Opening the Word: The temptation to fear

There are many temptations and sins that can harm, or even destroy, our communion with God, such as pride, lust and jealousy. There is one, however, that is perhaps not so obvious: fear. And it is front and center in today’s readings.

Elijah, along with Moses, was one of the greatest prophets; his courage and faithfulness were remarkable. An example of both can be found in 1 Kings 18, which describes how Elijah directly confronted the wicked King Ahab and challenged the prophets of Baal (all 450 of them) to a sort of worship duel. Besides challenging the king, Elijah also challenged the people of Israel: “How long will you straddle the issue? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). In the end, Baal failed to respond to the false prophets, while Elijah’s offering was consumed by fire from heaven.

However, a few verses later, having been told that the infamous Queen Jezebel was going to hunt him down, we read: “Elijah was afraid and fled for his life ...” What happened? Why the sudden transformation from unflinching witness to scurrying fugitive? And not just a fugitive, but a broken man desiring death: “Enough, Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

Answers are difficult, for the human heart is a profound mystery. We shouldn’t underestimate the weight of life and the fragility of our spiritual resolution. We must not fail to be honest about how brittle and frail we can be — especially in the immediate wake of great success. Having ascended a mountain, we can find ourselves beset by harsh winds and cold darkness. We might even find ourselves in a cave, huddled and on the edge of despair. It brings to mind the words of St. Francis de Sales, who wrote, “Fear is a greater evil than evil itself.”

I wonder: Had Elijah, having expended such immense energy and faith in confronting Ahab and the prophets of Baal, reached the end of himself? Perhaps so, because God, in speaking to the prophet and revealing himself to him through a “tiny whispered sound,” was showing Elijah that only God can truly provide safety, purpose and life. The description of the whispered sound highlights the mystery of God. “This inexpressible gentleness,” wrote Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “is something of a hint of the Incarnation of the Son ...” It is God who initiates, who approaches us, who seeks us out.

Like Elijah, the apostle Peter’s courage and faithfulness were remarkable. The head apostle rarely lacked for confidence! But confidence isn’t necessarily the same thing as faith, and Peter’s ardent faith was sometimes imperfect. The same was true of the other apostles; the same is true for us. Faith grows through testing; if it is not exercised and stretched, it will atrophy and die.

Jesus apparently wished to test the faith of the apostles, for he “made the disciples get into a boat” while he spent time alone in prayer. When the storm descended, darkness and chaos reigned. By the time Jesus approached on the waters, the disciples had been caught in the storm for several hours. Peter, by asking to be commanded to “Come,” demonstrated his real faith. But it was, as Jesus noted, “little” in size.

Peter, like Elijah, reached the end of himself; he needed to be grasped by God. Having been pulled from the dark waters, he embraced and proclaimed the mystery, declaring, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.