“Do not be anxious,” Jesus urges his disciples. Angels generally begin: “Be not afraid.” Why not, for heaven’s sake? This world is dangerous. We’ve got crime and terrorism in our time; marauding kings, an occupying Roman army, plagues and locusts, lions in the desert in the time of Jesus and the prophets. Fear seems a very sane reaction – and anyway, what’s wrong with planning just a few days in advance? With reservations, maybe the Messiah could have been born into clean sheets.
The Old Testament suggests that God doesn’t want us planning much, because He wants the credit. Abraham and Sarah aren’t to count on age (or menopause, presumably) to keep them childless (Genesis 17 & 18) – in God, all things are possible. The Israelites in the desert can gather just one day’s manna at a time (Exodus 16), so that they, daily, face God’s generosity – and their own dependence. Gideon must reduce his army – twice (Judges 7) – so that the victory is, unmistakably, divine.
But the New Testament describes a different kind of God, or at least a different relationship between us humans and the divine. This time around, the childless woman seems to have a say in whether she’ll participate in miracle. And her son – and he is called her son – Jesus, well he’s as likely to demonstrate his role on earth in very earthly ways: parables or skipping out to go to temple when he’s younger, as through something as spectacular as miracles. Where the God of the Old Testament seemed pretty fearful: sending floods, destroying cities, causing exile, loss, destruction, the God of the New Testament is reassuring. “Do not be anxious,” Jesus tells his followers (Matthew 7:25). Your father in heaven cares for you (Matthew 7: 26); He understands your needs (Matthew 7:32). His “house has many rooms” (John 14:2), this yoke is easy, and this burden light (Matthew 11:30). What is going on here?
My grandfather was an Episcopal priest, and left a stack of sermons when he died. I noticed a refrain – perhaps it was his central sense of mission, or a stumbling block he kept encountering. “It is not surprising,” my grandfather offered more than once, “that we believe in God. What is surprising,” he’d continue, “is that God believes in us.” Sit with that awhile. People in all cultures, in all times, have sensed something out there, something beyond ourselves. Perhaps it’s in our genes, or in our brains, or in our cultures – but my grandfather was right, in many ways: it’s not surprising that we believe there’s something more out there, something knitting all of this together. But that this something, that this God, would trust in us?
I can’t begin to fathom why, but the truth of it – of God’s belief in us – is threaded through all Christian scriptures. The God that could tear seas apart still put his argument to Pharaoh inside the mouth of a man – a stutterer at that! The outcome of the battle against Amalek depended on the strength of Moses’ arms, and on the willingness of others to help Moses hold them up (Exodus 17). Perhaps this trust in us is one way we are knitted all together. Perhaps it’s also one way we are knitted to ourselves.
When Jesus walks across the water toward the disciples in their storm-tossed boat, Peter – like so many others in the gospels – offers the next step of Jesus’ ministry. “Lord,” Peter suggests, “bid me come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Jesus accepts this invitation, calls Peter from the boat, and Peter joins him in the miracle. Peter walks across the water, too – until he’s struck by fear.
Anxiety, it seems to me, interrupts the faith in God that can redound as faith in self. We need to trust ourselves – in our capacity to rise to challenge, in our instinct toward compassion, in our discernment, in our vision of the infinite and the divine. Mother Teresa, we now know, felt that Jesus himself instructed her as she established her mission to “the least of these” in India. She also felt his absence ever after. How many of us would have allows anxiety, self-doubt, and plain old fear erode our faith and confidence? How many would have wondered if we’d simply made it up – or maybe it was something that we ate, there, on the train. How many would, like Peter, start to sink? A woman I admire once hired me for a job I wasn’t sure that I could do. When I voiced this lack of confidence, I was upbraided. “What?” the woman asked me – none too gently – “Don’t you think I know my job? Do you think I’d hire someone who couldn’t handle this position? Do you think that I got suckered by your resume?” Self-doubt is not confined to self; anxiety soon spreads. We can’t go far along that road before our lack of faith in self reveals a lack of faith in others – or provides permission to put off the needs and hopes of others, just until we are more sure. But despite the overwhelming evidence that we’re not up to it, this God of ours appears to have placed a lot of the work into our hands: justice, mercy, the naked, the poor. Anxiety is one of many ways that we put off this work that we’ve been given, that we can say “not yet,” “not me,” “I couldn’t possibly ” If, all we of little faith, instead embraced God’s faith in us, and put that faith in action in our world, I believe we’d find our world becoming much less fearsome, anyway.