Following Christ Into the Night: A Reflection on the Fear of the Unknown

I often feel very alone when I think of the uncertainty of my future. Sometimes at night a sense of desolation follows me and shakes me awake before my morning alarm. I wake up with fears of insignificance, rejection, and isolation. My mind and heart say maybe your fears are real. Maybe you are truly alone.

My response to these fears is often rationalization–convincing myself through logical analysis that I’m not alone. I have a caring family, good friends, and challenging mentors. I have a community that makes the feeling of isolation ludicrous. Furthermore my mentors always bring me back to Scripture. They quote I will never leave you or forsake you, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

What happens then? The lack of evidence for reasons to be in despair only invites it back into my mind and heart.  I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach; like I’m walking a tightrope and all the assuring voices point me to the safety nets below. But nothing prepares me for the fall.


I wonder if that same feeling was in the mind of Jesus’ disciples. I suspect it wasn’t easy following the God man. There must have been confusion, uncertainty, and perhaps despair that trailed them on the roads of Galilee and Judea. They lived with a man who spoke like the Torah and the prophets all at once; who pronounced woes and wept over cities; who killed fig trees and resurrected dead men; who pacified zealots and cleansed the Temple with a whip.

They followed a man who was seen, even by member of his own family, as insane, and he was scandalous in his association with prostitutes and Samaritans. They followed him with bread-and miracle-seeking crowds who would disown him in a moment.  The disciples were cut off with Jesus in his offences. They were left alone with his person.

I think about Jesus prophesying his death. Of all the hard words of Jesus, this might have seemed the most ridiculous and possibly the cruelest. They had followed Christ, had been associated and threatened with him, and now he says he will die by the hands of their leaders. To their minds the fear of the unknown might have been the unspeakable thought of life without him. They would be mistaken and condemned men, submerged in the wake of another false messiah. I want to say I would have thought and acted differently from the disciples, but they faced a fear that I can’t comprehend. If all I had was Jesus and he told me he was going to die, I don’t know if I would have listened to him either.

I follow Christ into the unknown, and I strategize like the disciples did. I can be passionate like Peter and make big promises, prioritize the reign of the Messiah, and zealously cut off ears. I enjoy the grad attempts at control in the face of Christ’s unsettling prophecies.

I’ve often read Peter’s denial of Christ as an act of self preservation—saving his own skin. But what if Peter was afraid of the implications of Jesus’ death more than the loss of his own life? If he was trying to save himself, why would he follow Christ into the midst of the enemy? It seems like Peter was trailing Jesus to spring him from the situation—he was thinking like a revolutionary. But the plan of saving him meant Peter had to deny his relationship with his friend and God.

I follow Jesus into darkness. He could tell me exactly what I need do, who I’ll be, and where I’ll go, but he just says “Follow me.” So, like Peter after Gethsemane, I often follow him to upset his plans. I garnish his commands with my own schemes because I rely on evidence. I deny him to save him. I weep bitterly.

I want to see God, but he is invisible. I want to consolidate and organize his ways, but they are mysterious. Why doesn’t he remove my fears of insignificance and of hurting others? Why is the imminent future so unknown? Why am I haunted by loneliness when he says he’ll never leave me? Why does he allow Satan to sift me like wheat?

My faith is small and capricious. There are days when the Son of God is revealed and I, like Peter, fervently spew “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” There are other days when I would trade his Name for his Kingdom, and still other days I would trade it for peace of mind.


After the resurrection, Peter and the disciples are faced again with Christ on the verge of leaving them. He comes to Peter and asks “Simon, son of John do you love me?” and Peter says “Lord you know everything, you know I love you.” And Jesus answers “Feed my sheep.”

It’s here, in the ashes of Peter’s denial, in the fallout of faithless doubt, and in face of the unknown that Christ lays the foundation of his Church.

I am the son of Peter; inheriting all of the bad habits and fears of my father.

I’m the son of Peter; redeemed and empowered by the Christ who brings life from death and revelation from the unknown.




The Feast in the Jungle: Gratitude and Distrust

Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” has been playing through my mind at odd hours recently. If you haven’t read it, I won’t give the plot away, but it’s built on a premise of fearing the thing which your own fear creates. If you had not feared it in the first place, it would never have been anything to fear.

The fear of never being happy is something akin to that. Not actual unhappiness, mind you, but the state of fearing unhappiness. It is nebulous enough to be the perfect beast in the jungle. Whenever the landscape even slightly begins to resemble a jungle, a stray branch here and there, our hearts turn to look for the beast.  Here comes unhappiness. We expect nothing less.

This fear can happen equally in moments of happiness. You’re driving down the freeway in your new car. Your hand rests on the thigh of the spouse of your dreams as you hurtle toward the beautiful city of your ideal job. The promotion you just received at that job is what paid for the car- in cash. You just got accepted to the graduate school of your dreams. Key relationships in your life are on the mend…Where does your mind go? If it’s anything like mine, it goes immediately to the fear of losing it all, or any of it.

British pop star Natasha Beddingfield sings these lyrics in one of my favorite songs: “I see the girl I want to be, riding bareback, carefree, along the shore.” Sure, they’re silly, hip-hop, late teen angst lyrics. So? I’ve been that girl: I’ve ridden bareback, carefree along the shore. Literally. It was glorious. Yet I immediately distrusted my happiness. I can feel the tendency acutely, the automatic, almost assumed, fear: loss of the present good. In that moment of abundance, when our entire lives are almost exactly how we want them to be, we look for the beast.

