Faith Over Fear
I received the first dose of the COVID vaccine a couple days ago. Getting the vaccine culminated a year of chaos and it created a rush of emotions that I did not expect. Excitement, anticipation, thankfulness, relief, resolution, and, if I'm quite honest, fear.
Some of you may think that a little odd coming from a physician. However, even doctors can have a feeling of uncertainty and fear around new medical treatments. I was going to get it no matter what. Given my profession, I needed to get vaccine to protect my patients, my family and any others with whom I may have contact from my possible exposure. But, I did pause to consider the side effects and long-term sequelae of a vaccine that has no track record and no long term data. Nonetheless, I pulled up my sleeve and took the vaccine the first possible date I could get it. I laughed when I came home. My husband said he was afraid to sleep with me. He'd seen I Am Legend and he thought he may awaken in the night with me trying to bite him! (By the way, I did not! My only side effect was a sore arm!)
What I felt and what he felt was simply fear of the unknown.
Frankly, I think the overwhelming emotion of 2020 has been fear. Starting from the first early reports of a new virus in China in early January of 2020, the first U.S. cases later that month and the WHO issuance of a Global Health Emergency on January 30, 2020, we have been living in a perpetual state of fear. By Friday, March 13th, we declared a National State of Emergency and medical practice as I had known if for the past 20 years came to a screeching halt. For two months, I saw only urgent patients and stopped all preventive and elective procedures and visits. We reopened our doors in May but the concept of “safe passage” altered how we see patients forever. I spend every day covered in various layers of PPE (personal protective equipment).
I jokingly say that I never thought my instructions to patients in completing a physical would including donning and doffing PPE! The dominant conversation over and over with patients is how do I stay safe, how do I protect my family, and what will happen to me if I get COVID. As a physician, I’ve been humbled beyond measure. I think I’ve heard myself say the phrase “I don’t know” more times in the last year than I have in the previous 20 years of practice.
So, what are patients feeling with my inability to provide assurance? It’s that overwhelming and crushing sense of fear. I cannot tell you how many patients for whom I’ve cared in recent months have been riddled with worsening medical conditions that could have been avoided if they had stayed on their medicines or sought care in a timely manner. Now, their illnesses are raging out of control because they were too afraid to go to the pharmacy or the physician’s office for help. More of my visits are centered around mental health than ever before. The toll of social isolation and social media intoxication is wearing on the social, emotional, spiritual well-being of patients. When your only contact with the outside world is dependent on companies that alter “the news” to fit a specific narrative, you hear lots of bad news. As if the COVID pandemic was not bad enough, we’ve had the nastiest election cycle in years, social unrest with riots in the streets and so many natural disasters we’ve had to name them with the Greek alphabet! Despair is rampant. The CDC noted that by August of 2020, the percent of young adults (18-24) that had seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days was up to 25.5% (compared to about 10% in 2108). Around that same time, we had a physician friend over for dinner. He stated that the ICU that had previously been full of COVID patients was then full of young adults with failed suicide attempts. The psychological effects of fear are real.
However, over the last month of the Advent season, I was reminded that the Christmas story provides multiple examples of the antidote to fear . . . faith. That phrase, faith over fear, is one that I’ve heard my pastor say many times over the years. But this year, it has taken on new meaning.
The example starts with Zechariah, a priest of the tribe of Levi who is described as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). He and his wife Elizabeth are barren, a sign of great shame in that culture. Zechariah is chosen by lot to offer incense in the Holiest place in the temple. While there, the angel Gabriel appears to him with the greeting, “Do not be afraid,” and assures Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son. I so resonate with Zechariah. He literally questions the angel, so God shuts him up until the baby, John the Baptist, is born! (How many times do I question God when I’m afraid?)
Then, there’s the story of Mary. Six months later, that same angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary, who is described as a favored one, with the same greeting, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30). He tells her she’s going to birth the Son of God. Mary does a little better with the response. She does question the logistics of conception but ultimately answers with a statement of sheer faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” I’ve got to admit, that kind of faith is not how I have typically responded to fear. She basically says. I’m terrified but I trust you. I am going to face horrible humiliation and disgrace, but I will do it. Bring it on!
Joseph figures out Mary is pregnant and is likely equally scared of what people will think as he is described as “faithful to the Lord, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace” (Matthew 1:19). He sets his mind to divorce her quietly and another angel shows up with pretty clear direction and a command not to fear: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” (Matthew 1:20). Joseph responded in obedient faith as well and took Mary as his wife. We don’t get much commentary on what Joseph was thinking. We know his actions spoke louder than words.
Then there are the shepherds, just hanging out minding their own business with their sheep. Another angel shows up to tell them of the Messiah’s birth. What was this angel’s greeting? It was the exact same thing: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). Their response was even better. They dropped what they were doing and went to find that baby. How many times am I paralyzed by fear as opposed to motivated by it to step out of my comfort zone and go find Jesus in the midst of what is happening?
So how do we cope with this fear going into 2021? Well, I think we heed the lessons from the Advent story on managing fear. Like Zechariah, we stop talking and start listening to what God is saying to us through this season. Like Mary, we accept that God has a reason for these trails. No, this will not be easy, but God has a plan and a purpose through it. Like Joseph, we act in obedience when God calls us to do something hard. We do not have to understand to obey. And, like the shepherds, we seek to find Jesus in everything that is happening.
Faith, that is the inoculation to fear. In the same way the world needs a COVID vaccine to protect us from this new virus, our souls need an infusion of faith to inoculate us from the fear in our hearts. History tells us that pestilence and disease have been with us since Genesis. Fear has been with us since Genesis as well. Generations before us have lived through worse disease, pestilence and fear. We will get through this. I encourage you to step out of your fear into faith.
Just after receiving the vaccine, I sent a text to a colleague who received the vaccine a few days before me asking if he had any side effects. His response: “Just euphoria!”
When we allow our faith to overcome our fear, our hearts will be full of joy as well. Claim the promises of Psalm 91:
1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a] 2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. 5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. 7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. 8 You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, 10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. 11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; 12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
14 “Because he[b] loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. 15 He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.