Whatever we envision for ourselves is the form we give to our faith. Faith is something we all have. It’s just a question of what we are putting our faith in. Early in life we construct our model of the world, deciding who and what can or can’t be trusted. We develop our sense of security based on a variety of different things: work, money, religion, knowledge, etc. These become the foundation of our world. They mitigate our fears, protecting us from what would otherwise threaten us. Yet they are powerless against our deepest fears, precisely because our deepest fear is that what we have placed our trust in will give way—that the foundation of our security might not actually be a true foundation. We keep such thoughts in the back of our minds if anywhere, because otherwise we would not be able to function. We would be paralyzed with fear.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
— Matthew 7:24-27
Is it even possible to “build your house” on the rock, on a trustworthy foundation that you know will never give way? Or is it a foregone conclusion that you will always have doubts about that foundation, fears that it might crumble and turn to sand? For me, one of my deepest fears was that what I believed about God might not be the whole story, or even the right story at all. My deepest fear was that I might be alone in the Universe. Not everyone thinks in these terms or even believes in God for that matter, but it doesn’t change the fact that we each have built systems of security into our lives and this security usually revolves around our sense of identity—who we conceive ourselves to be.
I used to wonder how anyone could go on living without believing in a God that watches over them. This was inconceivable to me, but that’s because I imagined that my system of security was the only one available. I imagined my belief in God being torn away from me, how terror-stricken I would be, and assumed that that’s what it must be like for other people who don’t believe in God. What I failed to understand is that those people have their own system of security—their own “belief in God”—which, if torn away from them, would leave them just as terror-stricken. Not only that, but not everyone who believes in God places their ultimate trust in that belief. If they identify more with their work, for example, or their net worth or social status, then they have a different security system and a different set of deepest fears. Religious belief is only one of many possible “safety nets.”
Jesus spoke of the inadequacy of such systems of security when he said, “whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) In the metaphorical first half of life, we spend all our energy constructing our self-concept. When the crisis comes, we realize we’ve been building our house on sand. Our identity is existentially challenged and we realize we are vulnerable. The paradox is that when we abandon ourselves to that vulnerability, no longer seeking to deny it, we find that we are inexplicably safe.
How is it that someone can no longer fear death?
Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
— John 12:25
When we “love our life,” remaining attached to the identity we have constructed, death remains a threat. But when we “hate our life in this world,” seeing our self-concept for what it is—a house built on nothing but sand, and when we let go of it, embracing death as essential to who we are, then we realize that death is not the end of us. We see beyond our limited, tiny, self-constructed identities to our true Identity, which is eternal. Then nothing can ever threaten us again. We may forget this from time to time, but the truth remains that our true Identity was never threatened in the first place.
Jesus understood his true Identity as the Son of God. “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.” (John 8:54) For Jesus, self-glorification “means nothing.” Instead, he derived all his glory from the Father—the Ultimate—whom he identified with. “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:59) This expanded sense of Self was borne out in the way Jesus lived his life and in the way he gave his life. “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1) Jesus did not reserve this way of life for himself alone. He calls us to do the same. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) With Jesus, we must deny our false self, our tiny self whose glory “means nothing.” But also—and here’s the kicker—with Jesus, we must affirm our True Self, in whom we find eternal life.
This is what the world is waiting for. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19) Before that can happen, the children of God must be revealed to themselves! This marvelous revelation lies on the other side of a chasm, a wall of terrible flames beyond which we cannot see. It is only when we go through the flames, when we dive into the chasm, that we will wake up to the reality of who we are and the truth that our fears were always illusions. Then and only then “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) Then and only then will we find the solid ground we’ve been looking for, seeing clearly that it lies in who we truly are and putting to death once and for all the search for security outside of ourselves. We will have found the Treasure that never runs out, the Well that never runs dry, the Life that never ends.