Friday, July 21, 2006

What Will Set You Free?

I read a little book recently (Freedom From Fear, by Marci Alborghetti) that was quite well-intentioned, if a bit eclectic, though it seemed to miss the mark—from a spiritual perspective, anyway. It’s a kind of self-help book, for which the intended audience seems mainly to be neurotic housewives or working women. (Why, then, was I reading it, you ask? Well, I look for insights in many different places, and sometimes all I learn is where not to look anymore!) The book is about overcoming fear through faith, which is certainly a worthwhile goal. But there were two major drawbacks to the author’s approach, as I see it.

Before I examine those, however, I’d like to mention that some people will probably find the book valuable for its practical tips and exercises for taming one’s fears and anxieties. The author admits to being a fellow-sufferer, and she is sharing what she has learned along the way, which is not without its usefulness.

The first flaw is that faith in God seems to be used simply as one means among others. You can try this exercise, create this reminder, believe in God, use this relaxation technique, etc. The book is not really about overcoming fear through faith, but through a host of methods or means, faith being just one of them. This is typical of modern pragmatic America, where things are valued and utilized for their practical effectiveness. You have a goal: freedom from fear. If faith works, then by all means, have faith! If something else works better, use that. Seems to me like that’s putting the cart before the horse. Faith in God is of inestimable value even if it doesn’t cure your neuroses! Freedom from fears may be a happy consequence or fruit of faith, but God is the goal, not healing of anxieties.

The other flaw is more fundamental. The author suggests that we “re-image” God in such a way that our fears are calmed. We should put out of our minds any thought that God might punish us for our sins, for that makes us afraid. Rather, we should only speak and think of God with warm, soft, tender, loving images. But this approach borders on idolatry, that is, making an image of God that is not the true God. It is not a non-threatening or gentle image of God that will set you free from fear. As Jesus said, it is the truth that will set you free (John 8:31-32), and nothing else! The truth is, God has revealed Himself in many ways in the Holy Scriptures, and since it is God who is revealing and being revealed, they are all true. Even the stern ones. Even those that the “re-imaging” censors would discard. God certainly is loving, tender, merciful, etc., but He is also the eschatological Judge and the Vindicator of his own righteousness. He is demanding and uncompromising as well as forgiving and healing. He receives harlots and drives out money-changers. He is who He is, and we’ve no right to “re-image” Him to meet our emotional needs.

Now let me hasten to add that it may be necessary for someone suffering from an extreme trauma or emotional disorder to focus (temporarily, anyway) solely on the mercy, the peace, the loving-kindness of God. This may be necessary to begin the path to recovery. But these are exceptions, and even in these cases one may hope that they regain their strength and balance sufficiently to accept God in the fullness of his truth.

The point is simply this: our goal is God, and eternal life with Him. Faith, prayer, sacraments, etc., may perhaps be considered “means” to this ultimate end, but that’s not quite correct, either. They are part of the whole condition or spiritual “environment” within which we enter communion with God, not merely practical stepping stones. But it is inappropriate (to say the least) in the case of a lesser goal, like freedom from neurotic fears, to utilize faith—and that in a one-sided image of God—in order to attain it. That’s a kind of psychological sleight-of-hand that can only attain a “freedom” that is short-lived or superficial. Only the truth will set us free—and not just the parts of the truth that seem sweet. Our willingness to embrace the whole truth opens us up to the profound mystery of God, in whom are all the riches of wisdom, love, goodness, and life. But we must accept God as He has revealed Himself, and we put our trust in Him who invites us to the leap of faith—and faith not as a technique for balancing our emotional life, but as the key to “the life which is life indeed” (1Timothy 6:19).