There has not been a time in recent memory when our emotions, especially fear, have whipped us into a state of such alarm. If the recent election cycle is a mirror, then it’s reflecting a society riddled with fear. It’s not just threats of terrorism, economic collapse, cyber warfare, the police state, and government corruption; we fear each other, we fear strangers, we fear our neighbors, we fear those who vote differently, we even fear those who parent unlike us. We see each other primarily with the glasses of fear. Our current media outlets and professional politicians want to calcify your feelings on people, places, and things, convincing you to have an expert opinion on pretty much everything and everybody—even people you’ve never met. Just take a stroll down a Facebook feed to see everything our culture tells us to fear:
Black Lives Matter
The list goes on and on…
We see monsters everywhere right now, potential monsters hiding out in all kinds of places and behind the faces of all sorts of people. It all seems rational, it all seems logical, maybe even justifiable, but it is jet-fueled by the emotion of fear.
What is fear doing to us?
After 9/11, fear built aggressive momentum in every aspect of American culture, especially in advertising. It takes sleight of hand to persuade a debt-saddled and ad-weary public that they should swipe their credit card for products. If you have no memory of being frightened into buying something, that’s only because advertisers are magicians. Fear-based advertising is rampant, from off-road vehicles that never leave the streets to anti-aging cream that doesn’t do anything.
Fear flat out works, which is why it is used in ads.
The oft-repeated phrase that “sex sells” turns out to be inaccurate after a little investigation. Sex just gets our attention. Fear sells. Why? The most likely reason: we want and need things to fear because fear is energizing. Not only has capitalism figured this out, but our entire political system has figured this out and turned it into well-honed strategies.
Without fear, we feel unprotected by the world’s dangers. In some situations, it is rational and reasonable to fear another person. For example, if someone physically threatens you, the best response is to run away screaming “stranger danger” as soon as possible. However, few of our interpersonal dealings involve such dire threats. Fear has its place, but it’s like a forest fire in California when we welcome it unimpeded in our life.
Many of us cuddle and coddle fear because it just makes more sense than the generous, open posture of love. We believe love makes us vulnerable to harm while fear protects us. Love compels us toward people—fear creates a buffer. Love causes us to lean in and listen— fear tells us we don’t need to hear any more. Fear offers something in return—a sense of control and safety, placing our wants, our needs, our anxieties at the center of importance.
We sort of like fear. Fear gives us a strange kind of focus. At twelve years old, it was fear that coaxed me to take a different route to school so the neighborhood bully wouldn’t see me and pick on me. Fear is a companion in some weird way. We feel deeply that if we don’t stay on high alert, identifying what and who could hurt us, we are naive or even stupid. This is why fear resonates with the American public more than love does. There is a concreteness and clarity to fear that comforts us—I know who to stay away from, I know who my enemies are, I know who to oppose, I know who to potentially hate.
Maybe it’s part of everyone’s childhood, but I wish I could have skipped the stage where the monsters were under the bed. You know that part where you’re up all night panicking that something is lingering underneath, waiting for you to fall asleep so it can gobble you up. I had many nights as a ten-year-old when I couldn’t breathe. I’d have the covers pulled over my head, making sure my legs and arms were not too close to the edge. One night I had even devised a strategy for protecting myself. I set up my G.I. Joe action figures on the perimeter of my bed to keep guard because for some reason I was convinced the monster would not cross a toy soldier barricade. That was the first night in a while I fell asleep unafraid.
“Why are you so afraid?” Has anyone ever asked you this question? Have you ever asked it of yourself? You were probably asked some version of that question quite a bit when you were a little one as you faced the first day of going to school or jumping off the swing set at peak height or spending the night away from home for the first time. We know kids are afraid. We permit them to have fear. It’s our job as adults to help nurture and coach them through this. But when you become a big person, it’s viewed as weakness, cowardice, and humiliating to admit you’re afraid. So we pose and pretend that we have no fear.
