Dear Friends in Christ,
I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year! Given the snow event, we had to cancel liturgy on Sunday, December 26, and so I decided to hold a Vespers service Friday night so we could start off our New Year with prayer and meet together for our customary three services per month. Presbytera Michaela and I ended up spending the night quietly at home with family. We hope you enjoyed your holiday weekend, too!
This is the time when everyone talks about making a resolution to begin a new project, or to quit a bad habit. I won’t write today about making resolutions, because we all know how to do that, and we also know how often they are broken! Instead, I would like to comment on what can keep us from making the resolutions we should make in the first place: fear.
It is certainly hard for us to admit that we are afraid of things, but we all have fears. Fear is indeed a normal part of human life, a biological impulse that helps us stay clear of danger. I recently read of a woman in Britain who has a mental disorder such that she cannot experience fear. One comment was telling: a scientist remarked that it was amazing that the woman was still alive, given the risks she was prone to take due to her daring.
Fear can thus be a powerful force, and used rightly, it can keep us from doing the wrong things. For instance, as I have explained in sermons and messages before, if we follow the Christian life, we gradually desire to do the wrong thing less and less, simply because we love God and this reorders our internal desires. However, before we reach that point, we often have to fight against our will, and fear can be a powerful tool. The Fathers of the Church encourage us to think of Death, the coming Judgment, and the loss of our Heavenly home, as a way to prevent our fall into sin. Yet we all know that the fear of these things can become a disorder, leading to a state of inactivity. We are all familiar with the images of people who become recluses in their homes for fear of Death. What the Church Fathers are encouraging is a measured contemplation on the soul’s condition, while the recluses are more concerned about their bodily condition.
The Church does not teach us to become inactive, however. We are only saved by activity, by an active walk with Jesus Christ, Our Savior. And herein lies another possible place where fear can become disordered; knowing what the Christian walk entails will necessarily lead to some changes in our behavior, our relationships, and our life in general. We love the status quo, and fear change. We resist that which is unfamiliar. Some of us are perfectionists, and fear doing something wrong, so that we do nothing at all. Yet around us, we see the mediocre people succeeding; how often is the true musician lauded in private for his skill, yet fails to achieve popular recognition, while a mediocre singer achieves lasting fame? Action, persistence, and effort often matter more than talent in the end.
As Christians, of course, we do not simply rely on our own abilities. If we did, we would be utter failures at ever doing anything right. God’s grace is what allows us to live righteously, and only through faith in Christ are our good works blessed. Seeing it this way, our fear becomes a barrier to grace! We are basically telling God that we cannot improve, because our weakness is stronger than God’s grace. St. Paul would have choice things to say about this. I will not provide a Scriptural quote for this, in the hopes that you will go look it up yourself. In which Epistle should you look? Read them all, I suggest! Or re-read them, if you have hopefully already read them all (many times!). St. Paul’s words can be hard to understand, but through a careful reading, you will learn to place less value in your ability, and all your trust in God’s ability to work through you.
Boldness is thus what I am encouraging. I am not encouraging pride, naturally; we must always be humble. St. Paul indeed was humble, and again, recognized through prayer when he should act, and when he should not, and always ascribed his failings to himself, and his successes to Jesus Christ. But he did not hold back from action when he felt God’s call. Let us search through our soul for those areas that are places of irrational fear. Let us shine light on them, and address them. In prayer, let us ask Christ for help! If we are married, let us share our burden with our spouse! If we are Orthodox, let us confess our sins, both in our private prayers, and through the ministry of our local priest in confession! Then we will have no need to create gimmicks for our resolutions, but instead we will feel empowered by God’s grace to make the choices we need to make, out of genuine desire. When we desire something greatly, we succeed, without charts, the carrot and the stick, and other temporal devices (I am not saying not to use them if they are useful, but am addressing the true root of success).
One of the troparia of the Canon of the Nativity contains this line: “being well content, out of fear, to be silent would be easier, since silence hath no danger.” But it is a perceived lack of danger in being silent, and a perceived danger to act, when in reality, the true spiritual danger is in not doing anything. This year, let us not resolve to do a few mundane things, but rather to look deep in to our souls, and address the fears that remain there. With God’s help, we will be victorious!