Here’s how my friend Stacey summarizes her approach to life: “Jump and the net will appear.” The trust that underpins her approach to life has allowed her to take risks, try new things, and embrace exciting adventures. Trust has led her to make significant career changes, start businesses, travel to unique places, and live with passion and enthusiasm. There have, of course, been times when she’s gotten in over her head. Yet, even in those circumstances, she’s had the confidence to find a way out.
I don’t score nearly as high on the trust meter as Stacey does. My trust and confidence is tempered by a level of inner anxiety that causes me to be much more cautious than she is. If I were preparing to jump, I’d have an expert crew build the net and a structural engineer check their work. I have a kind of congenital inner anxiety, a fear that something will go wrong. That fear motivates much of my behavior, and it inhibits my ability to trust.
The contrast between anxiety and trust is a pervasive Gospel theme.
When the angel appears to Zachariah in the temple, his first words are: “Do not be afraid, Zachariah, for your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:13) Gabriel provides a similar reassurance when he appears to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1: 30) It’s not surprising that when an angel suddenly drops in on someone, some reassurance is helpful. Yet, these two incidents also reveal that the instinct to respond with fear is unnecessary. A surprise isn’t necessarily a threat.
When Jesus’ disciples are caught in the middle of the lake during a ferocious storm, they are terrified. Some of them are experienced fishermen who know a threat when they see it. (Mark 4:35-41) The waves are coming into the boat, it is being swamped, and Jesus is asleep. In a panic, they wake Jesus: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’ response emphasizes the contrast between fear and faith: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith.” (Mark 4: 40)
Jesus’ statement is what the late Father Thomas Keating refers to as a word of wisdom. Jesus is not necessarily chiding the disciples, he is merely stating a truth – for them and for us. To the extent that we are anxious and afraid, our faith is lacking.
The kind of faith that Jesus is referring to is a profound trust in God. It goes beyond an intellectual assent to a creedal statement about God; it is a profound emotional trust in God’s presence and abiding care. It is not just the God of our heads – the way we might name or describe God. It is the God of our guts – the deep, emotional, soulful trust that connects us to God and entrusts our life and our future to the divine care. Think of it this way: the disciples in the boat could have answered the quiz, but they failed the gut check. In the midst of life-threatening fear, their ability to trust in God came up wanting.
I understand what’s at stake in Jesus’ word of wisdom because I am aware of the times when my ability to trust has also come up wanting. Like the disciples, I could pass the God-in-my-head written test or oral quiz. But, I often stumble when it comes to the trust-in-God gut check.
When I confront anxiety and fear, it triggers my survival instinct. I become self-focused and self-protective. My focus shifts to threat management, and my attention goes to what I need to do in order to cope with the threat. An adrenalin rush causes me to assert control and do whatever it takes to survive. All too often, my response is way out of proportion to the degree of the threat – causing me to lose perspective and get tangled up in all kinds of anxious energy.
My friend Jim had an insightful and humorous way of capturing this dynamic. He woke up one Saturday morning with a terrible toothache, but he was unable to see his dentist until Monday. His description of the experience was: “This weekend, I was a tooth.” The pain focused his attention and energy on his painful tooth, and it became his identity.
Like Jim’s painful tooth, anxiety and worry can absorb our attention and energy – turning it inward and focusing it on ourselves. We become preoccupied with safety and security, and we attempt to maintain control.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6: 25-34), Jesus provides a sharp contrast to that approach:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (Matt 6: 25 and 27)
Jesus contrasts our propensity for worry with the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He urges us to shift the focus of our energy and attention. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matt 6: 33)
Moving from anxiety to trust – from fear to faith – requires a significant shift in the focus of our energy and attention. The energy driven by anxiety and fear is inward-focused, ego-centric and safety/survival-oriented. The energy that trust stimulates is other-focused, spontaneous, expansive, and creative.
Perhaps Stacey’s ability to trust that she can jump and the net will appear is some unique, innate ability. For me – and I suspect for most of us – that kind of trust is a learned behavior, an approach to life that we need to cultivate over time. It’s clear in the Gospels that such trust didn’t come easily for the disciples, and the same is likely true for most of us.
Moving from anxiety to trust, from fear to faith requires loosening our grip, opening our hands, and giving up control. Ultimately, it requires opening our hearts and placing our trust God. Learning to do so helps us recognize that during every storm, Jesus is in the boat with us – even when he seems to be asleep. As a profound trust begins to permeate the broken places within us, our emotions and gut-level instincts are slowly transformed. As that process of conversion unfolds, we find ourselves more and more able to place our deep, soulful, gut-level trust in God’s love and abiding care.
Invitation to Prayer
You know all the ways that anxiety and fear hold me back;
Gift me with the trust I need to place my confidence in you.
Your words of wisdom – that I need to grow in trust – ring true;
Free me from the worry that fails to add a single hour to my life.
Spirit of Love and Power,
You are an empowering force for growth and transformation;
Give me the strength to trust in you even when I am afraid.