I’m no longer afraid of invisible monsters hiding under my bed, but I’m not sure you or I have rid ourselves of monsters that may not really be there. As adults, we outgrow specific fears, trade them in for new ones, and learn to mask them with a certain amount of sophistication.
Jesus grappled with this as He ministered and discipled people. They tried to hide behind their doctrines, spiritual clichés, and religious status, but Jesus had X-ray vision to see how constantly afraid they were. This is why Jesus asks of His disciples and the crowds, “Why are you so afraid?” almost forty times throughout the Gospels, and “Fear not” is the most frequently repeated command in Scripture—365 times!
When life is uncertain, when civilization seems unstable, fear is our first instinct. We huddle, we hunker down, we hide, we begin to hate the world. We seek the security of locked doors, gated communities, suspicious thoughts about others, talking through technology, impenetrable border walls, club memberships, and spending $500 billion annually on defense systems. I think Jesus knew something about us that we don’t know about ourselves—we think and do a lot of stuff out of fear.
In Mark 9, Jesus sends out His little band of followers into the world to share the good news of His arrival, and then they discover someone unexpected. “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38). They are triggered by someone who is not like them, not one of them, not part of their tribe. They feel threatened, and a rogue demon-caster-outer becomes someone they fear. In the face of something foreign, their minds, their bodies, and their theology expelled rather than explored. They saw danger where there was none. Thankfully Jesus was there to correct their guttural response. “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39–40).
Really? Does Jesus mean this? I can’t imagine how this feels for the disciples. In their first-century world, there are so many lines and borders for who is in and who is out, who is good and who is bad, who is clean and who is dirty, who is acceptable and who is unacceptable. We have very similar borders and lines that influence who we are afraid of, who appears dangerous to us. The disciples felt a fire within to oppose this fellow. He became someone they feared.
We turn people into monsters when we no longer see them as we see ourselves. Our status, enlightenment, education, race, theology becomes our comparative contrast against another. It makes us feel superior, although most of us would never publicly admit that. People don’t have to do heinous evil things for us to see them as monsters; we just have to feel a tad better than they are. Something about their life feels offensive to us. Something about their politics or morals feels repulsive to us.
We all have latent fears of others when they’re “not one of us,” as the disciple John stated so matter-of-factly to Jesus. It causes us to avoid, dismiss, judge, and even hate others. The voice of fear speaks in very cut-and-dried terms; things are either good or evil, safe or dangerous, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong. As Kristen Ulmer says in her book The Art of Fear:
Fear wants to be the ringleader of your emotions. It wants to charge into the various rooms of our mind and yell “Fire!”
Can we move beyond our initial reactions, automatic opinions, and perceived threats? The very soul of being a Jesus follower is at stake with how we answer this question.
Sometimes I go all Superman with my son, put on a red blanket with its chew holes from our dog, and try to convince him that I am larger than life. Of course, no one is invincible. We are all fragile, easier to injure than we think, trying to make our way in the thickets of the universe. When we’re young, we all lean toward idealism, assuming the best is inevitable, interpreting the world simplistically, good or bad.
Eventually we will collide with the immovable wall known as reality. We become more alert to the harshness of the world as we accumulate nicks and cuts from the journey of life. Someone at some point steals from you, taking a measure of hope, a portion of joy, a feeling of peace. Someone you’ve loved moved away. Friends you’ve cared about stopped caring back. Leaders you’ve looked up to broke your trust. Someone you’ve let in close mistreated you. You have scars; I know I do. Fear is forged in the bowels of this hard world. So we look into the mirror and see our eyes; they are tired, showing the weight of cynicism. This is a necessary starting point, to look into a mirror honestly.
What has happened to me? What has hurt me?
Honesty helps us breathe freely. Honesty is not bound to image-management and covering over the real. Real honesty looks in the mirror. And this is precisely the kind of honesty that we need to face our fears.
How is fear shaping us?
