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“Fear is a greater evil than the evil itself”

Having ascended a mountain, we can find ourselves beset by harsh winds and cold darkness. It brings to mind the words of St. Francis de Sales, who wrote, “Fear is a greater evil than the evil itself.”

"Prophet Elijah" (1913) by Mykhailo Boychuk [WikiArt.org]

Readings: 
• 1 Kngs 19:9A, 11-13A
• Psa 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14
• Rom 9:1-5
• Mt 14:22-33

There are many temptations and sins that can harm, or even destroy, our communion with God. There are obvious things, 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 (1 Kngs 18:19ff). 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 Kngs 18:21). In the end, Baal failed to respond to the 450 false prophets, while Elijah’s offering was consumed by fire from heaven. The prophet’s courage and faithfulness, again, were truly remarkable.

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…” (1 Kngs 19:3). That, too, is remarkable! 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” (1 Kngs 19:4).

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 weak 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 surprising words of St. Francis de Sales, who wrote, “Fear is a greater evil than the 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. We might think we have a grasp on the concept of God, but we cannot contain or bottle God. “This inexpressible gentleness,” wrote Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar about the whispered sound, “is something of a hint of the Incarnation of the Son…” It is God who initiates, who approaches us, who seeks us out; it is the Son who is the Good Shepherd, seeking those who have lost their way.

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, as they sdid before God separated light from darkness in the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:2). 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.”

About Carl E. Olson 1037 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

7 Comments

  1. “Fear is a greater evil than the evil itself” seems contradictory. My take is St Francis de Sales meant an emotive evil v moral evil, the former incapacitating us to act morally. The cowardice condemned by The Apostle is that species of fear. Which is true. Fear however has an object when rational and a degree of fear is normal and necessary. The valorous overcome it. Inordinate fear is irrational. It objectifies the emotion, prompting FDR to famously say “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Suddenly stricken with polio paralyzed helpless he had to and did overcome deadly throes of fear. Likely many like myself have had to overcome fear, even inordinate fear. Christ actually commands us, “Fear nothing, except for him [the devil] who can cast body and soul into Gehenna”. My brother Carl who experienced much violent death as a medic with the 45th div WW II used to say “The only thing someone can do to you is kill you”. Death had become commonplace. It was better to be brave. Elijah had courage. Overtaken by fear fleeing into the wilderness God heartens him with “a tiny whisper”. Knowledge that he’s loved. How good our God is. Confidence in God is a form of love of God. Acknowledgment of his goodness is itself our desire for that supreme good.

  2. I’m saddened very few respond to editor Carl Olson’s weekly commentaries on the Sunday readings. Needless to say I hope they continue and others respond. I say for myself they are a great resource for my sermons.

    • Thank you, Fr. Morello, for your kind and encouraging comment. From what I can tell (and it’s mostly a guess), many readers don’t comment on the Scripture columns, most likely because they read them for reflection and don’t see the need to comment. Which is perfectly fine! I am hopeful the columns will eventually be published in a single volume.

    • Forest of happiness is an Ashram in India. Now I better understand some of your posts. Perhaps Dr Coelho you might explain “Confidence must rest in our wrists”.

  3. Most of the commentary I’ve read on this gospel rightfully focuses on fear, testing, faith, etc. However, I personally spent a few days prior to Sunday contemplating Exodus 3:14 (“I AM who I AM”), in light of Matthew 14:27 (“It is I”…[ego eimi = “I AM”]…”have no fear”).

    • Dixit Deus ad Mosen ego sum qui sum ait sic dices filiis Israhel qui est misit me ad vos. Daniel for your interest the Latin Vulgate translated by St Jerome says something theologically philosophically different. The English translation I Am Who I Am of the Latin Ego sum qui sum is actually literally translated I Am who Am. The following phrase “tell the Israelites Qui Est sent me” confirms this. Qui est translates Who Am. There is remarkable difference. Anyone can say I am who I am. Only God can say I Am who Am. The meaning of the Latin refers to unconditional existence, the uncreated Being of God. There does seem however a relation to Mt 14:27 referencing a God whose existence dispels our fear.

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