A Love That Overcomes Our Fear
By Catherine McNiel
I lay on the ground, alone and bleeding, my ears ringing. I had been hiking with my husband when I took a wrong turn and fell, hitting my head badly. I couldn’t imagine how I would find him or get back down the mountain. Moreover, I was in a foreign country with no access to medical care or anything that felt comfortable or familiar.
Eventually my husband reached me, got me to my feet and, ultimately, back down the mountain. But what I assumed was primarily a vacation disappointment was a major brain injury. The insufficient medical care on the island—and the long, pressurized flight home—was devastating for my swollen cerebrum and I spent a full year in recovery. During those long solitary months, I mostly sat quietly by myself. I couldn’t drive, couldn’t be in a room with people, couldn’t look at screens or tolerate light, couldn’t read or type. All because I took a wrong turn on an easy hiking path. All because my arms failed to catch me as I went down.
For a full year I had plenty of time to ask myself: If a casual walk put my life in jeopardy and stole so much from me, what else should I fear? I would wake in the middle of the night sweating with the physical pain of experiencing terror my brain could not feel.
With such a long opportunity to meditate on fear, with so little ability to be around other people or take in information not already in my own head, I commented to a friend, “Either I will emerge from this experience having conquered fear, or entirely enslaved to fear. I’m not certain which it will be.”
That was three years ago. One year spent sitting in isolation flowing seamlessly into two years of a terrible, isolating pandemic. These years added up to a long-term practice of reflecting on the fears we carry with us and the ways they stop us from living, from loving, from accepting Jesus’ call. Instead of being stopped by fear, we are called to care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves and our families, to extend this care even—especially—to those who are vulnerable, those who are foreigners or strangers, and to pray and seek goodness and wholeness even for our enemies.
Jesus and his followers were well aware of the all-too-real reasons to be afraid. But fear was not the force that powered or hindered the early followers of Jesus; in the face of danger, they did not choose fight or flight. Instead, they taught that God’s love, made alive and real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, was strong enough overcome every fear.
Not to overcome every danger: No, danger remains. But enveloped by God’s love and Jesus’ mission to spread his love to every corner, we don’t have to look to fear for our marching orders.
Here, I think, is the invitation: Which will we choose? In a world that is unsafe and uncertain, will we choose to follow a love that casts out fear, or a fear that casts out love?
So often, the pain and trauma we carry compel us. Rather than drawing in with beauty we push away with self-protection. The doors slam, and perhaps our own fear-hardened hearts cause the closing.
But I know a love story we could tell. A story of an uphill climb—as beautiful and dangerous as my own mountain hike—full of suffering and submission, of letting go of ourselves and holding on to each other. Here we find a story containing unfathomable potential for heartbreak. Yes. But also for redemption and resurrection. This story reminds us that even in this world of fear we are a people called to always hope, to always persevere.
God’s love may just change the world.
Catherine McNiel writes about the creative and redemptive work of God in our real, ordinary lives. She is the author of Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies; Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline; and All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World. Catherine studies theology while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Visit Catherine on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.