Faith, Fear, and the Illusion of Control

Fear. We’ve all felt it. We all know the experience of being afraid of something.

And especially over the last two years or so of the COVID pandemic and all the debates about the restrictions and guidelines and the vaccines and now the vaccine mandates or passports, people’s fears have surfaced in a variety of ways. It doesn’t help, I don’t think, that government and the media often seem to manipulate people’s fears to achieve political ends. As a result, there are people who are afraid of getting COVID and people who are afraid of getting one of the vaccines.

But there’s more than COVID that causes fear to rise up in us.

Some people are afraid because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Some people are afraid because they’ve just been told that they or someone they care about has cancer.

Some people are afraid of trusting someone again because they’ve only known unhealthy, broken relationships.

Some people are afraid because of climate change.

Some people are afraid because their preferred political party is not in power.

But why fear? Why do these things cause fear?

Here’s a wierd fact about me: sometimes when I get anxious, I clean up. I straighten up clutter, clean a counter, do dishes. It’s like I’m distracting myself from what I can’t control with what I can control. You see, I’m the kind of person who likes to feel as though I have at least something of a handle on things–at least things in my little neck of the woods. This means that a lot of the time–whether I am conscious of it or not–I want things to go a certain way. I usually prefer the routine and predictable. And so if something unexpected happens, especially something that threatens my safety or the safety of my family, I may very well get anxious. Fear rises up. All of a sudden, my life isn’t securely in my hands. I’ve lost control and I don’t like that very much.

I think that’s where a lot of our fear comes from–from losing whatever sense of control we thought we had. We like having control over our lives and our circumstances. But sometimes we lose the tight grip we so often try and maintain. Then we become disoriented. We find ourselves without solid footing. There’s nothing, we think, to keep us steady. There’s very little that’s worse than feeling like we’ve lost control. The very idea can easily terrify us.

If I get a cancer diagnosis, my health is out of my control. If I lose my job, my finances are out of my control. If my marriage breaks up, my family life is out of control.

And we want to be in control. Because we want to be safe.

But here’s the thing: control is an illusion.

Whatever sense of control I’ve had is just that: a sense of control, not actual control.

And because the world frequently feels like a dangerous place, we’ll do almost anything to give ourselves a sense of control.

In his book What’s Wrong With Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith, Skye Jethani puts it this way: “To ease our fears, we all strive to control the people and circumstances around us.”

And of course the biggest fear is undoubtedly the fear of death. I think the last couple of years have demonstrated that unequivocally.

We want to control our lives so we can put off dealing with the reality of death as much as possible. Because it’s the reality of death–which none of us can in the end avoid–that leaves us feeling like we have no control. And that’s what really scares us.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14–15), the author says this about what it means that Jesus went to the cross: through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Did you catch that? One of the reasons Christ died on the cross was so that he could free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

People are slaves, Scripture says, to the fear of death.

That is perhaps one of the most profound verses in the Bible I think there is. I think that’s because I see evidence of this all around me. I think it describes human history and human nature. I think it explains much of what I see when I watch the news. And when I see people react in very different ways to what’s going on in the world and in their lives. Fear emerges in various ways: in anger, in political divisions, and, yes, in attempts at control, whether individually or collectively.

It also explains me, when I catch myself falling prey to my own fears, despite all of the theology I have in my head.

One of the most common refrains in Scripture is this: Don’t be afraid. Fear Not.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says: Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For the Lord your God is the one who will go with you; he will not leave you or abandon you.

And when Deuteronomy says don’t be terrified or afraid of them, I think we can rightly substitute our own fears for them. Fear of sickness, fear of loss, fear of death. The same remains true of God: he will not leave you or abandon you.

In the gospels, when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says this: Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear Jesus’ words. I need them to sink deeply into my heart. Ours is a perilous world, one that elicits our worst fears at times. Maybe now more than ever. We don’t always know how to handle life. We don’t always know what choices to make. We aren’t certain about a whole bunch of stuff. But of this we can be certain: if God is on our side, who can be against us?

Living as a person of faith in the face of very real fears is not an easy thing to do. It’s true that sometimes fears get the best of us. The waves that threaten to overwhelm us and capsize our lives seem more real than God. More real than the promises of Christ. Faith is having the actual goodness and greatness of God magnified in our eyes. Not that he becomes bigger, but that we come to see him more and more as he actually is. And he is the one who can calm the storms inside of us when the winds and waves rage outside of us.

Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. I say amen. I say I believe; help my unbelief. And I say, finally, Come, Lord Jesus.

Do We Want God?

Sometimes, I confess, I find myself asking the question: Where is God?

Where is God?

Now, you might ask, what do I mean? Perhaps you think, “You’re a pastor and you’re asking where God is?”

Here’s the thing: it’s one thing to know something and it’s another to experience something.

For example, I know God can do mighty things. I know he can act in spectacular ways. With the Lord, the miraculous is possible.

Yet so many of our churches and ministries are struggling. And sometimes—despite the theology I have in my head—I just don’t know what to make of it all. I mean, I can have some grasp of the cultural and historical forces that have led us to this moment we’re in. But God is infinitely bigger than and sovereign over all of this.

That’s why I ask: Where is God?

Or perhaps I should put it this way: What should or can we expect of God here and now? What should our experience of God be?

Over the last couple of years our world—and therefore our churches—have been pummelled by the realities of COVID. We’re all exhausted by the whole thing, one way or another.

Yet, I think it’s fair to ask: What do we want to see happen in our churches? What do we want from God?

But maybe that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it all. Maybe those questions are still “keeping-God-at-arms-length” questions. Maybe we need to be more willing to dig deeper. Be more self-aware.

God, after all, isn’t here to make stuff happen for us or to give us stuff we want. That’s a consumer Christianity God.

Our God—the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is a living and active God, one who doesn’t fit into our boxes, traditions, and preferences. He moves. He acts. He reveals. He brings light into darkness. He does as he chooses.

Thanks be to God that he chooses to act in love!

Maybe we need to ask God for eyes to see and ears to hear. Maybe we need to be open to his presence in ways that are painful and uncomfortable at first but ultimately healing and renewing. Maybe we need to wait and listen and be still rather than rush to human solutions and strategies.

And maybe even as churches we need to confess, to repent, to admit our own complacency and own our complicity in the situation we find ourselves in.

Our God also calls and invites. He beckons and woos. He seeks to convict and change us. He seeks to make something new of us. He wants to pour his transforming love and grace in us to overflowing, so that we become vessels of his good news. But do we want this?

We ask: Where is God? Isn’t it possible that God is right here? Isn’t it possible that he is waiting for his people to approach him, to beseech him, to fall on their knees before him, to acknowledge their desperate need for him?

Yes, we can ask: Where is God?

Maybe the better question is: Do we want God? Do we really want to enter the presence of this God? Are we prepared to let this God undo us and our ways? Especially if this is indeed the route to life, wholeness, and peace?

I conclude as I began. I confess that I don’t always want God. But I want to want God—more than I sometimes do. I have moments when I want God more, and moments when I want God less. My desire for God ebbs and flows. It can be a trickle one day, and a roaring waterfall the next.

Maybe once we as Christians and as churches begin wanting God more than what we want from God, our eyes and ears will begin to open. Perhaps then not only will we begin to experience answers to our prayers, but will find that our very prayers are changed because we find ourselves desiring God more than what he can give us.

Vaccine Mandates, Abortion, and the Cognitive Dissonance of Bodily Autonomy

Cognitive Dissonance: A term from psychology referring to the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval.

German-Swiss poet Herman Hesse (1877-1962)

We currently have national political leaders–Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Joe Biden–who believe in unrestricted abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Herein lies a quandary. You see, pro-choice political leaders advocating for mandatory vaccinations have a problem they will never admit to having–or perhaps be unable to realize even exists.

The problem is that of bodily autonomy. The idea of bodily autonomy is that each individual person has the freedom to choose what they will or will not allow done to their own individual body. No one can impose upon an individual a procedure or act upon a person in a way that violates that person’s choices with respect to their own physical body. And these two issues–vaccine mandates and abortion–connect because they both relate to the notion of bodily autonomy.

For example, the other day President Biden announced that all private businesses in the US with more than 100 employees must require proof of vaccinations (or weekly COVID tests) of those same employees (or risk significant financial penalties). The very same day VP Kamala Harris made remarks defending abortion (no doubt in light of the recent pro-life law passed in Texas) as a woman’s right to do what she wants (or does not want) to do with her body.

For many who advocate for a woman’s right to have an abortion, the argument of bodily autonomy remains fundamental. In other words, a woman ought to have access to abortion services (regardless of how far along a given pregnancy may be) because she can do what she chooses to do with her own body. To restrict abortion access, even in the earliest weeks of fetal development, is to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy. Such autonomy is sacrosanct.

