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Dread and our Troubled Hearts – Part 2


To my knowledge the phrase “let not your hearts be troubled” only appears twice in scripture: John 14:1 & John 14:27 (ESV).  A parallel phrase in Deuteronomy 20:3, “let not your heart be faint” appears to link the three passages through context, as Christ echoes the Old Testament reassurance when starting his farewell discourse.  Although other versions alter the phrasing slightly the intent in all three passages is  to encourage the listeners to lean into the reality of God’s provision and comfort in the face of impending change or danger.   In the Deuteronomy passage God is providing instructions about how to psychologically and spiritually prepare for war.  Assuring the Israelites that God is before them in battle, the priest is to come before the assembled people and entreat them not to dread the battle but to remain strong hearted in the face of the enemy.   Similarly in the context of an unknown future Christ begins his farewell to his disciples by telling them not to be troubled, but to grip hold of the “peace I give to you” (John 14:27).


From these passages, it seems the people of God are resourced in a particular way to face the challenges of an unpredictable or dangerous future.  To clarify what these resources might be lets think about dread as a key ingredient in the experience of having a troubled or faint heart.  While the meanings of “faint” and “troubled” diverge to some degree, there exists a connecting vibe that expands our understanding and gives us a nuanced perspective on the subjective experience of dread.  Faint-hearted comes from the Hebrew word rakak referring to one who is tender, weak or soft – one that may seek a passive response to impending danger. Troubled on the other hand is from the Greek word tarrassō, meaning stirred up or disturbed.  If we mash the context of each passage, in the face of impending danger or uncertainty the scripture encourages us: away from a position of internal weakness or appeasement; to not withdraw from trouble and danger; and to find a place of peace or calmness in the face of future uncertainty.


I’m intrigued by this discussion in scripture because of its analogue to the therapy experience.  Indeed, of the many factors impeding change, none are so powerful as the internal barriers and saboteurs of which dread is a powerful exemplar.   If we remember our definition, dread is a cousin to fear and anxiety with the unique qualifiers of being linked to a dangerous future that must be faced and tinged with a subjective experience of awe and ominous potential.  Dread, in treatment, often rears its head in the shadows of our awareness.  Disturbed and unsettled we skirt around its edges attempting to avoid a full-on encounter, or we withdraw in retreat when the thought of direct confrontation looms.  Consider clients who avoid remembering or recounting painful or shaming experience, those who back away and become defensive when insight beckons a new understanding of themselves or others.  Sometimes it’s dread of calamitous outcomes if clients move to changing their approach to longstanding relationships problems.  For others it is the dread of crushing disappointment that the work of treatment will only result in a repeat of past failure in relationships and self-striving.  Whatever its context dread is a subjective experience that can stall our growth and keep us locked in the inadequate and compromised symptomatic state.


As a tentative path forward I want to suggest that the scriptural admonition to “not” (let not your hearts be troubled or faint) is unattainable absent a deeply restorative and redemptive relational encounter – be it psychotherapy, pastoral, or broadly communal.  In other words, our most powerful dreads are overcome not in stoic individualism such as that depicted in Casper David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, but in the anchoring certitude that one is not alone.  In next week’s blog we’ll push further into specific clinical experiences of dread and how it can be managed.

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