Acknowledging and naming my fears has opened me up to God, boldly inviting me to be changed by love, to live in love, and to be known by love (John 13:35). While we naturally loathe our enemies, Jesus showed us how to love them. We want to detest those who hurt us; Jesus taught us how to forgive them. We distance ourselves from those unlike us; Jesus showed us to share a meal with them. Jesus came to reveal and resolve a core problem—humanity’s tendency toward fear. I needed to unpack how my inner fears were killing the expression of love.
Fear is not an abstract concept to be left to the sociologist to dissect intellectually; it is lurking in us all. Repressing fear in the chaos beneath can undoubtedly make you look put together, but you’re not fooling anyone.
“God is present in our imperfect lives, and this changes everything.”
God understands we have reflexive fear in us. An angel tells the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear . . .” (Isa. 41:10). In Matthew, an angel tells Joseph, “Do not be afraid . . .” (Matt. 1:20). In Luke, the angel tells Mary she’s having a baby, and says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30 NKJV). Then, when Jesus is born, an angel appears to shepherds watching their flocks and says, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news . . .” (Luke 2:10). Fear is a significant blockage to seeing the God of love before us and around us. Fear shoves a potato sack over our head so that we cannot see. It limits our senses for feeling, knowing, and recognizing what love looks like in any given situation.
All of this fear can be traced back to humanity’s origins. The story starts with a God who profoundly enjoys making the world. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit engage in a fascinating conversation about how to make humanity: “‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ . . . God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’ . . . Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. . . . God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:26, 28–29, 31).
God creates out of community of Father, Son, and Spirit as the fountain of love brimmed over. They enjoy one another, and They enjoy us! That is why God uses the term “very good” to describe the situation. God is providing for and caring for Adam and Eve, and it’s very, very good. The first words about us are that we have received the good life. And it’s all holy, it’s all sacred. The whole world is God-bathed. It’s drenched in love.
Let’s not miss that the Trinity is not saying everything is perfect. In fact, in Genesis 2:18, God describes Adam’s alone state as “not good,” and that is before things go sour and sin enters into the world. It’s important to understand that the main point of the garden of Eden is not that it’s a place of perfection, but that it’s a place of presence—God’s abiding presence.
Adam and Eve are not on their own to look out for themselves. This is good news for you, for me, and for the world around us. Our lives do not have to be perfectly manicured. Our lives do not have to be perfectly hemmed in with safety barricades. Our wants don’t have to perfectly provided for. God is with us in the midst of our ordinariness. God is present in our imperfect lives, and this changes everything.
Then the voice of fear slithers its way into the love-soaked garden of Eden and plays with our head. The Bible reveals this voice to be Satan (2 Cor. 11:3), the tempter (1 Thess. 3:5), the one who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). The serpent introduces the first rustlings of fear, pretending to be our ally. Fear begins to pick at us: “Are you sure you have enough? Are you really secure? Isn’t someone holding out on you?” It points fingers, blames others, and talks into our soul, masquerading as “wisdom.” It’s quite interesting that Satan is called “more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made” (Gen. 3:1). This is one of the ways fear disguises itself: “Well, I’m just being wise.” This is not the voice of divine love; it’s the voice of self-protective fear.
Fear tells us love is not enough: “Maybe I’m not okay, maybe I don’t have enough, maybe I’m not safe,” shifting us into a self-preserving state. This is why Adam and Eve run, hide, and start a new fashion trend of wearing fig leaves. They are convinced they must protect themselves, cover themselves, and separate themselves to be safe. Where there was once harmony, there is now hostility. Ever since, all of humanity has been haunted by apparitions that if we don’t first take care of ourselves and our interests, then no one will. This turn toward self-protection is a sad theme throughout the Scriptures.
Being alive is a scary, unpredictable experience, but Jesus is inviting us into a different way of being in the face of the unfamiliar, in the face of our perceived monsters. Jesus is calling us out of our survival instincts, out of our politics of fear, out of our perceptions of others, into a lush landscape of love. We sense it, we feel it beneath our feet, but we look up and see it overhead—fear and love are at war.
by Dan White Jr.
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