Indeed, the pro-choice position is seen as the height of our culture’s rhetoric of individual bodily autonomy and personal freedom. It has taken on an almost mythological status. Whereas in the Clinton-era Democratic party, the view was that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare” (there were those on the left who were more moderate and open to having restrictions based on the stage of fetal development), now the word “rare” is not only never used, but now abortion is very nearly celebrated as an intrinsic good.

So here’s the problem. For those who advocate for legal abortion on the basis of bodily autonomy, does not the principle of bodily autonomy extend to COVID vaccines? Do people not have the freedom to decide whether or not they will inject a substance into their bodies? Moreover, is it ethical for a government to impose restrictions or put mandates in place that punish or shame people for upholding the principle of bodily autonomy, a principle that most political leaders otherwise advocate for vigorously (especially in the case of abortion rights)?

Now, hear me clearly: I am not interested here in debating the efficacy of COVID vaccines or to make a case one way or the other about whether people should get vaccinations. I am not even arguing for a particular position regarding vaccine mandates. I simply want to point out the disconnect that so many political leaders either seem oblivious to or choose to ignore. How can someone say “your body, your choice” on the one hand but not on the other–that is, push for or support legal requirements that (in their view) respect bodily autonomy when it comes to abortion but then push for legal requirements that violate bodily autonomy when it comes to COVID vaccines? Why don’t they see the inconsistency?

Complicating this ethical quagmire is the fact that with respect to abortion, the whole “my body, my choice” argument is so out of date as to be laughable. Our present scientific understanding of fetal development makes absolutely clear to anyone willing to be intellectually honest that any child in any woman’s womb is not simply a part of that woman’s body. A child in utero is an individual human being, and has a body that is distinct from, even if dependent upon, that of its mother. Everything we know about human biology verifies this. Of course, the principle of bodily autonomy has never really applied to abortion, but those who continue to use such language in defense of unrestricted abortion rights are not doing what they would otherwise have the vaccine-hesitant do: that is, follow the science (Ah, the mantra of our age!). Those who argue for the pro-choice position because of the principle of bodily autonomy do so with no basis in scientific fact. On the other hand, those who argue that government leaders have no authority to mandate COVID vaccines (especially to maintain one’s livelihood and provide for themselves and their families) can easily stand on the ground that this principle provides.

If the argument for vaccine mandates is that they are needed in order to protect other people from harm, the only way for anyone to also support abortion is to advocate for the fatal harm of the unborn child. Indeed, if we were to talk about the need for vaccine mandates as necessary for protecting the most vulnerable, truly there is no one more vulnerable than an unborn child. Anyone who argues that vaccine mandates ought to be put in place should also be among those who advocate most vocally for the protection of unborn children. Put simply, to those who advocate for the mandates and for abortion rights: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

What I really find striking about all of this, therefore, is the cognitive dissonance that must (or should) exist for those who advocate for both abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Either we can choose to do what we want with our bodies without legal ramifications or not. Which is it? You can’t have both, not if you’re actually thinking it through carefully. Those who try to have both are either disingenuous or delusional. I don’t know how else to put it. Because when I hear Prime Minister Trudeau belittle another party leader for not requiring (actually, he used the word “forcing”) his candidates to get vaccinated (to have a needle poked into their bodies) and also say that we need to protect a woman’s right to choose (to kill another human being who has their own body), my head spins. I feel the cognitive dissonance. Why doesn’t he?

The conversation–not to mention the partisan arguments and the protests–surrounding vaccine mandates are front and center at the moment. However, underlying this conversation is a whole series of deeper questions that are complicated but fundamental. They involve what it means to be human, what it means that we have rights and freedoms as individuals, what authority do we want (and therefore allow) our government to exercise in our lives, and what our responsibilities, duties, and obligations are to one another. In an age of tweets and sound-bites, most of this gets lost in the media, as politicians and pundits alike banter back and forth. There is virtually no public forum where conversations of sufficient depth take place with respect to such fundamental concerns. As a consequence, trust in public institutions is understandably at a low point. These are challenging times. There are no easy answers that will satisfy everyone. But I certainly wish those who are our political leaders would at least show more signs of recognizing, if not the cognitive dissonance I’ve pointed out, then the genuine concerns those with whom they disagree have about these important questions.

