This sermon was preached at Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on October 18, 2020.
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
The Brothers Grimm, the 19th Century German minds who first collected the folk stories of Rapunzel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, pass down to us one story that has yet to be adapted (and tamed) by the Walt Disney Company. It is called “The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear.”
The story tells us about a boy who had no sense and no skills of which to speak. His father, as many parents do, worried that this boy would be a burden. He would have to provide for his boy because he could not earn his own bread.
Yet, financial stability is not what concerned the boy. Not at all worried that he has no trade, he sees his one fatal flaw as something else: he never feels afraid. His lack of fear is the one thing that makes him unhappy.
In a story perfect for retelling in the time around Halloween, the younger son goes out into the world to learn what fear is.
He encounters a groundskeeper who dresses as a ghost to scare the boy in a dark cathedral. He spends a night with seven dead men at the gallows. And finally, he goes to a haunted castle where a King has promised his daughter in marriage to any man who can survive its haunts for three nights.
These experiences would unsettle most of us, but he finds these experiences pleasant rather than frightful. The only thing he gains from them is a wife. The boy still has no knowledge of fear.
The story ends as the boy marries the princess, but rather than rejoice in his new marriage—and his newfound status in a royal family—he goes around all day muttering, “If only I could shudder, if only I could shudder.”
The boy’s new wife has had just about enough of it all, so she goes out to the garden brook and gathers a bucketful of cold water and small fish. That night, as the young king sleeps, his new wife pulls the covers off him and dumps the bucket on his head.
He immediately wakes up, crying out “What is making me shudder, dear wife? Ah, now I know how to shudder.”
Most of us are not quite as lucky as the dim-witted boy in the Grimm Brothers’ tale. We have not, for instance, found ourselves welcomed into a royal family by virtue of our one fatal flaw. The majority of us can at least name one or two situations, in the past, present, or future, that cause us anxiety and fear.
Even if we can make it through a haunted house or scary movie without “shuddering” in fear, there are still worries of this life that keep us up at night.
In normal times, we experience anxiety over upcoming assignments or examinations at work or school that test the limits of our knowledge and skills. We become afraid when, during a routine check-up at the doctor, we or a loved one hears that a preventive exam has returned some “troubling anomalies.” We avoid checking our credit card balance or retirement plan investment performance because we know the numbers aren’t good. We go into work as normal, only to find out that some corporate bean counter has decided our job is “redundant.”
Yes, even in normal times, the troubles of this life are like weeds that choke the seed of peace and hope within us (Mark 4:18). There is no need for us, like the boy in the fairy tale, to have cold water dumped on our head. We are plenty afraid already, thank you very much.
If those anxieties of “normal” times were not enough for us, we have been plunged quite unwillingly into the frigid waters of a global pandemic. Now, not only do we fear troubles at work or school, but we fear them in the context of a universal situation that has erased any concept of normal at all.
It is no surprise, then, that we are facing what is perhaps the worst mental health crisis the world has ever seen. The ever quickening and unstable pace of life in the 21st century has taken its toll on us, and now another wrench has been thrown into our unsettled existence.
Half of Americans reportedly acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic is negatively affecting their mental health. I can only assume the other half is outright lying or is just not in tune with their own emotions.
It is not just our relationships with ourselves that is the problem either. On the one hand, our relationships with our usual circle of friends and acquaintances have been tested by the limited conditions under which we are able to interact. On the other, romantic relationships have been tested by the sheer amount of time they are confined to one place together! Marriages that could work when both partners were distracted with other things are now seemingly unbearable.
Where do we turn when the foundation of our lives seems to be crumbling below our feet, when seemingly unshakable parts of our life fall into the depths of the sea? (Psalm 46:2)
Since we are in church, we have an answer or we at least know where to go to find one. The Bible is filled with statements about anxiety and worry that are concise and easy to remember.
Philippians 4:6 says, “do not be anxious about anything,”
Joshua 1:9 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened.”
And Jesus in John 14 encourages us with the words, “let not your hearts be troubled.”
All of these verses offer good wisdom! When we are troubled, we can find comfort and assurance in taking our concerns to God in prayer. When we face a difficult situation, we can find strength in knowing God is behind us as we meet the challenge head on. When we are afraid, we can find consolation in putting our trust in the Lord.
The trouble is, these verses themselves don’t fix anything! If they did, Christians would have a one verse cure to anxiety: “I hear that you’re feeling anxious. Well, just stop it. Jesus tells us not to be anxious!”
