Every year I write a letter to our friends and family about what I have learned throughout the year. This year it was all about what I learned about fear and self-doubt. I thought it might be helpful to some of you as well.
Dear Loved Ones,
This fall, Olivia was traveling in China from Nantong to Wuxi, a ten-hour trip through a country she knew nothing about. She couldn’t speak Chinese so she couldn’t even buy her own bus ticket. A stranger helped her get a ticket, but when he handed it to her, she couldn’t read the characters to see if had been issued for the right destination. When she went to board the “bus” to Wuxi, disconcertingly, it turned out to be a non-descript, 12-passenger van. She had no idea if it was the right bus, going to the right place, or even, if it was a bus at all. She couldn’t read the highway signs along the way and her phone couldn’t access the internet to verify her route. Was she going to the land of the Grand Buddha or was she going to disappear completely off the map? She said when she finally got to the hotel in Wuxi, she just sat and cried for half an hour. Relieved.
Later she told me, “I’m just in the hands of God right now. He is the only thing between me and total disaster.”
Then one Sunday morning at the end of September, we got a frantic text from Savannah: Call Olivia! When I finally got ahold of her, she had just gotten out of an interrogation room in a Chinese jail where she had spent 12 hours answering questions she didn’t know the answers to. She was terrified and sobbing. I tried to calm her, “You’re only upset because your brain thought you were going to die.” She said, “Yea, I know, Mom. Because I thought I was going to die!”
When Olivia first told us she wanted to go teach English in China, I said “Sure. Have an amazing time!” David was less certain, “I don’t know if she should go.” I shrugged, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Turns out, you’d be surprised.
In lots of ways, this year was an exercise in bravery for us. When Ethan drove alone for the first time, I asked him how it was. “Kind of scary, actually.” And that seems to sum it up. All the things that seemed so exciting and fun at the outset, turned out to be kind of scary actually. Caleb fell in love and had his first break-up. Savannah spent her first night alone in a freshman dorm at BYU. Olivia got fingerprinted and kicked out of China. David added another hospital to his list of staggering responsibilities. And I started my own business.
For each of us, what we thought would just be a fun and challenging next chapter has been an extensive experience in fear and inexorable self-doubt. We’re not enough. And we know it. And now, for sure, the world knows it too.
I’ll admit that I have always thought of the moment when the angel came to talk to Mary as a happy one. I always thought that to have that kind of heavenly visitation and such an obvious demonstration of divine approval would be a good thing. Until this year. Now I know the truth.
That moment, and all the moments after it, were an exercise in bravery. That’s how the angel starts even: “Fear not.” And then he went away into heaven and Mary was left on earth—alone, in a mortal body with her own catalog of self doubts, surrounded by other mortals who were good at judging and condemning and disparaging. I think that all Mary must have been left with was fear. Lots of aching, sickening, growing fear.
She was a pregnant woman with no husband, in a strict, religious culture that had rules and statutes and expectations. She would have to tell her righteous family an unbelievable story and face their incredulous disappointment and shame. She would be alone in a world that would see her as a liar, a whore, and a fraud. She would suffer ridicule and judgment and exclusion, perhaps even expulsion or extermination. Everyone would be wrong about her and she would be the only one who knew it. There was nothing but the terrifying, dangerous unknown ahead of her, an unexplained future where no one else had ever been. Vulnerable, exposed, and scared, the angel’s statement feels like paltry defense indeed: “Fear not.”
And then there is her son. What about his own fear and self-doubt? Of course he trusted the Father and his plan implicitly, but as he walked the heavy steps toward Gethsemane and began, as the scriptures say, “to be very sorrowful,” I am sure his very human brain, given to him by his remarkable and courageous human mother, trembled under the self-doubt. What if I can’t do this? What if I’m not enough? What if I don’t have what it takes? What if I fail? Olivia was right. The only thing between us and total disaster is Christ and his infinite atonement. But what stood between him and that same excruciating reality?
His alone was the burden of eternity. Thy work to do alone. Thy life to give. For the one who gave us all a second chance, there was no second chance. It was him or nothing. It was now or never. The fate of the whole human family, and my little family, and yours, rested on Christ’s ability to do what he said he would do. He was the only one who could not fail. Fear not.
This year, I have thought again and again about how the Mighty God, the Lion of Judah, was also a man. And on the hostile streets of Jerusalem, and in that dark, searing Garden, and on the terrifying, lonely cross—through the whole journey—his own mind was betraying him, begging him to stop, urging him to quit, telling him he couldn’t do it. He fought the greatest forces of eternity while he simultaneously battled the ferocious insecurities of mortality. And as he shouldered these loads alone, I am certain the desire to quit or rest or give up was relentless. And yet, he persisted. He kept going. He is the morning star after all. He stays to the end.
This Christmas season and always, we worship the Son of God and the son of Mary, who overcame pain and grief and sin and death—yes, all of these. But also, all the fear and self-doubt and misgivings of his own human brain—so that he could stand alone, unmoving, and utterly unrelenting, between us and disaster. What’s the worst that could happen? Because of him, we never have to know.