Life Above (and Below) the Surface

Not too very long ago, during our second COVID lockdown, I ran into someone from my church in the grocery store. He’s been a part of our church most of his life, much longer than my just over 7 years as pastor. We chatted for a couple of minutes about COVID restrictions and then went our separate shopping ways.

Afterwards, I was struck by how ephemeral so many of our human interactions are. Of course, I get that some of this is unavoidable. But this particular experience left me feeling like our lives actually allow very little space for more meaningful conversations.

So often the words we exchange represent only the tip of the iceberg of our lives. Our hopes, our struggles, what we believe, and how we’re getting on in the world, unaddressed. Or at least unacknowledged. Perhaps even by us. Because of the unreasonably fast pace of life, many have become practical introverts, leaving large swaths of who they are out of view.

It’s almost like we don’t have the permission or maybe even the vocabulary to talk about the most important things. Our lives have been stripped of the transcendent, and we’re often without a connection to something (Someone?) larger than ourselves through which (Whom?) all the disparate aspects of life find their coherence.

We content, or maybe even resign ourselves, to living disenchanted lives, cobbling purpose and meaning together out of a hodge-podge of sources. Our lives lack a narrative arc that gives the varied experiences a sense of wholeness. Life—our lives—get reduced to their component parts. Everything gets compartmentalized; nothing hangs together.

Even in church, there is often a real lack of genuine spiritual conversation. The very space where people should have the opportunity to make deeper connections, to ask questions and to share their thoughts about meaning and how matters of faith intersect with everyday life, becomes another experience of rushing past the personal and skimming along the surface.

Where is the place or the time to articulate in community, in conversation, those nagging feelings of uncertainty, or the longing for a more meaningful experience of God? Where is there space and time to talk about the personal frustrations about our lives and how God is (or doesn’t seem to be) involved?

Are we content with leaving matters of such profound personal significance on the margins of our everyday lives? Or if that itself is a frustration, what do we do about it?

Am I alone in wanting space and time and freedom for leisurely conversation with others about stuff that deeply matters? Do you have a desire to spend unscheduled time with friends over coffee, wine, or iced water just to be you—in all of your brokenness and longing?

Too much of life is lived on the surface. There is more to each of us—and the part of the world we inhabit—than meets the eye. There is a great deal below the surface. Wouldn’t it be nice if more of our conversations, our time with fellow human beings—Christian or otherwise—reflected this?

Living as Christians in a Crazy World

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world? By what you see on Facebook, in your newsfeed, on TV and social media?

I think about Afghanistan.

I think about Haiti.

I think about our Canadian Federal election and politics in general.

I think about the situation with COVID and the way it’s been politicized.

I think about how so many people are so polarized and divided and how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have sane, thoughtful conversations.

I think about how social media like Facebook, despite its limited value, has many people attached to their phones and computers and the way in which this connects to the rise of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among young people.

It can all be too much at times.

How do we as Christians process all that we’re seeing and experiencing in the news and on Facebook and all around us?

I want to suggest that whatever else is going on around us, there are three things we need to remember while as Christians we go about living in this crazy world.

First, every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore has an intrinsic worth and dignity.

Consider Genesis 1:26—27: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

We as human beings were created and are called to make something of and to steward well the world God has given to us.  Every human is also loved by God, even those hated by us. No one is beyond hope or redemption while alive in this world.

Think of someone like former US president Trump. His very name is an immediate lightning rod for the most extreme emotions and opinions. But you know what the most basic fact about Trump is? He is infinitely loved by the God who made him and seeks to bring him into eternity.

Here’s the thing: each one of us is broken and sinful. The image of God in us has been tarnished and cracked. Sin has profoundly weakened our capacity for love and compassion. But being Christians means being conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Apart from Christ, no one can be who God fully intends and desires them to be. God seeks to restore his image in us through Jesus. Including those we can so easily decry and mock and harbour ill feelings about;

How do we think about and talk to and treat those with whom we disagree? Do we treat them as people made in the image of God? Our desire ought to be to become more and more like Jesus. And that those we know who do not know and love him would have their hearts changed.

Second, God is sovereign over all human affairs whether we see him at work or not.

In Colossians 1:16—17 it says: For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And in Job 42:2 we read: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Our world is full of turmoil and violence and uncertainty. All we have to do is mention the names Haiti and Afghanistan as current examples to demonstrate this. So we can wonder: where is God in all of this?

