Matters of Faith: Choosing to Live in Fear or Faith

The following article written by Dr. Bruce Epperly appeared in the Cape Cod Times on August 16, 2014

Once upon a time, Jesus’ disciples were caught in a storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee. As the waves pummeled their boat, they panicked, believing that they would be drowned. In the midst of their panic, they realize that Jesus is with them, sleeping in the back of the boat. When they awaken him, Jesus calms the waves, and then asks, “Where is your faith?”

Now that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? How we respond can be a matter of life and death, love and hate, friendship and enmity, or success and failure? While there is no one definition of faith, I believe that faith is ultimately a sense that life is trustworthy, that the moral arc of the universe tends toward goodness, and that we have everything we need to respond to the challenges of life.

Faith involves basic trust that the world is a place of possibility, creativity, love, and abundance. In all the seasons of life, and despite our own doubts and questions, persons of faith believe that all will be well, for God’s abundant life constantly sustains us. Faith is a gift, and it is also a choice, a decision to experience the world and the events of our lives in relationship to the movements of a creative wisdom that gently guides the universe and empowers us to become agents in shaping our destinies.

In our time of ever-increasing change, many people are dominated by fear of the future. Some people see pluralism and the rise of seekers and spiritual but not religious persons as a threat to the old time religion and the supremacy of Christianity in North America. Others greet refugee children with placards and angry voices, fearing that their health, jobs, schools, and vision of America will be put at risk. Often congregants worry that the church they love is on the verge of dying. As a pastor and congregational consultant, I have heard prognostications such as: “in five years we’ll have to close the doors,” we’re old, no one would want to come to our church,” or “we have nothing to offer the community.” While these fearful visions of the future have an element of truth, the biblical tradition points us to a deeper realism that recognizes our limits but sees them in light of God’s abundance and the power of our faithful commitments to change the world.

Our faith can transform body, mind, and spirit.   Medical researchers have identified the placebo and nocebo effects and suggest that belief can shape biology. Faith and hope can change our cells as well as souls, improving our overall well-being and motivating us to positive behaviors. Negative attitudes and expectations (nocebos) can be factors in illness and personal failure.

Our faith in God and the goodness of life is seldom unwavering. Faith doesn’t exclude doubt or fear, but places them in a larger perspective of relationship with the Holy. As the saying goes, “courage is fear that has said its prayers,” and thus made a connection with the source of blessing, love, and confidence.

The gospels tell the story of a great crowd that, after a long day of listening to Jesus, needed to be fed. They were far from town and with few provisions. When Jesus asked the disciples to inventory their food supply, they reported that their bags were empty, and that one boy had five loaves and two fish in his backpack. They realistically noted that such a meager portion could not feed a multitude. Yet, Jesus awakened them to a deeper realism: he prayed and the crowd was fed. We don’t know the mechanics of this miraculous feast: Were the loaves and fish multiplied as a result of Jesus’ prayers? Did Jesus’ faith inspire people?

Whether in dealing with a storm, food shortages, congregational membership, the changing face of North American spirituality, or immigration issues, we can choose to be live by fear or faith. Fear lives by scarcity and limitation; it isolates and constricts the imagination. Faith lives by abundance and possibility; it creates community and inspires imaginative thinking and acting. Faith visualizes miracles, and lives to see them come to pass. Faith is realistic: it counts the provisions, keeps track of budgets, and takes medical diagnoses and treatments seriously. But, it also sees more to reality than diagnoses and the bottom line. Faith’s imaginative vision opens us to unexpected sources of bounty. Faith opens our hearts and hands, and enables us to work for positive outcomes that benefit everyone. Faith is not naïve about challenges: but trusts the future, discerns possibilities, and fosters hope in the midst of limitation.

I see the power of affirmative faith regularly as a pastor.   Faith is manifest in the choice to forgive an enemy, to begin again after the death of a spouse or divorce, and to maintain sobriety one day at a time. Faith is revealed in families dreaming of home ownership and sharing in the building of a Habitat for Humanity project, in recovery from illness, in unexpected cures, and in peace and confidence in the face of incurable illness.

Faith as small as a mustard seed can, as Jesus promised, be the tipping point in facing the future. It can move mountains, and bring new life and transformation to shattered lives, relationships, and institutions. With faith in our personal agency and God as our companion, we can do what seems impossible and achieve more than we can ask or imagine.

Bruce Epperly is the Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville, MA.