulnerable we can impair the very muscles God has given us for the care of one another—empathy, tenderness, compassion. In our attempts at self-protection we fail in our one purpose: to love God and one another.
Jesus offers us a different way, a different peace. This peace is not won by being smart, self-protective, or tough—by a reliance on the self. The peace of Jesus requires a counterintuitive letting go—a leap into the unknown of love. For how many of us truly know the depths of God’s love. Instead of girding ourselves against loss, he asks us to make ourselves vulnerable—to him and to one another. This is how we learn not be afraid.