But just because we can’t see God at work doesn’t mean he isn’t. And even if we can’t imagine the reasons God may have for allowing the sin and suffering of the world, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his reasons. Though it likely means our finite human minds would not be able to comprehend them.

And because God is sovereign, we should also be careful about depending too much on politics, politicians, or political parties.

Like it says in Psalm 2: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and his Anointed One: “Let’s tear off their chains and throw their ropes off of us.” The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them.

But not only is there the world around us; there’s also the world within each of us. God’s sovereign extends to our own personal circumstances too. Romans 8:28—29: We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

This verse from Paul is often misunderstood and misapplied. What people often hear him saying is that God will use the bad stuff to bring about the good stuff. In this way, we define what is good. But when Paul talks about the good of those who love God, he doesn’t mean good on our terms. The good to which he refers is being conformed into the image of Jesus. And being conformed into the image of Jesus by necessity involves suffering and hardship. It is the pattern of life Jesus laid down for us.

Speaking of Jesus, God’s sovereignty also means looking ahead to the glorious return of Jesus. 1 Timothy 6:15—16 says: God will bring this about in his own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

The way things are is not the way they will always be. There will be a new heavens and earth. There will be both cosmic and personal resurrection. God in his sovereignty promises and guarantees this.

Third, our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus as Lord, not to anyone or anything else in this world.

In Colossians 2:6—7 the apostle Paul says: So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.

Christians often are excited and ready to think of Jesus as Savior. But to think of him as Lord? That’s another matter. This means he is our authority. We seek to live according to his will, and not our comfort or desires. This ought to set us apart. When tempted by Satan in the wilderness to worship him in return for all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus said “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” These words are ones we need to take to heart too.

People are built to worship. Everyone worships. But not everyone worships the Lord Jesus. People can worship money, pleasure, comfort, career, success, sex, popularity, family, and all kinds of things. These days, many seem to worship or to give their ultimate loyalty to politics. We should never be entirely comfortable with any of the leaders, institutions, systems, or ways of this world. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to think we have to give our loyalty to anyone but Jesus or that giving our loyalty to this or that political party is the only way of being loyal to Jesus.

This means we are called not only to believe in Jesus, but to reflect his character to those around us. This means we have to get to know Jesus and not just make assumptions about him. Who is this Jesus? How does he relate to the people he encounters? How does he live out the will of the Father? What do we learn about how to follow Jesus by watching Jesus? This means we will seek and pray for the coming of the kingdom in our everyday lives, for God’s will to be done in simple, everyday ways.

Now, here are a few simple ways to apply some of these thoughts.

First, fast from technology and social media for a morning, an evening, a day, or a weekend. Take a break from the news and Facebook. Use the time you would have wasted online to read the Bible, go for a quiet walk, write a letter to someone you miss, or start a prayer journal. Get rid of external distractions. Become more comfortable with boredom.

Second, pray for people who annoy you, with whom you disagree, or who have disappointed you. Pray a silent prayer for the waitress who brings you food, the cashier who rings your items through the checkout, or the telemarketer who calls you at supper trying to sell you something. Ask God to help you see them as people made in his image, that he loves, that he wants to see come to his Son, our Lord, Jesus. 

Third, maybe invite someone out for coffee or over for lunch. Show hospitality. Seek to bless others not only with kind deeds but with gracious, enjoyable conversation. Build relationships. Get out of your comfort zone. Pay attention to the people around you–perhaps you might notice someone who needs a friend.

We live in an increasingly crazy world. We can find ourselves overwhelmed. We have as much access to news across the globe as we do to news in our own community. And we don’t always know how to discern what to give our attention to. But maybe we don’t always need to know what’s happening in other parts of the world. Maybe sometimes it’s ok to live for Jesus right where we are, to learn to be present with the people who we live with, who we encounter day after day.

We wonder sometimes if we can really make a difference, if our lives can have a meaningful impact on others. I’ve been a pastor for nearly 20 years and I still wonder this! But if you’re a follower of Jesus, your life is a holy life. God can and does use you right where you are. You don’t need to be someone else. You don’t need to be somewhere else. I heard someone say years ago: “Bloom where you’re planted.” Live as a follower of Jesus right where you are. Even with everything else that’s going on around us, maybe that’s something of what it means–or even mostly what it means–to live as a Christian in this crazy world.