I’m not even addressing the fleeting joys of material possession. Relational & spiritual statuses are included. We are talking about experiencing a good and real and total kind of happiness, and still fear comes instantaneously. Why do our hearts turn to this doubt of continuance- that what is, won’t endure? Rather than looking for the abundance of God’s love poured out to us in ways that are obvious and tangible and in our native language, we search for the hidden terribleness beneath it all.

This is a not-so-subtle subversion of the Gospel. The tenets of our faith are exactly the opposite: Beneath all the evil we see, the great love of God will triumph. Satan prowls the earth, but Christ holds the keys of hell, and against the gates of heaven the devil will not prevail. Where do these fundamental gospel beliefs go when we stare in the face, not of evil, but of good?

They dissipate. At their base, the subconscious beliefs driving the distrust of present goods stem from bad theology of two kinds. The first is a complete reversal of the belief tenets laid out above: Evil is rampant and God’s goodness is only a break point in a monotonous routine of Satan’s ultimate triumphs. Heaven may be heavenly, but hell is more widespread. When goodness happens, it’s bound to be fleeting.

The second perversion of the truth is more subtle, for it has more of a biblical ring to it: the Lord is Lord of good and evil. If “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” sums up our entire theology, we may as well abandon any auspices of a unique worldview and join the Stoics. The Lord does give and the Lord does take away. One cannot read the entire Bible and not be fully impressed by that fact. But there is a clear hierarchy and a uni-directional timeline.

“For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” the Lord tells the Israelites in Isaiah. Be shocked by the supposedly all-loving Lord’s admittance of desertion, but be aware of the details. Brief moment. Great compassion. The moment of desertion is not greater than the following compassion, nor are they equal. “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” Paul tells us in Romans. Not. Worth. Comparing. The language here does not allow the experience of suffering to be isolated, exalted, or equalized with the glory. Lamentations offers a similarly obvious ordering: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth… For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion.” The Lord causes grief, no denial there either. But he will have compassion “according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” The flood preceded the rainbow and a new life. The cross led to resurrection. The Babylonian captivity transitioned to the return to Jerusalem. Every ancient biblical story embedded in our culture follows this narrative arc. Moment of grief, then the great compassion. 40 days of flooding–a new population. Death for three days–the path to eternal life. There is reversal of neither order nor apportionment of glory.

There is a great correlation between the man who stands in his soul’s dark night and despairs of God’s presence, and the man who stands in great abundance and despairs of God’s impending absence. The former man fears God will never return; the latter man fears He will soon leave. Both are the renderings of that union with God which Aquinas calls Love. Both are a reversal of the truths described above.

So why do our hearts look for the beast in the jungle to spring? In other words, why do we anticipate in wealth the sudden Job-like stripping of our experience of God’s manifold blessings? The fact that it would be Job-like is not enough to justify such a worry. The belief re-creates narrative lines in the Bible where God performs the role of the feared blessing-stripping. However, Scripture also supports a deeper view that God also, and more ultimately, wants us to experience His blessings.  The great and arduous expressions of His love throughout the Bible should make us look for the bountiful feast when we see a jungle, and nothing less. ‘

The Problematic Suppositions of Wired

Amy Wallace’s essay “An Epidemic of Fear,” published in this month’s issue of Wired, is both perceptive and worrying. Wired’s articles often comment on the growing debates between social groups and professional communities. This month’s feature focuses on the conflict between anti-vaccination proponents—mainly parents—and the scientific community that contends they are necessary.

Wallace’s essay, while offering some sympathy to parents, argues heavily in support of the scientific community. Unfortunately, her view also creates worries about parental rights.

Consider Wallace’s comments about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children:

In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California’s affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitivly, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).

The figures sound alarming. Wallace provides reasons for us to believe that vaccination exemptions result in serious health concerns for both specific individuals and larger communities. The issue, however, is garbled amidst Wallace’s concern that parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated are doing so on irrational grounds—even though, as Wallace points out, the majority of parents abstaining from vaccinations live in more highly educated communities. Yet she says that naysayers oppose vaccinations because of fear and “unmet need,” as opposed to scientific evidence or reasonable doubt. She adds:

…Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” [Carl] Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

Wallace’s attention to the motivations underlying parents’ objections to vaccinations does not cohere with her primary thesis that vaccinations are necessary. Furthermore, her comment that these objections are a result of fear and irrationality is not far removed from the kind of remarks Sigmund Freud makes in his Civilization and It’s Discontents. He writes, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” Like Freud, Wallace implies that parents are trying to assuage their fears using superstitious means. This line of thought implies that our unmet fears and needs are irrational, and so the direction in which we point our fears and needs is unjustifiable.

Of course, we cannot deny—nor should we—that we are liable to hold beliefs that are not wholly logical. Wallace’s position, however, not only has the capacity to generate more fear among anti-vaccine proponents, but it also has the capacity to undermine parental rights. If she argues that parents who object to the scientific community about vaccinations are irrational, perhaps they should not be allowed the freedom to choose not to have their children vaccinated.

Yet the fact that fear exists among parents does not imply the absence of reason. With all the controversies surrounding treatments, as well as updated information about side-effects and the rise of medical information available online, parents are justified in questioning scientific authority. By dismissing parents’ concerns as illogical, Wallace feeds this distrust. Respect goes both ways. If the scientific community is truly a bulwark of logic and reason, it should seek to bridge the gap between parents and doctors by effectively communicating about the challenges and controversies regarding science and medicine. Furthermore, if Wallace wants to convince parents that the scientific community should be trusted, she will also seek to bridge this gap, instead of engendering more doubt. ‘