My mother was blind. So I have lots of memories of how her handicap not only affected her life but also how it influenced the lives of all the members of our family. I remember one particular occasion when we went out to a restaurant for dinner. After the waitress had served our food, I looked over at what my mother was served and I thought I saw a dirty spot on her silverware. As my mother picked up her fork I said, “Wait mom. I think I see a dirty spot on your fork.” She shrugged it off and said, “Ah, it’s nothing.” I said, “No wait a minute. Aren’t you afraid that it might not be perfectly clean?” She paused and said, “Son, if I worried about stuff like that I would never get anything to eat.”
I will never forget that incident because it taught me an important life lesson. Many people in our world are forced to live their life with challenges that the rest of us will never fully understand or ever experience. Their challenges create a whole list of troubles and worries that make our own concerns appear trivial. Take my mother’s blindness for example. When you are forced to live your life in total darkness, something like an eating utensil that may not be perfectly clean would be the least of your worries.
I thought about that incident as I read the line in today’s Gospel (John 14:27) where Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
We need to properly understand the concept of fear in order to appreciate what Jesus is saying here, because, after all, fear is a basic human emotion.
Psychologists tell us that fear can actually be categorized into two basic types. There is biochemical fear and emotional fear. Biochemical fear is universal, whereas emotional fear is highly individualized.
When we, as individuals, are confronted with a situation that we perceive as dangerous, our physical response is automatic. Our bodily reactions may include sweating, an increased heart rate, an elevated adrenaline, or all of the above. That is biochemical fear. We sometimes refer to this response as “fight or flight”. This response is normal and universal. It is the way we are all created. God designed us that way. In fact, God designed all living creatures with this automatic, internal mechanism for coping with danger. This type of fear is not only normal, it is crucial to our survival.
Emotional fear, on the other hand, is highly personalized. Some people, for example, have a very negative reaction to the feeling of fear and they will avoid fear-inducing situations at all costs. And, as we all know, there are those thrill seekers who thrive on fear inducing experiences. Those who avoid fear-inducing situations might call these thrill seekers adrenaline-junkies. Both types of people will experience the same physical reaction, but one will see their fear as positive and the other as negative. Halloween, horror films and amusement parks are all examples that demonstrate how many of us enjoy the experience of being scared as long as we are in an environment in which we know we are actually safe.
This biochemical fear and emotional fear, which is a normal and healthy part of who we are as a child of God, is not what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.
All of us live our conscious lives conducting a continuous internal dialogue with ourselves. For the sake of simplicity let’s call this thought process “self-talk”. And as we all know, this self-talk will, at any given moment, be either positive or negative. Furthermore, this self-talk process, whether it is positive or negative, greatly influences our emotions, our behavior, and our actions.
I will give just a couple of examples to help explain my point. Positive self-talk might be things like:
- I’m going to ace this test, I just know it.
- Boy, I’m really optimistic and excited about this new job opportunity.
- My future looks so bright I’m going to need shades.
Examples of negative self-talk might be things like:
- I’m going to fail this test, I just know it.
- I shouldn’t even apply for that job. I’ll just make a fool of myself.
- I am really worried and fearful of what the future holds.
I hope my point is clear. Positive self-talk is constructive, it reflects pride and confidence in who we are as an individual, and it promotes a positive outlook on life. Negative self-talk, on the other hand, reflects irrational fear, worry, unease and anxiety for no apparent reason. And if our negative self-talk is left unchecked, it will produce a totally negative outlook on life in general.
When Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid”, he wasn’t saying, “Don’t ever feel fear”. That wouldn’t make any sense. After all, we were all created with the totally normal and healthy ability to experience the emotion of fear, and, as I said, this ability is crucial to our survival. What Jesus was saying is, “Be at peace. Have confidence in Me, have confidence in My presence in your life, and have confidence in who you were created to be.”
Since it is an emotion that we all share, fear can be a powerful motivator. And the evil one can and will use our fears in an attempt to lure us away from the trust and confidence we are to have in our Creator. Regardless of the cause or source of our worries and anxieties, irrational fear can rob us of all that God has to offer.
God has not been silent on this subject of irrational fear. Sacred Scripture contains over 1,200 references to the subject of fear. Obviously I cannot list them all here, so I will just quote my favorite one. It comes from Proverbs (3:5-6)
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.”
In today’s Gospel, before Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid”, He said “Peace I leave you, my peace I give to you.” The Hebrew word used here in the original ancient text is shalom. The word shalom is most commonly translated to mean peace. And in the Complete Jewish Bible this line reads, “What I am leaving with you is shalom — I am giving you my shalom.”
I think it is important to note that the word peace is an incomplete translation of the word shalom, because peace conveys only one small part of the full meaning. “The word shalom is used to both greet people and to bid them farewell, and it means much more than “peace, hello or goodbye”. Hebrew words go beyond their spoken pronunciation. Each Hebrew word conveys feeling, intent and emotion. Shalom is more than just simply peace; it is a complete peace.” (therefinersfire.org) “Shalom means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, and the absence of agitation or discord.” (Strong’s Concordance, #7965)
Life is a gift. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.” The only guarantee that we have in life is the present moment. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that it is God’s will that we enjoy this precious gift of life and that we not contaminate it with irrational fears and anxieties. The secret to a full and happy life is to find joy and contentment in the present moment. And to insure our tranquility, Jesus offers us His peace, His shalom. However, He will not force this gift upon us, it is ours to possess if we but accept and receive this most precious gift of peace.
A Presbyterian minister by the name of Matthew Henry once said, “When Christ died He left a will, in which He bequeathed His soul to His Father, his body to Joseph of Arimathea, His clothes fell to the soldiers, His mother He gave to the apostle John, but to His disciples, who had left all for Him, He left not silver and gold, but something that was infinitely better — He left His peace.” (Matthew Henry, 1662-1714, a Presbyterian minister famed for his commentary on the Old and New Testament, a work that is still in print)
We too can be counted among those who are identified as His disciples if we too are willing to abandon our independence, stop relying solely on ourselves and begin trusting in God and accept His peace. Always remember, the ultimate remedy for fear is trust in God.