This past Sabbath we had a sermon on fear and faith from one of our congregation’s retired pastors (who seemed to take umbrage with the fact that I introduced him as a retired pastor before his message and felt it necessary to tease me in return from the pulpit) and I found the sermon to be deeply interesting. As is often the case, the context of such messages is something that I tend to be deeply interested in, as he appeared to claim that America’s mental health crisis is related to a spiritual crisis, and furthermore appeared to blame mental health problems on a lack of faith and fearing the wrong things. This is all the more striking when one considers the mental health situation within his own family, although it must be admitted that people often have a great deal of of trouble integrating insight when it relates to areas that they are experienced in, to the point where our experience and our understanding do not always tend to be in sync with each other. I would like to examine this issue when it comes to the problems of fear and faith.
Often I have noticed that there are many situations where two opposed parties have mutual fears of the other, and that the ways that they seek to make themselves safe often tend to exacerbate the fear and loathing that the other side has. For example, if someone feels safer based on their own self-expression, than it is likely that this self-expression makes other people feel uncomfortable or potentially coerced, especially if the person doing the expressing is of strong and fierce opinions. In such situations those who are afraid of those who speak openly and boldly seek to feel safer through developing relationships with authorities who can then coerce those who make them feel unsafe, which only tends to increase the mutual atmosphere of fear and loathing and demonstrates the sort of problems that we have when we believe either in ourselves and our own capabilities or our abilities to gain support through authorities which may or may not always act correctly and justly. Such situations occur plenty often in my own life, and are consistent problems that we face in the world as a whole.
What does it mean to have faith in God? There are a great many people who believe that God will protect them from difficulty, and such people are likely to have immense crises of faith when they face immense difficulties in their own life, wondering why God allowed such and such thing to happen to them. Even if we know that God wishes good things for us and will not allow us to suffer more than we are able to bear with His help, it is without a doubt that God allows very horrible things to happen. And even when one does not believe that these things are happening to good people (for no one is perfect and good apart from God; the rest of us are all flawed and warped in some fashion as a result of being fallen human beings in a corrupted and wicked world), God clearly has more optimistic views about what we can take than we tend to have. If God promises to protect us through disasters and trials it does not mean that He will protect us from them. Indeed, a great deal of the issues of faith and fear that we have come about from disagreements with God about what this world is actually about and what our purposes here are.
Nor are these trivial disagreements. To the extent that we believe it intolerable for ourselves or anyone else to suffer, we will put our faith in the power of authorities to prevent suffering and to ameliorate the difficulties of this world. And if we believe that our purpose here is to develop character and overcome adversity in a world where we and others are free to disobey God in a contained environment (although not free to escape the consequences of that disobedience), then we will have other opinions about efforts on amelioration of the conditions of humanity, and make those voluntary rather than coerced. It is not as if having a faith in God is a uniform thing that we are all agreed upon; there are very serious and very real disagreements about what we have faith in, and to look in a clear-eyed fashion of what God allows, there is plenty of reason for people to be concerned about what God will allow in their lives. God allowed the Holocaust, He allows the rape and abuse and murder of innocent born and unborn children, and allows a great deal else besides both now and throughout the melancholy course of human history. To deal with God’s purposes and to have faith in Him regardless of what happens to us or those who care about us is by no means an easy task, and it requires that we honestly deal with what God allows as well as the purposes of our existence here and the timeframe of God’s judgments on a wicked and rebellious world.
There are no doubt spiritual elements to the mental health problems that we deal with as a society. But we should not put our blame first on those who suffer from an inability to accept the sufferings and trials of this world or who believe that they are entitled to a good life and that so is everyone else. No one on this earth has ever been entitled to a good life, and no one ever will so long as we human beings are free to sin. To have a good life requires widespread societal obedience to God, but in order to achieve that there would have to be a curtailing and a restraint of the freedoms that we now enjoy. And we can see that the attempts to create republics of virtue on this earth involve the massive curtailment of the freedom of the people within them, and that they furthermore involve little virtue because the governments themselves are made up of wicked totalitarians of one kind or another. Instead of blaming people who suffer fear and anxiety as a result of living in this current world, perhaps we should point the finger at those who do not adequately prepare people for living in a world where having faith in God requires us to deal with the evils that people will inflict on others when they are free to do so, and who will encourage us to restrain ourselves from those evils ourselves.