On Faith and Fear
May 25, 2021
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
During a recent urgent care shift, a young welder presented with a metal foreign body in his eye. If you work in emergency medicine, urgent care or ophthalmology, or if you weld yourself, you are already aware of this occupational hazard. I was not aware of it prior to starting work in urgent care, but I must admit that it makes any dreams I may have had of learning to weld, thereby empowering myself to do more of my own home repairs, much less attractive. Tiny hot flecks of metal landing on the human cornea quickly embed themselves and become difficult to remove. Left there for a few days, they begin to rust, leaving a small rust ring on the cornea after the metal itself is removed—a rust ring which then has to be removed with a tiny drill called an eye burr.
The scene we are about to visit occurred just after I had removed the offending metal particle from the young man’s eye and was beginning to deal with the remaining rust ring. Having been instructed to focus his eye on a specific spot and not to blink, my patient waited as I brought the tiny drill toward his eye. The whirring noise of the drill, though soft, filled the otherwise quiet room as he, understandably tense, stared unblinking and trusting, waiting for me to do this thing that seemed so intuitively wrong—namely touch his eyeball with a moving drill. As I proceeded with my task, the silence of the room was punctuated with the soft “whrrr” of the burr.
Suddenly, from outside the exam room door, a loud, high-pitched “beep-beep-beep” sounded. I quickly realized it was the alarm on my phone, which I had left sitting on the counter outside the door. Uncomfortable touching my phone, the clinic staff left it beeping, and I was unable to silence it given my sterile gloves and the half-drilled rust ring on my patient’s eye. And so we continued with our work: the patient staring unblinking, me drilling, the burr whirring and the phone beeping.
A few minutes later, another sound intruded on the scene. The staff were triaging another patient right outside the room we were in—a patient who had apparently presented for intractable vomiting. It was loud and juicy through the closed exam room door:
In an attempt to break the increasing tension for this poor guy whose eye was being drilled under such terrible circumstances, I lightheartedly said, “Well, this is going to be the soundtrack of your nightmares!” And in a sing-song cadence, I imitated the noises we were hearing.
Let’s leave this patient in the exam room for a minute and talk…we’ll get right back to him.
Through the political, racial and public health tensions of the last 15 months, I have heard a number of Christians say they were engaging in certain behaviors because they were living by faith, rather than living in fear. The most common example I have encountered is Christians refusing to wear masks as evidence of living by faith, implying (or sometimes outright stating) that wearing a mask is living in fear of COVID-19 or of the authorities. Hearing this viewpoint repeatedly has caused me to reflect quite a bit on what it actually means to live by faith. How does Scripture depict a life of faith, and what would such a life look like in 2021?
These reflections repeatedly lead me back to Hebrews 11, often called the “faith chapter” of the Bible because it is replete with examples of those who went before us who model the life of faith. It begins with a definition of faith—“…being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NET)—followed by a litany of the faithful. As I read Hebrews 11, I do not see patriarchs lauded for their refusal to obey civil authorities, nor do I see patriarchs lauded for arguing down the opposition. I see example after example of patriarchs lauded and commended to us, their spiritual descendants, for their sacrifice.
- “…Abel offered to God a better sacrifice…” (Hebrews 11:4, NASB).
- “…Noah…in holy fear built an ark to save his family…” (Hebrews 11:7, NIV).
- “…Abraham…obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going…made his home…like a stranger in a foreign land…lived in tents…” (Hebrews 11:8-9, NIV).
- “…Abraham…offered Isaac as a sacrifice…” (Hebrews 11:17, NIV).
- “…Moses’ parents hid him for three months…” (Hebrews 11:23, NIV).
- “[Moses] chose to be mistreated along with the people of God…” (Hebrews 11:25, NIV).
- “…others who were tortured, refusing to be released…” (Hebrews 11:35b, NIV).
- “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith…” (Hebrews 11:36-39, NIV).
Interestingly, these are not the lives for which I have observed Christians striving when they have said they were living by faith. We may think we are making sacrifices, but how many of us has ever faced jeers or flogging, let his newborn child float a river in a basket in order to keep him alive, sacrificed her son on an altar at the call of the Lord or left his home to live like a stranger in a foreign land? Yet, these are what Scripture preserves for us as the great examples of faith throughout history. Somehow the things we modern American Christians perceive as sacrifice, such as mask-wearing, become flimsy in the face of these deeply true sacrifices that allowed God’s work of redemption to pass down to us through the ages.
That powerful faith chapter, Hebrews 11, culminates in the following verses at the beginning of chapter 12:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3, NIV).
If we are to live by faith, we must fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of that faith, and His life embodied the deepest and truest sacrifices of all. Scorned by those He came to save, rejected by the religious leaders, doubted by His own followers, He “endured the cross, scorning its shame.” How can we, whose lives are so comfortable and whose faith is so easy, pretend that we reject a facemask (or whatever your personal issue of the moment might be) as a sign of faith? If we truly fix our eyes on the face of this Jesus, the Son of God, whose sacrifice was immeasurable by any human measure, the face masks and COVID debates and relational struggles and financial worries and fatigues and temptations that beset us every day must fade away as so much background noise.
Let’s go back to Room A-1 where my welder patient awaits us.
As I tried to joke about all the terrible noises going on around us (remember? “whrrr…beep-beep-beep…retch-retch…”), the patient said something that will probably stick with me for the rest of my life:
“Well, it would be pretty bad, except that I’m just staring straight at your face. You are so calm, and you keep telling me it’s going to be ok. As long as I’m looking at your face, I can just tune those things out.”
As he fixed his eyes on me, he was able to tune out the background noise—and as he did that, my young welder gave me the richest picture of faith I have ever had.
What would life look like if I spent every day staring spiritually into the face of Jesus with as much focus and intensity as that young man? If I were that determined to let Jesus’ face keep me from fear? I dare say I would engage in a lot fewer petty arguments over earthly issues and I would find myself strengthened to rise to a lot more challenges over heavenly ones.