“Faith over Fear.”
These are words that I have heard a lot in the last year or so. I spend most of my life in and around people of Christian faith. By and large they are generous, faithful, caring, hopeful, and loving people to the very best of their abilities.
During the pandemic, Christian communities have taken different approaches in terms of responding to the best advice of epidemiologists on how to deal most effectively with COVID-19. Where I live, in Florida, our Statewide stay at home orders in March and April 2020 were never applied to churches or other religious groups. We were free to meet if we wanted. Of course, in those earliest days most, but not all, churches did cease to gather for worship. However, since then different churches have taken different approaches to bringing their people back on to campuses to gatherings.
Many churches, including my own, have continued to adhere to the advice coming out of expert bodies such as the CDC. Many other churches have chosen to go a different way and open up their gatherings at a much faster rate than what the CDC would have recommended. These latter groups tend to be the ones who have used the phrase “Faith Over Fear.”
Now let me say up front regarding this three word phrase – I get it. I do. The Scriptures are filled with stories in which God invites ordinary human beings to place their trust in God; to put their faith in God and trust that by God’s grace and power they will come through a testing time. Noah, Moses and the Israelites, and Daniel – to name just a few. In my own life, I, too, have known times in which I was invited to place my faith and trust in God to bring me through testing times. Scripture also uses the phrase “do not fear” (or phrases like it) approximately 120 times – it is a big theme throughout the bible!
So, I get it. Christians are invited to let go of fear in their lives and walk as fully as possible in faith.
Amen to that!
But inasmuch as there is great truth contained in these three words, there is also some serious difficulty with using them the way they are being employed by many in the context of the global COVID 19 pandemic.
First, while the encouragement to live by faith instead of living in fear is a central part of the Christian faith, it rarely, if ever, invites us to disregard helps or solutions to a problem that are right there in front of us. For example, I am sure all readers of this blog entry will have heard a sermon illustration about the guy sitting on top of his house after some serious flooding had impacted his community. He was waiting up there to be rescued and he had faith that God would perform this rescue. The search party pulled up to his house on their boat and told him to jump aboard. He didn’t because he believed God was coming to rescue him. Then a search helicopter flew overhead and winched down a helper for the man, but still he refused, saying that God was going to rescue him from this predicament. The man was ignoring the very means by which God’s rescue was going to take place. He had faith over fear, but he had also been completely blinded by it, to the point that he could not see the help that was right there in front of him.
The second, and perhaps most harmful difficulty with this phrase is that it has been weaponized by many who are using it. I have been in the room and heard people say that they believe that more cautious approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic have been based on fear and not faith. Of course, this could not be further from the truth. My own local church has taken such a cautious approach. Our response has been consistent, and based primarily on the desire to do no harm, to love our neighbors, and to serve our community. When expert voices state that the best help we can be to our community in times like this is to wash our hands, wear our masks, and avoid crowds, we are going to do our best to adhere to that advice, and even though we don’t like it we are going to choose it for the good of our community and the vulnerable within it, and we are going to do our best to remember that relatively speaking we really have not been asked to sacrifice that much.
Using the language of faith over fear in this weaponized way is a means of speaking down to the other. It is a way of accusing another of giving in to fear and of not having faith. I reject this. And I recognize instead that those who are willing to act in ways that are protective of their neighbors and community are those who are acting not out of fear, but instead out of a great love that is willing to make small sacrifices for the good of the whole. They are actually placing their faith in God: the God who calls God’s people to embody love for one another. Fear has literally nothing to do with it.
My third issue with the use of this phrase has been the way it centers entirely on the individual. Often, the folks I hear saying “Faith over Fear” are the some of the same folks that tell me they have had the virus and have come through it. They wonder what all the fuss is about; why things are not returning to normal faster.
While I don’t doubt that these experiences are true, and while I am thankful that COVID did not harm these folks any more than it did, I have a deep frustration with those who seem to diminish the experiences of others, or deem them not as important as their own. I get frustrated by the unwillingness of these same people to remain vigilant on behalf of others. This individualistic, “I’m alright Jack!” approach to faith is anathema to the call of God as it is found consistently in Scripture: the call to willingly and sacrificially love and serve one another. The Law and the Prophets state this often. Jesus himself said that in order to become great in the Kingdom of God we must be come servants of one another (Matthew 20:26, Mark 10:43, Luke 22:26.)
Make no mistake, I get the phrase and I understand entirely that it is most often used very innocently. But as happens so often with clichés, it is being used without much thought. I really do love this phrase, but I do not love how it has been used and is being used by many these days because it unmasks an underlying individuality and an unwillingness to make small sacrifices on behalf of the vulnerable.
So please, dear reader, please be careful how you use these three little words in the days ahead. Before using them, ask yourself what it is that you are really trying to say. If you are using them as an expression of frustration or accusation then maybe they would be better left unsaid.