Plenty of well-meaning Christians try that approach when someone shares their troubles with them. These words of encouragement often exacerbate the problem because they make the person who is worried feel alone and broken.
When we use statements that seem to provide a quick fix to the troubles of this life, we find ourselves further away from addressing the problem. Name one time God offers a quick fix to anyone in the Bible. (I’ll wait.) And if all you hear from the Bible is “thou shalt not worry,” then those who are aware of their worries will feel like God does not care about them. Not worrying becomes another law to which we fail to measure up.
The witness of Scripture is far more complex. When we read outside of the verses supplied by our proof texting for the ailment of anxiety, we find affirmation that none of our negative feelings are a stranger to the Christian experience.
The Psalmist, David, acknowledges in Psalm 88 that he cries to the Lord every day, and yet darkness is his closest friend.
The Teacher, Solomon, was given a divine understanding of wisdom only to find that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Eccl. 1:18)
Job, having been dealt more suffering than most, struggled with God night and day in his grief only to be comforted by God by darkness itself. God tells Job that as God created the universe, God wrapped the infant creation in the snuggling blanket of darkness. (Job 38:8-9)
Jesus cries out from the cross from the depth of his feeling, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It’s no wonder that when we go to faith leaders for help when we are troubled, we don’t normally hear them refer to these verses. They don’t fix anything. They require us to actually look into the depths of our heart and acknowledge what we feel. If we find comfort in darkness, if we find solace in our distress rather than covering it up, we’re going to stick out like a sore thumb in a world that demands quick fixes and happiness all the time.
If the true comfort Scripture has to give doesn’t just fix the unsettled feeling in our soul, then many of us are going to go elsewhere for assurance. We will, as good members of American consumer society, take our business elsewhere.
Literally. We will take any difficult situation, any opportunity for personal and societal growth and bypass it with the comfort that the marketplace provides. We pour ourselves even more diligently into our work, taking our lack of a commute as an excuse to work more hours. After all, we have no one to rely on but ourselves! We connect ourselves to the television and social media in order to find someone outside ourselves to blame for our anxiety. We pour ourselves another glass of wine because the first one didn’t quench our anxious thirst. We buy from Amazon.com just for the feeling of gratification that waiting for and receiving a package provides. We become even more focused on ourselves and anything that gets in the way of our personal happiness is discarded. All this gets to the point that even the church becomes the subject of our consumer impulses—we’re not worshiping in the right way, the pastor isn’t doing enough, it just doesn’t feel the same anymore.
All of these coping mechanisms and responses to anxiety have been exacerbated by the coronavirus, but are they really new?
There is not a single response to our age of coronavirus anxiety, not a single bandage for our wounds that I have mentioned that has been invented over the past 7 months. They’re the same things that have occupied and distracted us since birth.
And if our response to the anxiety of the moment isn’t new, guess what? The anxiety of the moment isn’t new either.
Has it sunk in yet? Half of us, according to surveys, may acknowledge that we are feeling more anxious now than before the pandemic. But if we’ve been overworking ourselves, hiding in ideological foxholes, and numbing ourselves with television and alcohol all along—the truth is we have been anxious in our interior world the entire time.
The difference is that right now, all of us have been confronted by the uneasiness of our humanity at the same time. All of us have had to peer into the dark basement of our lives—and most of us have scurried back upstairs, back to the old normal, because we don’t like what we see.
Let’s go back to the story of the innocent boy who learned what fear was. We have all now acknowledged that we are afraid—otherwise we would not be responding in the ways of coping I identified a moment ago. So now is the time for us to declare “I am the boy/girl who is afraid.” And then for us to go into the fear inducing places—(go to) the dark cemetery, the gallows, the haunted house, and the basement of our life where we hide all the unpleasant bits—(go there) and sit there for a while, feeling afraid instead of hiding from fear.
It is then, when we admit that we are afraid, when the darkness of our own soul becomes our constant companion, that we can find the faith we have been looking for all along.
See, if you’re inclined to gloss to this pandemic and all of the anxieties of our age by screaming “faith casts out fear” at the top of your lungs, I’m just going to assume that you don’t have faith at all.
The law that says “thou shalt not fear” is not faith.
If not being afraid means that you are able to provide for yourself, that’s not faith. If the comfort you have is knowing what tomorrow, 5 years from now, or 20 years from now will be like, that is not faith. If your faith is in yourself and your own ability to have everything worked out—including whose fault everything is—then you don’t have faith. If faith means returning to some sense of normal, then it’s not faith.
