By Lucy Bixby
This is a scary time in America. Rumors of collapsing alliances and World War III circulate alongside reports of hate speech and attacks. Tensions are running high both here and abroad. People lock themselves inside their houses because of riots in the streets. While many have imagined what the next few years will hold, the truth is that the future is completely unknown to us. And the fear of what is coming—something we can’t prepare for because we don’t know what it will look like—is strong in our country.
At times, I feel fear because of my faith. In Matthew 24:9, Jesus says that before the last days, “[Christians] will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.” In many countries, this has been the reality for centuries. Pastors and churchgoers in nations hostile to Christianity live with the constant knowledge that any day could be their last. Corrie Ten Boom wrote that, “In America, the churches sing, ‘Let the congregation escape tribulation,’ but in China and Africa the tribulation has already arrived. This last year alone [in 1974], more than two hundred thousand Christians were martyred in Africa.” And the threat of persecution is not exclusive to Christians. In my classes at the University, students belonging to social and ethnic minority groups expressed intense fear of violence being enacted against them following the election. Other trials such as war, poverty, hunger, and disease also have the potential to touch anyone, regardless of background. Fear of the unknown, of the future where things could change, where people could suffer or be killed, is one that we all share. The Bible recognizes that fear is a powerful force, and God does not address it by promising us a safe, sheltered life with no challenges. Instead, he guides us to find comfort in his sovereignty.
This lesson was difficult for me to grasp at first. As I began to study the Bible my freshman year of college, I was disturbed by how little God seemed to care about my physical well-being. I read passages like Luke 12:22-31, which promises God’s care and provision in times of need, but it felt like for every verse like that, there was another one about how Christians would undergo many trials and hardships. It was hard for me to reconcile the two—if God loved me, why couldn’t I feel sure that he would make my life easy and comfortable? Was all I had to look forward to the promise of pain and ultimately death? Heaven seemed like a dim vision compared to a life filled with suffering. I was especially confused by Matthew 10:28-31:
Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.
To my reading, this passage did not say: “Your bodily health and comfort are more valuable to God than a flock of sparrows.” Instead, it highlights that our heavenly Father knows when a sparrow falls—when it dies. Similarly, he will know when we experience pain and suffering. But even though he does not promise that he will remove us from the discomfort of pain and death, he tells us, “Don’t be afraid.” But how can we be unafraid when we are faced with an uncertain future?
According to Luke 12:23, “life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.” While God cares about our daily needs, his greater concern is for our eternal salvation. In John 17:15, Jesus prays to his Father, saying, “I’m not asking you to take [those who are his] out of the world [that hates them], but to keep them safe from the evil one.” Our safety from temptation and sin was more significant to him in his prayer in Gethsemane than our physical safety from the hatred of those around us. I realized how misaligned my own worldview was from God’s. When I am scared, it is for my own comfort, not for my spiritual wellness. Every day, the demands of the world draw me away from focusing on the eternal.
Around the time that I was pondering these questions, I went to a conference where the speaker discussed John 21:18-19. In these verses, Jesus tells Peter, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” The narrator of the passage follows up by stating, “Jesus said this to let [Peter] know by what kind of death he would glorify God.” Peter clearly understood what Jesus was saying, and he accepted that he would be martyred for his faith. Again I was shaken by what I heard. God did not hide Peter’s tragic and painful end from him—and Peter followed God to the end anyway. I could not imagine what Peter must have been thinking and feeling as Jesus spoke these words to him, and I could not imagine that my response would be as faithful as his was. Reading Revelation was not encouraging to my faltering heart either—Revelation 13:10 states, and 14:12 echoes, that “God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently and remain faithful” throughout the end times, which will result in “a vast crowd, too great to count” of Christians “who died in the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:9, 14). Though I felt that God was cruel in telling Peter his fate, he tells us ours as well. Most of us will likely not be martyrs, but for every single Christian the possibility is there. The possibility is something we must accept in order to submit ourselves to God completely, which goes against our nature of self-protection. Above and beyond the challenge of denying our earthly desires in pursuit of a holier life, God calls us to follow him even into suffering and death.
Our natural inclination is to see things from an earthly perspective—to view our own comfort as most important, to see each new rising challenge as the biggest and most significant, as something we have to fix right now to make things better. For example, when I am hungry, I prioritize feeding myself because I know that if I don’t, I will feel worse later. Society behaves the same way, just on a grander scale. For people who don’t believe in a higher power or life after death, the present is all there is. There is no “bigger picture,” no master plan being worked out that we must wait to see revealed. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year, a comment that was left on a New York Times story became a much-shared Twitter post. It read:
France embodies everything religious zealots everywhere hate: enjoyment of life here on earth in a myriad [of] little ways: a fragrant cup of coffee and buttery croissant in the morning, beautiful women in short dresses smiling freely on the street, the smell of warm bread, a bottle of wine shared with friends, a dab of perfume, children playing in the Luxembourg Gardens, the right not to believe in any god, not to worry about calories, to flirt and smoke and enjoy sex outside of marriage, to take vacations, to read any book you want, to go to school for free, to play, to laugh, to argue, to make fun of prelates and politicians alike, to leave worrying about the afterlife to the dead. No country does life on earth better than the French.
As I read the words, I thought about the fear that people in France must have felt during and after the attacks. National pride, yes, but fear, too—of losing not only their way of life but life itself. In times of trauma and hardship, the quote told me, people need something to hold onto. But when God is out of the picture, what is left to hold onto is limited and, ultimately, empty. The Bible understands the need to find something greater than oneself in times of distress. The writer of Ecclesiastes tries to uncover meaning in laughter, alcohol, work, wealth, sex, and entertainment, “[denying himself] no pleasure” (Ecc. 2:10)—a strikingly similar list to the one written by the NYT commenter. But, in the end, he “looked at everything [he] had worked so hard to accomplish, [and] it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind” (Ecc. 2:11).
In the turbulent aftermath of the election, I have seen a lot of people around me focusing on the small picture. While I understand the fear and distress people in America are facing right now, it comes from the same place as my frustration with God’s lack of promise to provide comfort. Fear for the future, for the suffering that might come our way, stems from a desire for control over our situation. God doesn’t promise that to us. Instead, he assures us that humans cannot harm our souls, no matter what they do to our freedoms or our bodies.
God also will give us the strength that we need to face any kind of suffering. 2 Corinthians 4:16 says, “Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day.” With a focus on eternal things instead of earthly things, our souls will be refreshed in Christ despite outward suffering. And Isaiah 26:3 promises peace to believers in all circumstances, saying, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” Corrie Ten Boom’s 1974 letter tells of a lesson she learned while living in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in World War II—that although we fear for our lives now, just as Peter likely felt fear in the moment Jesus told him he would die, “Our Father in Heaven knows when you will need the strength to be a martyr for Jesus Christ. He will supply all [the strength] you need—just in time.” In order to overcome fear, we must learn to see our situation from a heavenly point of view rather than an earthly one.
With this lesson in mind, I read verses like Psalm 3:6, which says, “I am not afraid of ten thousand enemies who surround me on every side.” The psalmist David was confident that God would rescue him from a bad situation, but I think that his lack of fear didn’t come from feeling like he was in a comfortable place with no reason to worry. Instead, he looked beyond the situation to God’s power. Being surrounded by ten thousand enemies doesn’t sound very promising, and in most cases would not lead to a happy ending from an earthly perspective. But regardless of the outcome, we can know that our souls are safe with God. It was this mental shift, knowing that “our present troubles are small and won’t last very long” (2 Cor. 4:17) and that God will provide endurance and peace if we seek him, that has helped alleviate my fear of the future.
Of course, I still struggle with fear. I tend to keep quiet about my faith in class and at work for fear of being judged or giving a wrong impression. But God is teaching me to conquer those worries as well. This semester, I wrote about my church in a creative writing class. It was nerve-wracking, but with each small step, I learn to trust God more and to fear the perception of others less. When I think about the possibility of future persecution now, it is not with excitement. But suffering is not the end. I take comfort in knowing that “Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever” (1 Thess. 5:10). I look forward not with fear but with hope.