Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fear the only trustworthy one

St. Basil the Great was not anxious about his life.

Fresco of St. Basil
in St. Athanasius Church in Zovik, Macedonia
before 1850
A prefect of the emperor came to him and demanded that he adopt the Arian heresy, as was the will of his sovereign. But St. Basil said to him, “It is not the will of my true sovereign.”

The prefect was enraged and threatened to confiscate St. Basil’s possessions. To which St. Basil replied, “What would you want with my tattered rags, and my few books?” He was not anxious about what he would wear or about his things.

So the prefect threatened him with exile. To which St. Basil replied, “Every land is God’s. I am only his guest here or anywhere else.” He was not anxious about where he would live.

So the prefect threatened him with torture. “As for torture,” said St. Basil, “I am so weak that the first blow would knock me out.”

So the prefect threatened him with death. “To me, death would be a kindness,” said St. Basil, “for it would bring me all the sooner to God.” He was not anxious even about his life.

The prefect exclaimed, “I’ve never been spoken to so boldly before!” “Perhaps,” said St. Basil, “you have never met a bishop…. Where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else.”[1]

Like St. Basil, we should fear God alone and then fear nothing and no one else.

Today Jesus commands us not to be anxious. Yet, anxiety plagues many of us. A quick internet search about anxiety reveals a panoply of self-help books, aids, and supplements. We know that anxiety is our enemy. This is actually one thing about which our culture agrees with Jesus.

But the gospel is not a self-help book. It’s not merely a set of suggestions for our happiness and well-being. Though, our Lord does care for us, so his commandments are for our good.

Contrary to the implications of some, God won’t give us a life without suffering. Far from it. He teaches us instead that we are to take up our crosses. Suffering is going to be part of this. The Christian way is not going to be the easy way.

C.S. Lewis says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” But if we are not seeking pleasure and happiness so much as truth and love, then that is to be found only in Christ, who is Truth and who is Love.

An interior view of The Eagle and Child (That is, the Bird and Baby),
a pub frequented by C.S. Lewis.
His portrait hangs over the mantle to the right. 
But all of that notwithstanding, I do not believe that God wants us to suffer. There’s a difference between what God permits and what God desires. He tells us we will suffer, but today’s gospel is good evidence that he does not want us to suffer needlessly. Anxiety is a needless suffering, from which he wants us free. He did not make us just to be sufferers. He did not make us for endless anxiety.  

I myself am anxious much of the time. I am often disobedient to this commandment of our Lord. May he have mercy on me, the sinner.  

He commands us not to be anxious. This God and man who also tells us that we will be hated and persecuted and that we will suffer for his name’s sake, that we must accept suffering, take up our cross, die; that we must go through death on our way to everlasting life. The one who afflicts us with such words, also comforts us. He tells us how to deal with these terrible things. That is, he commands us, do not to be anxious about your life. Be free. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Trust.

Mother Katherine, the local Orthodox nun, iconographer, and psychologist, points out that while we often think of peace as the opposite of anxiety, this peace must be grounded in trust. Trust “implies peace in relationship with something or someone else.” And so trust is the opposite of anxiety. Anxiety is ultimately a failure to trust in the Lord. Trust that the Lord will give you what you need. He clothes the lilies of the field more splendidly than Solomon. He will give us what we need to wear. Trust in him. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Do not worry.

All good things come from the Lord, really. Do not be deceived into thinking that we have earned all the good things we enjoy. Every talent and ability was given to us by God. Every opportunity. Every kindness in every heart that educated us and gave us a chance. All of this is from the bounty of God. We owe him all things. All things are truly his. Nothing is really our own. And gratitude for all these things is an antidote to the poison of anxiety.

Anxiety is an affliction. It is pain, even physical pain, about which our Lord is asking us, “Do you want to be healed?”

Anxiety is restless, undirected worry about all of things that might happen. Someone might not like me anymore. They might even hate me. Our stained glass windows might collapse. I might get hit by a car. We might be attacked by terrorists. These are things that might happen or might not happen. Worry and anxiety about these things are exactly what we are to avoid.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t to care about these things. The King James Bible says we are to have no care about our life, but the meaning of the word ‘care’ has evolved since the seventeenth century. Care and concern and prudence are good and necessary. They’re even a part of love. Anxiety, on the other hand, does no good.

We should lovingly care for our old church buildings, blessings given to us by God that they are. That is love and care, not anxiety.

We should take care when we cross the road. Looking both ways is not anxiety. But looking both ways and then looking both ways again and again and then, seeing no cars, deciding not to cross anyway, in case there might be a car – that is anxiety.

It’s alright to prepare for possible disasters. That’s not anxiety – it’s taking care. But living in such fear about the possibility of a terrorist attack that you begin to ostracize and hate your neighbors – that is anxiety.

Anxiety has no real object.  It has only imagined objects. It is worry about maybes and what ifs. Unlike fear, which does have real objects. We are to fear God. Jesus does not condemn this holy fear when he tells us not to be anxious. God himself is called the Fear of Isaac.  Have this kind of fear, but do not be anxious.

I hear a lot of anxiety about what is happening against Christians in this country. But what are we afraid of? Since when do Christians fear persecution or even death? Have we forgotten the gospel and the resurrection? Do we think the culture or the government can triumph over the cross?

St. Basil wasn’t worried about whether the government official would arrest him. Such worry would have only stifled his courage to witness to Christ and, like a coward, he’d have cowered instead for fear of repercussions. He did not fear the government, because he feared the only one worthy of his fear: the Lord God. When you fear God, then you need not fear anything. If I really fear God, and not people – not my enemies and not my friends – then I cannot be persuaded to act against my God-given conscience.

We often fear our friends more than we do our enemies. We fear losing our friends or offending them. We shouldn’t be deliberately offensive, but we also shouldn’t be so afraid of what people might think, say, or do that it inhibits our witness to Christ in word and in action.

Fear God instead. In that fear – fear of the only one who loves mankind, fear of the only trustworthy one – all fear melts away, because perfect love casts out fear. Our holy father Anthony the Great has two parallel sayings. The first is by far the more popular. He says, “I no longer fear God, but love him.” But he also says, in fact in the next sentence, “Always keep before your eyes the fear of the Lord” (Sayings of Anthony, 32 and 33). This is the paradox. Only in the fear of the Lord is it possible to be truly fearless.

[1] This story about St. Basil is adapted from St. Gregory the Theologian’s Funeral Oration for St. Basil (Oration 43, 48-50). This, and many ideas in this post, were inspired by Fr. Thomas Hopko

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