If faith means to you that you are never afraid, then you don’t have faith because God has put a burden on us. God, Ecclesiastes tells us, has placed eternity in the human heart.
God has placed within us a knowledge of the great, unsearchable, frightening majesty of God. God has put in our heart a longing for God alone so that no matter what we do to try and settle our hearts, they will not be at peace until they find their rest in God. Remember what we read from Ecclesiastes? God has burdened us with eternity at the heart of our being.
But we have to be intentional about going to and experiencing the places in our life where God is known to show up, where this knowledge of eternity is found.. We have to seek out and investigate the places where this inner fear, this inner longing comes to the surface.
Look at the names and stories of the Biblical writers who talk about God giving unexpected peace through fear and you’ll realize they found that faith because they were willing to stare the darkness of fear and anxiety in the face!
Moses had seen God in a flaming bush, confronted Pharaoh, and led Israel most unwillingly through a desert. Elijah ran into the wilderness in fear because Jezebel was intent on killing him. God appears, not in some trite bumper sticker, but in the silence of fear and trembling that comes after a storm. Job challenged God in the court of justice and had God unveil the whole mystery of creation to his face. Jacob wrestled with God. David sinned against everyone and had to befriend darkness. Paul was given a thorn in his side to constantly torment him.
It is these figures that tell us not to be afraid. Not because there is nothing to fear. Moses, Elijah, Job, Jacob, and Paul know for sure there is everything to fear. But they give assurance of God’s presence because they have confronted their own darkness, uncertainty and anxiety. They’ve stared the void in the face with fear and trembling. And now nothing, not even death or life, not even the anxieties of this world, can separate us them from God’s embrace anymore.
Right now, this global struggle against a pesky little virus, has dragged into the basement with all of our issues. It’s shown us the dust and disorder inside of ourselves. It’s intensified our frustrations and desires. And now, along with all creation, we anxiously await redemption (Romans 8).
Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, we raise our complaints to God, begging him to take away from us this thorn in our side, this prodding at our back that painfully moves us away from the old normal of our self-sufficiency. But God knows that without this thorn, we would go back to our old ways.
If you feel anxious right now, if you feel unsettled, if you feel a need to lash out with your opinions and judgment, good.
Now it is time for us to learn what fear is.
Now, in the cover of pandemic darkness, we are safe enough to go down into our souls and sit with ourselves. Now, we have the opportunity to go into our quiet places to pray and lose ourselves.
Jesus says, “when you pray, enter your closet and shut the door.” Enter the place where nothing can distract you from the uneasiness of yourself. Enter the place where the only two people are you and God. The closet Jesus talks about is necessarily dark. It’s silent. If you can hear anything, it’s just the hum of your body ticking along.
A Christian philosopher of the 19th Century taught that learning to be anxious in the right was “an adventure that every human being must go through.” We need to learn to be anxious in the right way so that we do not succumb to the numbing of our anxiety in the wrong ways.
This man, Soren Kierkegaard, is noted for saying “Faith sees best in the dark.”
The truthfulness of the statement is immediately proven when you respond by saying, “well, faith cannot see best in the dark because I cannot see in the dark!”
Exactly. It is when we cannot see that we come to see ourselves clearly. It is when we cannot see that God speaks through the silence and we can do nothing besides trust him. It is when admit that we cannot see that everything is uncovered.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” If we don’t acknowledge our weakness, if we don’t uncover the inner anxiety growing from the neglected soul within us, then God’s power will never be made perfect in us.
Only when we come to the place where we have no hope for the future in ourselves, when we have no ability to move forward at all, can we experience true faith.
The only way out of our present age of anxiety is through it. The only way to overcome our anxiety is to stop fighting it and just accept it.
Kierkegaard most succinctly puts the problem of our world and its solution in these words:
The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and my advice asked, I should reply, ‘Create silence. Bring people to silence. The word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. Therefore, create silence.Soren Kierkegaard
So, the challenge for us this week is for us to go back into our quarantine closets and shut the door. Separate yourself from the lights of the world; turn off the noise. Maybe one of the disciplines of the moment for you is that you restrain yourself from watching political news. Turn it off. Enter the place where only you and God reside, where the knowledge of eternity resides. Sit. Listen. Wait for the Lord.
And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Let us pray: