Q: I’ve always been afraid of flying, terrified that the plane will crash. Other things make me anxious, too – situations when I’m not in control at all of what will happen next. I wonder, What if this is IT? What if I’m about to DIE? As a Christian, It seems like I should be able to let go, knowing that we come from and return to God, whatever happens. So why do these situations feel like possible disasters?
A: Thank you for your question. I’m so sorry to hear that you have experienced this kind of anxiety. Please be sure you have someone to talk with one on one about these concerns. But I think you bring up an important question: what does our faith have to say about fear, the unknown and death?
We were actually just talking about this in our bible study on James last week. James writes about people making plans for a year down the road and calls this a kind of “boasting.” For, if we’re honest, we realize we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Instead, James writes, “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’” (3:15). This is a sentiment frequently uttered by Jews, (“If God wills it!”). You often hear people saying, “God willing…” In this sense, none of us knows when we might die. It very well could be tomorrow, or the next time we board a plane, etc. As Christians we can place our hope in God’s eternal promises for us. Today, tomorrow, and forever.
However, that doesn’t seem a particularly helpful or practical way to live. By that, I mean, we wouldn’t want to answer a friends question of, “What are you up to tomorrow,” by saying, “I don’t know – I might be dead!” Nor would we want to place ourselves in unecessary danger, because “I’m going to heaven.” I think we need to find a balance between fear and faith.
We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. And yet fear can actually be a helpful and healthy emotion at times. St. Augustine noted that we fear losing that which we love – which can lead to the reasonable provision for our or other’s safety.
Consider your example of flying. If you notice when you get on a plane that the engines are badly damaged, it doesn’t make sense to say, “Well, God will keep me safe,” or, “If anything happens, I’m going to heaven.” In such a situation you shouldn’t get on the plane! Here, fear helps us make a responsible decision.
On the flip side, fear is negative when it paralyzes us — particularly about things that are beyond our control. If you get on a plane that seems safe and are reasonably assured that this flight is no more dangerous than any other, then fear will not help, but rather make you think of an endless array of “what-if’s.” In these situations, as people of faith, we can place our hope in God’s ultimate protection.
In the face of all that can harm us—and as we consider the unknown—it is natural to be fearful. And yet once we do what we can to ensure our safety, there is nothing else to do but place our trust in God’s protection. Such confidence in this midst of fear is what I think we are right to call courage. The courage given us as Children of God.